Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion about the Korach rebellion against Moses in the desert, I am reminded of the two slips of paper that our tradition teaches we should carry in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” The other says, “The world was created for me.”
They are seemingly contradictory. But they are not meant to be read simultaneously. We are to turn to the one when we feel overly important. Turn to the other when we feel overly humble.
They are reminders of the need for balance. Balance in our perception of ourselves, and balance in our relationships with others.
This Torah portion delves into imbalance. Korach believes in his own importance. Moses responds with the deepest of humility, by falling on his face. But he soon stands up, and responds with anger, with fury. He creates a competition, and has the temerity to warn God to not allow Korach to win.
The competition between Korach and his supporters on one side and Aaron alone on the other, is public. So public, that the entire community and God attend. But before they can begin, the competition is set aside and God opens the earth and Korach, his family, supporters, their tents and all their belongings disappear into the earth.
Rabba Arlene Berger wrote this week that Korach’s punishment fit the crime: “The man who was swallowed by jealousy is ultimately swallowed by earth for his actions.”
Balance. It is possible to achieve when things are going well. It’s much harder to attain during the tough times, the times when everything seems to be conspiring against you, when you’re tired and stressed and the two pieces of paper in your pockets are just that, paper.
Last night I was in a not-so-great hotel room, stranded by a broken airplane. Earlier in the evening, as several hundred would-be travelers absorbed the news, I watched while most people calmly, patiently, and kindly dealt with the situation and each other. There were a few who lost their tempers and stomped around while the rest of us looked on silently, shrugging our shoulders at each other or crinkling our eyes to show that we were smiling behind our masks.
Like Korach, their self-importance got the best of them. They couldn’t accept a situation that they could not change by mere force of will. Their anger and frustration took over.
It is those moments that test us, the ones that push us to the limits of our patience. The moments when we need to find our balance. To be reminded that we are both nothing and everything. To be reminded that we are human — flawed and imperfect, and yet beautiful and beloved.