If you wish to understand the beginning of a thing, look to its end. A famous pessimist's take on this idea was that when he got a book, he always read the last page first in case he died before he finished reading the book. Incredibly morbid, but succinct: We should be able to understand the main point of a story by its end, and we can judge a book by its epilogue.
If you wish to understand the beginning of a thing, look to its end. A famous pessimist's take on this idea was that when he got a book, he always read the last page first in case he died before he finished reading the book. Incredibly morbid, but succinct: We should be able to understand the main point of a story by its end, and we can judge a book by its epilogue. Understanding this idea, lawyers, columnists, politicians, and other professional arguers all strive to have the last word in any debate, to leave a listener with the one catch phrase, that one memorable line that is often the only thing to stick in one's mind after a lengthy and complicated discussion. (Trivia quiz: Whose famous last words were "tomorrow is another day"? Answer: female of next paragraph.)
But the last word serves another purpose. The end of a narrative should also give us a sense of "closure". Subplots must be connected, cliffhangers hung, bad guys punished, and lovers united. Therefore, this "ending" also tells us about the future: they live happily ever after, or they don't. Rhett returns to Scarlett, or he doesn't. (He doesn't, recent attempts at revisionism notwithstanding.) When done well, a general sense of satisfaction and completion should descend upon the reader with a pleasant mental thud.
The lack of this thud is what struck me (no pun intended) about this week's Torah portion. Korach, more than any other narrative in the Torah, should be a point at which the subplot ends with "and they lived happily ever after." Or at the very least, "and there was no more trouble from stiff-necked, disbelieving Jews." The manna is falling daily, miracles are occurring on a lavish scale, and a cloud of glory is leading Moses and the people towards the Promised Land. It is in this scenario that a few malcontent Levites and Reubenites bring up what actually seems to be one of the few possibly plausible complaints: Moses has commandeered too much power for himself along the way, perhaps against G-d's will. Moses puts it before Hashem, and to decide the question the ground opens up and swallows Korach with a bang, while a heavenly dispatched flame decimates the rest of the agitators. Story over, point resolved, chastened Jews move forward to Israel.
But we can't. In the narrative's next moment the Jews have the incredible, unthinkable gall to "murmur against Moses" that he caused those rebels to be killed (Numbers 17:6). Surely it is now time for the second possible ending to the story, as Hashem tells Moses, "Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment" (ibid. 17:9). Yet, the end result is not annihilation, although that would have been the logically appropriate response. The question must be raised: How can G-d allow the Jews to be so disrespectful and live? Why doesn't Hashem cause the earth to swallow up every member of the arrogant, ungrateful nation?
After Moses saves the people from Hashem's wrath by sending Aaron through the camp performing the ketoret (incense) service, a monumental point is reached in the relationship between Hashem and His people. No longer will the Children of Israel have the same kind of access that they had before to reach Hashem almost "face to face". Hashem appoints the Kohanim and Levites as intermediaries between the nation and Himself. And the Jews, ashamed and confused, cannot even see the magnitude of what they have lost: "The Children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, 'Behold, we perish, we are lost, we are all lost. Everyone that comes at all near the Tabernacle of Hashem will die. Will we ever stop perishing?'" (ibid. 17:27-28). So G-d, in what is perhaps His most merciful act, does not thrust away the people forever. Rather, Hashem sets for them the necessary boundaries in order to save their lives, "that there may be an end to their complaints so that they don't die" (ibid. 17:25).
What, then, is the final word of the Torah on the relationship between G-d and the Children of Israel, and Moses? Truly, it is one of man and servant, and parent and child. For all of Moses' tireless love, commitment, and devotion, the very last words of the Torah are devoted to him: "So Moses, servant of Hashem, died there in the land of Moav, according to the word of Hashem. . .Never again has their arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom Hashem had known face to face. . ." (Deuteronomy 34:5,10). And yet, as a servant, his service was somehow found wanting and he was not granted the ultimate gift, entry into the land for which he had worked his entire life.
But the Children of Israel were not merely servants of G-d. They were His children. And with all of the deceit, disbelief, and disregard the Jews had paid Hashem, they exit the Torah triumphantly entering into the Promised Land. And like all parent-child relationships, there is continued struggle. There is never the final epilogue (thank G-d) that the Jews sinned and the relationship was over, nor do they ever finally fully comprehend their errors and mend their ways (as is shown in the continued "struggle" between Hashem and the people in the epilogue, the rest of the Bible which is filled with the corrupt kings of Israel, internecine warfare, and idol worship). Never again, until the times of the Mashiach (Messiah) will they achieve the closeness that they once shared with Hashem. But like all children, G-d as parent watches over them and cares for them until the very end.
Matthew Leader, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, writes from Israel.
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