Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Korach

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Spiritual Means

By Michael Chessen

     The Mishna, the Oral Law, does not generally deal with Biblical narrative. Rather, it primarily serves as the means by which we interpret the Written Law's commandments and practically apply them to our day to day lives. The "Ethics of the Fathers" fills a rather unique role as a tractate of the Oral Law which involves itself wholly with advice on acquiring the proper mindset and outlook towards the pursuit of studious and pious observance of the Torah. However, like all of the Oral Law, Ethics of the Fathers is also a means (for gaining insight and understanding of the Written Law), and in this capacity, it is only natural that it should give mention to the Biblical narrative which most directly challenges the need for intermediaries, namely, our current reading of Korach.

     Chapter five of Ethics of the Fathers cites the attempt on the part of Korach and his followers to usurp the authority of Moses and Aaron as the paradigm of a dispute which is "not for the sake of Heaven", and will therefore "bear no abiding value". On a superficial level, it might appear that in demanding equal opportunity to achieve a role in leadership, Korach was simply espousing modern democratic values. However, the midrash provides a more penetrating glimpse into Korach's ulterior motives by linking the episode of Korach's leadership challenge to the conclusion of our preceding Torah reading of Shelach.

     At the end of Shelach we are given the commandment to place a thread of sky-blue (t'chelit) among the tassels (tzitzioth) which we are to tie to our garments as a reminder to seek a holy path in life. The midrash says that Korach asked Moses whether a garment which was made entirely of sky-blue material still required tassels. In seeking to dispose of the reason for a commandment which Moses had reported to the Jewish people, Korach was not only challenging Moses, he was challenging the very validity of the commandments themselves. Both Moses and the sky-blue thread were intermediaries, a teacher and a reminder of holiness. If these could be rendered redundant, then perhaps the commandments themselves were altogether superfluous. Perhaps an individual could simply be holy in spirit, without needing to express this fact in any act or deed.

     Not only does the Torah reading of Korach prove him to be tragically wrong, but history has repeatedly proven his philosophy wrong as well. Ironically, insofar as Korach had attempted to dispose of Moses as an intermediary, in our following reading of Chukath, Moses perhaps brings upon himself his terrible punishment of being denied the merit of leading the Jewish people into the Land of Israel by failing to fully internalize the ramifications of Korach's errant claim and punishment. In next week's reading, Moses is instructed to bring water forth from a rock by speaking to it, and he instead strikes it with his staff, and act which could be interpreted as a rejection of himself as intermediary. Whatever the exact cause of Moses' punishment, his death will be nothing like the ignoble decent which Korach suffers, but one accompanied by praise unequaled in all of the Torah. This is because Moses was undoubtedly the paradigm of an individual who acted solely for the sake of Heaven and the Jewish people.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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