In 2013, I traveled in Nepal with six dear friends, including two Americans who have lived there on and off for several decades. The amazing land is filled with an endlessly fascinating history and charming, friendly people, but my travel companions and I frequently noted the apparent fragility of buildings — in the countryside as well as in the rapidly expanding city of Katmandu. Knowing a little about the fault lines and tectonic plates throughout the region, we more than once speculated what would happen when (not if) a big earthquake struck.
So it was no surprise to us when we heard this past April and May of the many walls that came tumbling down in the ancient temples and historic buildings, schools, homes and museums of Nepal, many of which we had visited. And it was heartbreakingly easy to imagine, even without the images on the news, the many adults and children killed, hurt or left homeless, cut off from supply routes, and failed by their modern but unreliable communication systems (because of limited availability, electricity in Katmandu was typically turned off for hours every day).
As often happens when disaster strikes (think 9/11, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, Ebola), our social media fill with heartwarming stories of people reaching out to help one another. With these stories, what seemed unimaginably horrible becomes an opportunity to find strength, restore our hope in humankind and maybe even our faith in God.
Perhaps that’s why I sometimes sneak past the compelling, rowdy, infamous opening of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, with its rebellion against Moses and Aaron — complete with the earth opening up to swallow the chutzpadik rebels — and find myself instead enthralled and deeply moved by two quieter, sometimes even overlooked passages a little further on.
The first comes after Moses and Aaron defended the people, persuading God not to annihilate the entire community. The disasters that followed the uprising — earthquake, fire, plague — swiftly killed the 250 leaders of the revolt, then 14,700 additional people.
But the catastrophes came to a quiet stop when Aaron “ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people … and he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was halted” (Numbers 17:12-13).
When I read of Aaron’s brave action, I think of those whose love or sense of decency or pursuit of justice activate them. The many who came to help people with AIDS in the terrible early years of that plague, or more recently with Ebola, the people who reached out even in a time of uncertainty about how these viruses spread.
Aaron brings to mind the people who wade into dangerous situations in an effort to extricate those in peril. People acting on their own or working for organizations such as American Jewish World Service, which sends people and funds to help in disaster areas or to further human rights in the developing world. They campaign to stop genocide, fight global hunger, respond to epidemics, earthquakes and hurricanes, and work to end violence against women, girls and LGBT people worldwide. (See ajws.org to learn more about AJWS and how you can help.)
When the first-century sage Hillel taught: “Be one of Aaron’s students, loving peace and pursuing it, loving people and bringing them to the Torah” (Pirke Avot 1:12), surely he was thinking, in part, of the actions of Aaron at this moment in the wilderness. It is Aaron who risked his life by choosing to stand up for the living, even though the living were challenging him and his brother Moses, threatening them, making their lives difficult. It is Aaron, lover and pursuer of peace, whose actions bring an end to the enmity and the violence.
Next, God brings a much subtler, far gentler miracle: God causes Aaron’s staff — symbol of his leadership — to sprout, bringing forth flowers and almonds. God then instructs Moses, as a reminder to the people, to place Aaron’s blossoming staff in front of the stone tablets of the Pact — the second set of stone tablets, Judaism’s enduring symbol of second chances.
In Parashat Korach, the frightened, angry Israelites, still stinging from the punishments doled out by God, don’t yet understand the message of Aaron’s blossoming staff beside the stone tablets — they aren’t yet “brought to Torah” by Aaron. But we, who look from a greater distance, can accept his invitation.
Today, no matter what challenges we face, these images of bloom and stone remind us of Judaism’s perpetual growth from its rock-solid foundation, making us grateful to Aaron and God for their abiding invitation to embrace the covenant and choose life not only for ourselves, but for others who need our help.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), “House of New Life,” founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.