When I was in the fourth grade, my Brooklyn yeshiva held a Torah fair. My partner — a girl whom I fancied a close friend but who was to move to California two years later, never to be heard from again — and I quickly decided on a parsha that had fascinated us since we’d learned about it earlier that year. We went to Manhattan Beach to gather sand, crafted petite people out of pipe cleaners and fashioned an angry God from cotton balls (stained red with a waxy Crayola crayon) purchased at a local drugstore. We then took a cardboard box, cut a large groove into the bottom, poured in the sand and glued our pipe cleaner people to the sides of the indentation so that they looked like they were falling into the cavernous space.
This week’s portion tells the tale of Korach, a Levi who rebelled against Moses and Aaron and, in turn, God himself, when his unbridled ambition obliged him to seek out the priesthood although in fact, Levis couldn’t be priests. Only priests could be priests. In Numbers 16:3, he and his 250 followers gathered against the brothers to declare: “It is too much for you! For the entire assembly — all of them — are holy and the Lord is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Lord?”
Ever humble, Moses fell on his face and informed the children of Israel that God would shortly make it clear who were the real holy men and who were the impostors.
Did he ever!
In Numbers 16:32-33, it says: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and their entire wealth. They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit; the earth covered them over and they were lost from among the congregation.” And as if that wasn’t enough, God then sent a fire to consume Korach’s 250 followers. My partner and I wanted to include that part in our project, as well, but her mom wasn’t too keen on us playing with matches at a mere 9 years of age — even when I assured her that it was part of a school assignment.
But that didn’t really matter. What fascinated me and my friend so utterly about this portion was that his hubris didn’t just land Korach in hot water, but that it caused him to actually be swallowed whole. Like in a horror movie.
As a somewhat egotistical child, I’d always considered myself smarter than a lot of the other kids in my class — kids who’d never in their lives picked up a book that a teacher hadn’t forced them to, or kids who’d only recently immigrated to the United States from Russia (my school was located right off Brighton Beach). I was also positive that I was more intelligent than the teachers, the rabbis and my parents. Anything these authority figures would ask of me I’d do obligingly, but not without rolling my eyes.
After learning about Korach, I have to admit that I got a little scared. Granted, there weren’t any people of the caliber of Moses or Aaron in play in the 1980s, but there was still a God. And if He could so easily punish people by burying them alive for what seemed to amount to little more than a bit of excessive pride from a man who’d been forced to endure the heat of the desert for far too long, he could easily punish me for the same sin.
When I tentatively expressed this fear aloud, I was quickly informed that the earth no longer swallowed people and that God no longer sent fires to consume those who spoke out against Him. I was momentarily comforted until I remembered I was surrounded by people who weren’t nearly as smart as I was. How could they possibly know when and where God sent fires? How could they know that people weren’t devoured by the earth?
Short answer: They couldn’t. So I figured it wouldn’t hurt (and in fact could potentially save me from death by sand-up-the-nose) by trying to be just a little more modest at times.
It was hard. Especially when my partner and I won a ribbon at the fair for our project. But hey, it wasn’t first prize, so humility came a little easier than I might’ve thought.
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.