Commentary for Korach

23 Jun

This week’s parshah tells the story of the rebellion of Korach. Many commentators have characterized Korach’s rebellion as one based on jealousy and dissatisfaction with the hierarchy God commanded Moses to put in place. Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, had no problem not being the top banana. Moses and Aaron’s father was his father’s older brother, so he felt it was natural that the top two positions should go to them. What he was unhappy about was that Moses had appointed their cousin Elitzaphan, son of their father’s youngest brother, as the leader of the Levites instead of Korach, who was the oldest son of the second oldest brother, and thus should be third in line after Moses and Aaron. This is supported by the Torah’s identification of Korach in the beginning of this story as “Korach, son of Itzhar son of Kehat son of Levi,” with Jacob’s name being left off the list, as compared to I Chronicles 6:18-23, where the genealogy of Heman the Singer is traced all the way back through Korach to Jacob. For this story, we are given all of the relevant genealogical information about Korach, and nothing more, even though the omitted information is well known.

Unlike the many other internal troubles the Israelites faced in the desert, Korach’s rebellion is not a challenge to God, but to Moses and Aaron. He gathered a group of followers, all of whom were distinguished members of the community, and challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying “the entire community is holy, for God dwells in our midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the community of God? (Num. 16:3).” Moses’ response in 16:5 (“Come morning, the God will make known who is God’s and who is holy, and whom He will bring close to Himself, and the one who he chooses, He will bring close to Himself”) makes clear what Korach’s true challenge is: ‘If we are all God’s people and we all heard God at Mount Sinai, why, all of sudden, did God start giving laws only through you?’

Midrash Rabbah expands on this idea, saying that Korach tried to prove that the laws Moses had given them could not have possibly come from God because they were illogical. Korach and his followers ask Moses if a four-cornered garment is made entirely of blue material, does it need to have tzitzit with a blue fringe? Moses told them that it does. Korach and his followers laughed at Moses, asking how it makes any sense that a four-corned garment made entirely of blue thread still needs tzitzit with a blue thread to fulfill the mitzvah, but a four-cornered garment of any other combination of colors fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzit by just having one thread of blue in its fringes.

They then asked Moses another question: If a house is full of Torahs, does it need to have a mezuzah on the doorpost? Moses replied that it does, and once again Korach and his followers laughed, asking how it is that any random house fulfills a mitzvah by having just the few paragraphs of Torah contained in the mezuzah, but a house full of scrolls of the entire Torah would still need a mezuzah on its doorpost.

For all of his purported logic, Korach and his followers fail to grasp that the mitzvot are not just actions, but also thoughts behind those actions. While an entire building full of Torah scrolls might help increase your feeling of closeness to God while you are in that building, once you leave that building, you cannot take those Torah scrolls with you, and as time and distance pass, the urge to stray becomes greater. A mezuzah, though, placed on the doorpost to kiss as you both enter and exit the house, serves as a reminder to walk in God’s ways both within that house and as “as you travel on your path (Deut 6:7).” Similarly, tzitzit are worn so that wherever we are, if we are tempted to stray, we can “look upon it, and remember all of The Lord’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow the desires of your hearts and your eyes that you lust over (Num 15:39).” We are the lone fringe of blue of in a world of other colors. What those around us are doing is not important. We are required to act according to God’s standards. In the world of Korach’s entirely blue garment, we are just one fringe of blue among a myriad of identical fringes, encouraged to act in accordance with the group of those around us, no matter what they are doing.

It is this same wisdom that Korach did not grasp that many of his followers could have used. The other ringleaders of Korach’s rebellion, On son of Pelet and Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, had no real reason to support Korach’s claim, and they had no any claim of their own. They were just neighbors of Korach’s from the tribe of Reuven who got swept up in Korach’s rabblerousing and convinced many of their neighbors to do the same, just for the sake of stirring up trouble. Had they been able to remind themselves that they needed to live up to God’s standards of behavior (as On son of Pelet did), they would not have joined in Korach’s rebellion and met the gruesome end that they did.

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