I went back to shul this week. My beloved adopted hometown of Baltimore is starting the process of moving forward so the shuls have started opening. We had to sign up for which minyan we would attend beforehand in order to make sure social distancing is enforced. And of course the ubiquitous and obnoxious masks are still in play. That said, I went back to shul.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps I expected a wave of nostalgia or to hear the faint echoes of the angels from on high. But it wasn’t like that at all. First of all I hate the mask situation. Second of all, there is a nuanced change to the pacing of the service that required an adjustment for me. All in all, I wasn’t that great a davening for me. It was nice to see some of my “shul friends” that I haven’t seen in months. But there was no before pre-game or post-game schmoozing. So we’re back! But somehow, not really.
There is a chance, I guess, that I am unaware of the reality of the situation.
This week’s Torah reading has the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. It is one of my favorite stories in Tanach. If it were a movie it would have great special effects. It’s got passion and death and intrigue. It’s got the snarky, wise cracking henchmen (Dassan and Aviram) and the guy who is saved at that last minute (Ohn ben Peles.) And it has the part where the hero turns kinda dark for a moment and you’re like, “um can good guys do that?”
It’s a story with many layers and many messages, but at its climax it has an easily overlooked nuance. On day two of this episode 250 people are challenging Aharon for the High Priesthood. The challenge is to bring bowls of incense and pans of fiery coals to the front of the Mishkan and offer the incense to Hashem. (An homage to the Kohen Gadol’s incense service on Yom Kippur, no doubt.) Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. They show up, G-d likes Aharon’s offering, and then fire burns up the souls of the 250 people killing them all. Meanwhile not far from there, Korach and his band of unmerry men are swallowed up by the earth. So far it’s pretty straightforward; good guys win, bad guys die, pass the popcorn. But then the Torah (Num. 17:1-3) says, “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying ‘Say to Elazar ben Aharon the Kohen and tell him to pick up the fire-pans from among the burned area (but scatter the fire coals) for these pans have become holy. The fire-pans of those who sinned at the cost of their lives should be flattened out and turned into an overlay for the altar. For they brought them before Hashem and they became holy.”
In the moment that must have seemed like such a strange command. Imagine how Moshe experienced this. First of all he never wanted this whole “take the people and lead them” thing. Second of all, he didn’t pick Aharon! He was told to do this. And now everybody gets up in his face, and the people are angry with him, G-d is angry with the people. Everyone has their knickers in a knot of rebellion, but somehow these pans – the actual thing they were using to fight against G-d’s command – became holy.
The thing about being tiny mortals is that our vision is sadly finite. And we only know what we know and we can scarcely conceive of what we don’t know. But to the Infinite Creator, The Creator of Man and Heaven and Earth and Time and the Platypus, knowledge works differently. In G-d’s eye these people were sinners, sure. And they were killed, ok. But there was that aspect of their actions that was deeply holy. They were honestly serving the Creator. They deeply wanted to do more. The incense they offered was a real offering to Hashem. And that means the pans became sanctified, and holy things can’t just be discarded. Their service was flawed. But it still produced a holiness that was used to create a memorial on the altar itself.
Even Moshe was finite and so was his understanding of these people. But the Creator could see the complexity of their thoughts. Flawed but holy. (Dibs. I call that. Flawed but Holy. Called it. That will be the name of my autobiography. I called it.)
I wonder if this is how Hashem looks at our return to shul. We might feel the discomfort of the mask and the awkwardness of being back together, but somehow still not really. My hope is that Hashem sees the desire to be back, the struggle to be there and accepts the flawed service and the ember of embedded holiness. I didn’t hear the angels singing.
But just maybe . . .