Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kahat son of Levi took himself along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet — descendants of Reuven — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Numbers 16:1-4)
Those of us living in the United States tend to see revolution in a positive light. We conjure up visions of a grassroots uprising to protest injustice and swelling into a heroic fight for independence. In fact, it’s rarely that way. Even in America, it was the elite among the colonialists who instigated and fomented revolution against England; they had the most to gain.
So, too, the Israelites in the Wilderness. Korach and his followers are second-tier levites bruising for a fight to promote themselves. They find an opening in the claim that Moses and Aaron have elevated themselves above the community when, in fact, every member of the nation is holy. They use this provocative opening to defame Moses and Aaron. Korach has conflated two distinct ideas — authority and sanctity — in a way that flames the anger of his minions. Moses and Aaron are, indeed, vested with authority Korach does not have, but they have never claimed a higher level of sanctity than any other member of the nation.
And so it is often in our own institutions, be they community groups, political organizations, businesses, or religious institutions. So often the second tier bridles at following the dictates or policies of those in positions of authority, and find some offense or other — some claim that always looks kosher on the outside — and use it to flame the fires of dissent.
The Rabbis tell us in a marvelous midrash that the claim presented in Torah was only the beginning. As Wesley tells Vizzini in the Battle of Wits over iocane powder, “Truly, you have a dizzying intellect,” and as Vizzini retorts, “Wait till I get going!” — so Korach is only getting warmed up. (If you haven’t yet seen The Princess Bride, do so at once!)
Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kahat son of Levi took himself (Numbers 15:38). Now Korach... took. What is written in the preceding passage? …Instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner (Numbers 15:38). [This is the commandment concerning tzitzit.] Korah jumped up [for his first challenge] and asked Moses: “If a cloak is entirely of blue, what is the law as regards its being exempted from the obligation of fringes?” Moses answered him: “It is [nonetheless] subject to the obligation of fringes.” Korah retorted: “A cloak that is entirely composed of blue cannot free itself from the obligation, yet the four blue threads do free it!”
[Taking up another challenge:] Korach said again, “If a house is full of Scriptural books, what is the law as regards its being exempt from the obligation of mezuzah?” [Torah says, you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, which the Rabbis interpreted to require a mezuzah with a passage from Torah to be posted on the doorpost of one’s house. In Korach’s scenario, the passage in the mezuzah is already contained in every copy of the Torah inside the house.] [Moses] answered [Korach]: “[The house is nonetheless] under the obligation of having a mezuzah.” [Korach retorted,] “The whole Torah, which contains two hundred and seventy-five sections, cannot exempt the house, yet the one section in the mezuzah exempts it! These are things which you have not been commanded, but you are inventing them out of your own mind!
Hence it is written, Korach… took… which can only signify discord, his heart having carried him away.
Korach’s questions are disingenuous. His intent is not to explore the halakhah on tzitzit and mezuzah, but to publicly challenge and oust Moses, claiming Moses’ authority for himself. Korach’s means for doing this has the patina of a legitimate halakhah question, just enough of a patina for people to listen.
Had Korach truly cared one iota about blue cloaks or the mezuzah scroll, he would have continued to engage Moses in conversation about the nuanced interpretations of each. He does not. He has stirred up trouble, and that’s enough.
Does this sound familiar to you? Have you seen this happen in the community and political groups, workplaces, or congregations in your life?
Pirke Avot famously says:
Every controversy that is in the name of heaven, in the end will result in something permanent, but one that is not in the name of heaven, in the end will result in something impermanent. What is [an example of] controversy that is in the name of heaven? Such is controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And what is [an example of] controversy that is not in the name of heaven? Such is the controversy of Korach and all his followers. (Pirke Avot 5:17)
The Rabbis could not have chosen a better example than Korach to make their point. His challenge is insincere and merely a provocation.
The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) makes an interesting comment on the notion of hierarchies and levels that spin out of the techelet, the blue thread of the tzitzit:
It is said that, “the blue [of the fringe-thread] is like the sea, the sea is like the sky, and sky is like the Throne of Glory.”
The S’fat Emet goes on to connect these three levels — sea, sky, and Throne of Glory — with, respectively, the Exodus from Egypt, the Reed Sea, and the Receiving of the Torah at Mt Sinai. He then tells us:
These three also connect to the three gifts that Israel was given. The well is like the sea. [He refers here to the Well of Miriam that followed the Israelites through the Wilderness on account of Miriam’s merit.] The sky refers to the manna that came down because of Moses. The Clouds of Glory were by the merit of Aaron… [We might be surprised to find Aaron on a higher level than Moses. The S’fat Emet explains:] It is true that Moses’ rung is a high one. But Aaron, because he caused Israel to return in penitence, reached a still higher level. Therefore, he was given the innermost service of the Day of Atonement, equivalent to both teshuvah [repentence] and neshamah [soul]. Of this they said [here the S’fat Emet quotes R. Abbahu in B.Berakhot 34b]: “Penitents stand in a place where the wholly righteous cannot stand,” and also [and here he quote R. Levi from B.Yoma 86a], “great is teshuvah for it reaches the Throne of Glory.” That is why the Clouds of Glory were by Aaron’s merit.
The S’fat Emet is telling us that Korach and his minions seek the authority of Moses, because they believe it to be the highest run on the ladder of leadership and authority. But they are wrong. Aaron stands above Moses; he stands at the Throne of Glory, which is above even the sky. Why? Because Aaron brings people to teshuvah, which requires humility, acceptance of responsibility, and pursuit of reconciliation. Aaron is the peacemaker by tradition, as Pirke Avot teaches us:
Hillel and Shammai received the Torah from [Shemayah and Avtalion]. Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:10)
Hillel and Shammai both received Torah — and that acknowledgement is encapsulated in Hillel’s teaching that we are all to follow the example of Aaron and make peace. Peace is only reached through teshuvah. It need not be formal teshuvah, nor does it need to wait until Yom Kippur. What is needed to make peace — and stand at the highest peak: the Throne of Glory — is humility, acceptance of responsibility, and pursuit of reconciliation.
Korach failed. He failed miserably. But we don’t have to.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman