That Which is Buried Can Also Be Unearthed

Last week I watched a short documentary called Atari: Game Over, about the rise and fall of the video game company which, in the 1970s, popularized home video gaming systems. I have fond memories of hours spent playing my Atari 2600 when I was a kid.

The framing of the documentary, which dove deep into the early days of home video gaming and the development of an industry that we take for granted today (now that we have games on our phones, and phones themselves), was the investigation of an urban legend: that in 1983 Atari dumped millions of copies of a video game based on the movie ET in a landfill in New Mexico. This act, and the story surrounding it, was the symbolic end of the company that had fallen on hard times.

The filmmakers set off to find out the truth to this legend, by digging up the landfill to see if the game cartridges were there. With a local garbage historian, who used old photos and records to determine where exactly in this large landfill would the Atari dump be, they excavate the site using archaeological techniques: digging, sifting and sorting. In the end, the dumped games were found, although elements of the urban legend were disproven: the number of dumped cartridges was closer to 700,000, not millions, and the dump wasn’t exclusively of the ET game, but of a host of other games and inventory. In the end only about 1300 game cartridges were unearthed, the rest remained buried. So while the overall legend was exaggerated, the story itself was true.

The burial motif brought to mind this week’s Torah portion, Korach. In it there is yet another uprising by the Israelites against God and Moses. Usually it is brought about by complaints about their station—their lack of food or water, or their lack of settledness—but this time is different. This rebellion, led by the portion’s namesake Korach and fronted by a small group of followers, is against Moses’s leadership specifically. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the God’s congregation?” charges Korach against Moses.

Moses is obviously not pleased, and neither is God. Korach is disrupting the order of things; Moses’s counterargument is “Come morning, God will make known who is God’s and who is holy, and will grant him access; God will grant access to the one God has chosen.” In other words, yes, Korach, you are an important guy, but you need to respect the hierarchy. Not everyone can be considered “holy,” not everyone has “access.”

The punishment God metes out in this case is a weird one, one that was terrifying as a Hebrew school kid: the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers whole. It is certainly dramatic, one need only think of a host of natural disaster movies to imagine fissures in the ground opening up and people falling in. And that is the interesting part about it—the swallowing up whole. Not zapped, not struck down by plague or other divine punishments found in the Torah. The text does not say they die, in fact it specifically says they remain alive. They simply disappear underground.

And what can be buried can be dug up. In the film, the unearthing of these old video games served several purposes: it vindicated the early video game designer who made the game, a trailblazer who was brought down by this one misstep. It served to highlight the fact that the decline of Atari was not even brought about by one bad video game, but by a host of factors. It served as a point of nostalgia for video game aficionados. And, perhaps most importantly, it allowed a community to reflect back on the past with a new perspective, and to see things differently and in a way they weren’t able to at the time.

Sometimes things need to be buried until they can be unearthed again later.

Traditional Jewish interpretation of Korach was that he was wrong and destructive, and he was wrong because his challenge to Moses was disruptive to the proper functioning of the community. Because while we need ideas, we also need order.

But sometimes that order needs to be disrupted. Korach was right: we are all holy creatures, so we should always be suspect of the order and norms to which we have become accustomed. Earlier this week on the Fourth of July I reread the Declaration of Independence and these words jumped out at me: “and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This was the argument Korach was advancing: we need to think differently sometimes in order to guarantee that the systems we have in place do honor the divinity and holiness of each and every person. We know that in our society we fail in this regard over and over.

And we can also think of Moses and Korach as two competing forces in our own hearts and minds—the push to see and do things differently, to tap into deep truths and recognize our own uniqueness and agency (Korach), and the desire to stay with what is “working,” what is comfortable, what is orderly and what is safe (Moses). We need Moses to provide security and stability, but without Korach we would not grow and expand.

This was the point of the unique fate of Korach in the Torah: Korach was buried alive not as punishment, but as preservation. His message perhaps could not be heard in that particular moment, but it is a necessary one to hold on to.  When the Atari cartridges were unearthed, it unleashed a spirit of joy at the reminder of the innovative, creative and expansive nature of the early video games, despite the financial failure of one company. It allowed for a new story to be told.

Korach reminds us that we too are holy beings. We have the capacity for innovation and creativity and expansiveness. We have the capacity to retell our story. Even if we don’t see it in the moment, it is always there, waiting for the right time to be unearthed and exposed.

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