June 14, 2018

Weekly Parsha: One verse, five voices

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi … took men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: “You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face. (Numbers 16:1-4)

Rabbi David Fohrman
Aleph Beta Academy
The words are jarring: And Korach took. That’s it. It is as if the words head off the edge of a cliff, the transitive verb trailing into nothingness, bereft of the direct object that would give it meaning. What did Korach take? We don’t know. 

Or maybe we do. 

Rashi comments cryptically: “He took himself to one side, inasmuch as he created division in the community…” 

What does Rashi mean? Where did he get his interpretation from?

Rashi understood this: That which “takes” requires a direct object. It is not just a rule of grammar, it is a rule of life. When we take things, we reach for things we believe will fill a need that will somehow make us “larger.” In the best of circumstances, that drive can lead one astray. But there is a kind of “taking” that is even darker, one that doesn’t latch on to a particular possession that has caught one’s fancy. 

What happens when the drive to aggrandize oneself outstrips the mere attempt to accumulate possessions? It is then that taking becomes a political quest, a drive for raw power itself. The verb “take,” shorn of its natural partner in a direct object, becomes distressed. It recoils back on itself — until it ends up taking the person doing the taking. 

It is then that leadership becomes about “me,” at the expense of the others I nominally purport to lead. It is then that the community fractures, as a broken “taking” claims its lonely prize.

Sydni Adler
Student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
In last week’s parsha, we learned that there should be a cord of the bluish color t’khelet attached to the fringes at each corner of a four-cornered garment. In a midrash on this week’s portion, Korach asks, “Do the fringes on a fully t’khelet garment still need t’khelet?” “Yes,” Moses says. Korach is flabbergasted. “A garment that is all t’khelet is not kosher, but four threads make it kosher?” Korach continues to challenge Moses about the logic of mezuzot on doors in a house full of books containing the Shema, and Moses gives another unsatisfactory answer. Korach finds Moses’ methodology for interpreting Torah to be completely illogical, and his revolt begins.

As rabbinic Jews today, we often find ourselves in Korach’s shoes. Isn’t everyone holy enough to interpret the Torah, and if so, why follow antiquated talmudic interpretations of antiquated Torah laws? Even when we ask Korah’s questions, we still have the power to lift ourselves up into Moses’ dialectic relationship with the Divine: If we choose to join our Jewish communities in the process of responding to biblical and rabbinic traditions, we can shape halachah as much as our greatest prophet.

Perhaps, before we wrestle with philosophical analysis, we can experiment with leaps of faith, throwing ourselves into rituals and communal interactions. Then, we can analyze with our hearts along with our minds. Rather than assembling “against” our tradition, like Korach and his followers, let us assemble within, shaping our present and future interpretations of Jewish law and practice.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
A challenge to his leadership arises and Moses falls on his face. This may not be the pose we expect from the man charged with leading the Israelites out of slavery and toward the Promised Land, nor from one who has already weathered multiple rebellions by his people. 

Classical interpretations of this response roughly divide into two categories: those who view Moses as despondent and those who see his prostration as a moment of prayer.

For the midrash, Korach’s rebellion constitutes the last straw for Moses, who has already pleaded to God on behalf of the people after three previous transgressions. This time, he collapses in despair (Midrash Tanchuma Korach 4:1). Some even see Moses as falling down in embarrassment over allegations about his character or leadership (Talmud Sanhedrin 110a; Bekhor Shor Numbers 16:4). 

Other interpretations picture Moses praying, and even summoning a moment of prophecy. Saadia Gaon (10th century) understands Moses to be prostrating himself in order to receive a vision from God. Such comments view Moses in parallel with Abraham and other prophets, who had a habit of falling on their faces when encountering God.

In this current moment of crisis in the United States and in the world, when we are experiencing attack after attack on democracy, human decency and human rights, despair may feel like the easiest stance. And perhaps, sometimes, we need to allow ourselves to feel that anguish — to fall on our faces in despair. But from that stance, we also must attempt to access the prophetic clarity necessary to move forward.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel
For Israeli theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, nothing was more spiritually heinous, vulgar and repugnant than Korach’s grotesque and preposterous theological assertion in the commencement of our parsha that “Kol ha’eda kedoshim,” namely that we are all intrinsically and inherently holy, simply because of our sheer biological facticity — because we emerged from a Jewish womb or underwent conversion. 

Holiness, Leibowitz reminds us, is not an a priori hereditary achievement. Rather, it’s a hard-earned individual accomplishment, for which we must incessantly toil every day anew. 

Ascending the existential rungs of sanctity and self-refinement isn’t a given. It requires constant avodah, which in Hebrew means both “work” and “Divine service.” 

Last week’s parsha concluded with parshat tzitzit, which includes the words, “Va’aseetem et kol mitzvotay, vee heey tem kedoshim le Elokheim,” meaning “And you shall perform all My mitzvot, and you shall become holy to your God.”

In other words, we are dealing here with cause and effect. It is because we perform the ennobling spiritual and ethical deeds known in Judaism as the mitzvot that we ascend to the rank of holiness. Judaism, as we are reminded in the sordid episode of Korach, is a meritocracy. We have to earn our spirituality. We aren’t “automatically” holy. Yes, we all possess incalculable worth and dignity by virtue of being in the Divine image, but holiness — that’s a different ballgame. You have to earn it and labor hard to achieve it every day anew. Holiness, Emmanuel Levinas reminds us, is a “difficult freedom,” to be mastered and achieved.

Rabbi Eli Fink
Jewish Journal
I kind of like Korach’s point. Equal rights! Moses seems not to have a compelling answer. First he faints and later he seems to be saying, “Be happy with what you have; it could be worse.” So why does Korach perish? He asked a legitimate question!

The problem was not with Korach’s question, per se. The problem was that the question was not genuine. If Korach really cared about equality and fairness, he would have asked for egalitarian treatment across all 12 tribes. He would not have asked for fairness only on behalf of the Levites.

Moses saw through Korach’s charade, replying, “Is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?”

Read creatively, Moses is saying, “Korach! Working in the Tabernacle is a Levite privilege! The rest of Israel is excluded — it is unfair to them! Why not include them in your complaint? Clearly, this is not about equality — it is about your pride. You only care about yourself.”

One cannot advocate for equality, or any other just cause, disingenuously. When you come for the king, you only get one shot. Korach “took” his shot and missed horribly.

Sometimes authority and status quo must be challenged. But we must be careful that when we make our move, we are respectful, genuine and sincere.

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