In the musical "Man of LaMancha" the character of Sancho Panza, ably played in the original production by Irving Jacobson, in attempting to revive the spirit of his once erstwhile partner in glorious knightly combat, shares "A Little Gossip." In between verse of the song he says: "whether the stone hits the pitcher, or the pitcher hits the stone, it's going to be bad for the pitcher."
It's a great little "mashal," a proverb, a truism. And as I was once again reading this weeks parasha Korah, and the haftarah from Shmuel Alef (I Samuel,) for some odd reason, those lyrics popped into my head.
I can see the thin threads of connection that led my synapses to make this particular leap. They stem from the tenuous (at best) connection between the parasha and the haftarah. Ostensibly, the connection that the rabbis used to link the parasha and the haftarah are words of self-defense uttered in the one case by Moshe, and in the other, by Shmuel (Samuel.)
In the face of the open challenge to his divinely appointed leadership, an angry Moshe asks G"d to ignore the offerings of the challengers, and then says to G"d:
"I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any of them" (JPS Numbers 16:15)
In the haftarah, reluctantly agreeing to the will of the Israelites to relinquish his own de facto titular leadership and anoint Saul as their king, Shmuel addresses the people to exhort them to obey G"d. He prefaces his words by asking the assembled Israelites "Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the L"rd and in the presence of His (sic) anointed one: Whose ox have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you." (JPS 1 Samuel 12:3)
To Moshe's self-defense, spoken only to G"d, there is no Divine response. To Shmuel's declaration, the people respond "You have not robbed us, and you have taken nothing from anyone."
Hearing this positive response, Shmuel goes on to reiterate for all the people all of the great things that G"d had done for them, and then exhorts them (and their now and future King, Shaul) to revere, obey and follow the commands of G"d.
So Shmuel has uttered his words of self-defense in order to assure that the people will listen to his words, and do as G"d has commanded them. A pretty noble and compelling reason. This device, of preceding an exhortation with a declaration of one's righteousness seems to have been pretty prevalent in both Israelite and ANE cultures. And it's a risky thing to do, unless one is truly sure of their innocence and righteousness. (One could argue that it takes a certain amount of hubris to be so assured of one's righteousness, yet I would give Shmuel the benefit of the doubt. I think, had anyone spoken up and challenged Shmuel, that he might have stop to reconsider things, and do some self-examination.) Now, how about Moshe?
Having spoken his defense to G"d, Moshe goes on to instruct Korah and his followers to bring their fire pans with incense laid upon them, and offer it up the the L"rd.
Now here we have an interesting situation. On the one hand, Moshe is G"d's spokesperson, so his words should have at least the backing of Ad"nai. Yet, recalling the story of Aharon's sons, those two crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu, it might seem as if Moshe is asking Korah and his band to make an offering that G"d has not required or commanded. And, some verses later, after G"d has already punished all the other followers of Korah by having the earth open up and swallow them, G"d proceeds to zap the 250 followers of Korah making the incense offering with their fire pans. Shades of Nadav and Avihu indeed! Did Moshe "set them up" by instructing them to do something for which he knew the only possible consequence was death at the instance of the L"rd? It's something to think about. And we have to add to the mix that Moshe did indeed ask G"d to ignore the offerings of his challengers. But I digress.
Moshe's self defense is not offered to the people, but rather to G"d. He first asks G"d:
"Pay no regard to their oblation."
And then he proceeds to offer his defense that he has not robbed or wronged any of them. So Moshe is saying to Gd, and not his challengers "Hey, I did nothing wrong to them. Pay no attention to their offerings." As if Moshe needed to say this to G"d? Or did he? We all know that Moshe is a rather flawed individual, as are most of the heroes and leaders of the Torah. Is Moshe asking G"d a rhetorical question, or was he really saying "Hey G"d, I, err, haven't done, err, anything wrong to them, have I?" Which Moshe do we wish to see here - the arrogant, the humble, the unsure, the chosen of G"d?
And how are we to interpret G"d's non-response? It is agreement, or is G"d avoiding having to inform Moshe of his imperfections? Which G"d do we wish to see here - the angry & capricious, the merciful, the pre-occupied, the indifferent?
Yet, let's look at the end results. G"d reaffirms Moshe's authority as leader of the people and G"d's chosen one by effectively and with little or no subtlety wiping out the opposition. So Moshe's gambit of declaring his righteousness seems to have worked. Is this our proof that Moshe is indeed what he claims? (Perhaps, but I'm always troubled as this kind of teleological resolution. Still, the Torah itself uses and recommends this method, as we are told that they way to determine if a prophet is a true prophet is to see if his/her words come true!)
Shmuel lives on as well. In the final paragraph of chapter 12, which is omitted from the haftarah, he states that he will continue to teach the people what is good and right, and to revere G"d. Shmuel is there to tell Saul when he screws up, losing the chance that it is his dynasty that will be established and rule Israel. Later, Shmuel goes on to sew the seeds of the civil war which will bring about the end of Saul's rule by anointing the young shepherd buy David to be King. Shmuel dies before the time of David's rule comes to pass. So Shmuel's self-defense gambit works as well, and again the results, long-term, are for the better-although Saul and the Israelites themselves continue to defy G"ds commandments.
So perhaps both Moshe and Shmuel were righteous in their deeds as they claimed. I guess that makes them stones, and not pitchers. (Somehow, the metaphor seems oddly reversed. A pitcher can be filled with things, and then can share them, offering life-giving nourishment. A stone is just a stone. Then again, stones make firm foundations. And stones, too, are often full of imperfections.) As another mashal says "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones." It seems as if this should be true for all, for none of us is without some defect of character, none of us is truly absent of some sin. Yet it also seems as if Moshe and Shmuel might be people who could live in a glass house and get away with throwing stones, as the glass would not break.
Which brings us back to where we started. True, a stone may be imperfect in a many ways. But when a stone and a pitcher encounter each other, it's the pitcher that will lose every time. So which shall we be-stone, pitcher, glass? Most of us seem to be content with simply being passive observers, while the stones and pitchers duke it out. After all, we think, the outcome is a foregone conclusion-the stone will always win, our involvement will make no difference.
I cannot stand here before you and ask you to all witness against me. For I have surely wronged others, perhaps even robbed some or defrauded others. Nevertheless, I ask you to listen to my words, my exhortation, my challenge. For while it may be safer and simpler to stay on the sidelines, I think G"d calls upon us to wear our passions. So whether you favor stone, pitcher, glass or whatever-go out and be them. At least you'll be able to say you tried to make a difference. As did Moshe and Shmuel, even imperfect as they were. And as did Korah and his followers. They may have been, as the group SAFAM once sang about in a song, "Bad Choices," but they at least were choices. Choose. Choose wisely, as they say, but at the very least, choose.
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5758/62-Camp Rebellion
Korach 5761-Loose Ends
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