Yes, tension does play a huge role in our lives (ok, maybe that’s just me talking). But I’m talking about tense as in, past, present and future. Much has been written about the appalling grammar of spell-check dependent young’uns, and I join in the disparaging chorus wholeheartedly. (See how I didn’t write “join wholeheartedly …”, splitting the verb phrase? But I digress…) I do love grammar. But that’s not where I’m headed with this.
Getting the right tense makes a lot of difference, and it’s not just in a literal sense. Some of us live in the past. Some live only in the present, and of course, some of us live in the future. Balance is necessary, for if we choose any one of those exclusively, we find ourselves in a troubled emotional state, and in need of therapy. But in this case, grammar plays a part in understanding the Bible, too.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, there is a small grammatical moment. Now, I won’t take credit for finding this; I read it in Eitz Chayim, the JPS Torah Commentary. But first, a recap: The Israelites are in high kvetch mode, against Moses and Aaron. Last week it was the spies – Moses had sent out some Israelites to check out the Land; 10 out of 12 came back saying there’s no way they could stand up to the giants living there. God was offended at the lack of faith, and told the Israelites that because they believed the 10, and not the 2, they would keep wandering for another 38 years, and never see the Land.
Now for this week: Korach and his 250 supporters rise up against Moses and challenge his role as leader. Moses and God accept the challenge. In front of everyone, the nod goes to Moses and Aaron and the Levites. The ground opens up, Korach and his followers fall in. Revolution averted. When Korach first challenged Moses, he said, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above Adonai’s community?” (Num 16:3) Here’s where the grammar comes in.
Korach uses the present tense: For all the community ARE holy. Yeshayahu Liebowitz (20th c Israel) says that using the present tense means we have achieved our holy status as a community and no more needs to be done. Compare that to Leviticus 19:2, “You WILL be holy, for I am holy.” Future tense means it’s a goal, not a done deal.
As individuals, we can miss what’s going on in lives if we live too much in the future. And we can find ourselves stranded without a plan if we live too much in the present. But as a community, we are in danger of stalling out – believing that we’ve reached as great a status as we will ever achieve, if we don’t keep trying to be a better society. We do need to keep striving, keep reaching for that level of holiness that God set forth for us. How we expect our Jewish community to behave, how we treat the vulnerable in our society, even how we run the State of Israel, is dependent on whether or not we see ourselves as holy in the present or in the future, holy and “done”, or holy and “not yet.”
Unlike Korach, I don’t want our community to be swallowed up by short-sightedness, thinking we’ve arrived at a state of holiness, and need do nothing more for the world around us. If it’s a holy community we are to be, it seems to me we’re not there yet.