In this week’s Torah portion, Korach ben Yitzhar foments a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. At the height of the mutiny, Korach gathers “the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Numbers 16:19)
The text continues:
Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the entire community?” (16:19-22)
I’m struck by a few things here:
This passage is, of course, powerfully reminiscent of another famous episode – namely, when Abraham challenges God not to engage in collateral damage during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it for you to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:22-25)
And this isn’t even the first time God angrily threatens to completely wipe out the Israelites themselves (see, for instance, Exodus 32:9-10 and Numbers 14: 11-12). Then, as well as here, Moses has to talk God off the ledge, so to speak.
It’s certainly more than a bit curious that God, who is elsewhere described as “a God compassionate and gracious; slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6) is repeatedly portrayed with an exceedingly explosive temper and serious anger management issues. It’s also a curious role reversal: a mere mortal is put in the position of reminding God to behave (and God repeatedly relents!)
What should we make of all this? As for me, as I’ve indicated before, I prefer not to read Biblical descriptions of God as theological treatises, but rather as powerful projections of our human struggles onto the image of God. (So you mean to tell me that you’re confused that God appears alternatively “compassionate” and “jealous,” “forgiving” and “vengeful?” Well, duh – God is only human after all…)
When I read these human – divine interactions, I can’t help but think about the ways in which we struggle internally with our ever-present penchant for all-consuming anger and destructiveness. Sometimes, à la Abraham, it means grappling with the inherent justice of our actions. Other times, as in the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, our anger might back down in the face of our inner pride and shame.
I find this week’s struggle particularly powerful. By addressing God as “Source of breath of all flesh,” Moses and Aaron remind God/us that the very breath we breathe is a sacred essence that we share with all that lives. Whenever we allow ourselves to become consumed by our anger, our sense of this divine unity becomes fundamentally disrupted. But if we understand that our breath is not ours to breathe alone, we experience our connection to the “Source of the Breath of All Flesh” – and we may well regain our physical/spiritual equilibrium.
(Could this be why breathing exercises have long been considered a time-honored method for dealing with anger management? Just sayin’…)