Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Introduction to Parashat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This shiur is dedicated in celebration of
Ahavya and Hillel's successful completion of shana rishona.
Korach and the Garments of Sky-Blue
By Rav Michael Hattin
With the catastrophe of the Spies just behind them, the People of Israel
begin their reluctant and relentless march into the wilderness of Paran at God's
indignant behest. They anxiously
enter its desolate confines with a deep sense of foreboding, for they know that
they will not emerge from it alive.
No doubt the people, in spite of last week's concluding message assuring
their descendents a brighter future (see Bemidbar Chapter 15), feel
distraught and despondent. How
difficult it is to continue with the struggles and challenges that life
presents, when the promise of purpose and the dream of a destination is now so
hopelessly out of reach!
Into the despair steps Korach, a demagogic provocateur and a mastermind
of timing, who quickly musters a rainbow coalition of malcontents to challenge
the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.
Accusing them of despotism and autocracy, Korach and his cohorts
cynically contrast Moshe's earlier promises of leading them to a fertile land of
fields and vineyards with their present wretched predicament:
Korach son of
Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On
son of Pelet, son of Reuven, all arose before Moshe along with two hundred and
fifty men from the people of Israel, every one of them princes of the
congregation, members of the assembly, and men of renown. They gathered against Moshe and Aharon
and said: "Don't you have enough?!
The entire congregation is holy and God is in their midst. Why, then, do both of you exercise rule
over the congregation of God?!" (Bemidbar 16:1-3).
A BAND OF MALCONTENTS
Thus it is that the leadership of Moshe and Aharon comes under the most
serious and sustained attack since the Exodus from Egypt. Some of Korach's followers, including
those that hail from the displaced tribe of Reuven, are genuinely aggrieved at
the election of the Levites to the service of the Tabernacle, instead of the
firstborn who had served aforetimes.
Others, more populist and democratic in outlook, are disturbed by the
concentration of so much temporal power in the hands of the aged brothers who
now stand accused of craving power, of exploiting their office to advance
personal goals, and of nepotism.
Why have these two brothers secured all of the prestigious positions for
themselves and not distributed the power more equitably among the entire
congregation? Is not the entire
congregation holy, by virtue of God's presence that resides among them? Shouldn't, therefore, the service of God
be open to any and all who genuinely seek His presence?
And as for Korach himself, surrounded by a protective phalanx of his
loyal cronies and party hacks, the self-serving populist publicly presents
himself as a genuine reformer who has the people's interests in mind. There is however, an intensely personal
angle to his seething discontent: how grievous and unfair is the appointment of
Aharon and his descendents to the exalted office of the High Priesthood! This singular honor has been bestowed
upon the ineffectual prophet and his sons by Divine fiat, while Korach's own
substantial talents have all been overlooked!
Skillfully, Korach compiles the simmering murmurs of grievance into a
lurid litany of lament, a raucous and indignant outcry now concentrated upon
Moshe that hangs heavily in the hot and oppressive desert air and refuses to
dissipate. Bitterly, the people of
Israel take up the dirge: But why
has Aharon been awarded the priesthood if not because he unfairly enjoys Moshe's
support? And why have the firstborn of the people been disqualified from the
ministering at the Tabernacle in favor of the Levites, if not because the latter
are Moshe's kin? And why has
Elizaphan son of 'Uzziel been appointed as chief of the Clan of Kehat, if not
because Moshe prefers him to Korach, who is Elizaphan's elder?
THE MIDRASHIC READING
In the Midrash of Bemidbar Rabba, the Rabbis colorfully portray Korach's
literally states: "and Korach took…" (Bemidbar 16:1). What is recorded immediately preceding
this section? "Let them make for
themselves tzitzit…" (Bemidbar 15:38). Korach sprang forth and said to Moshe:
'if a garment is entirely colored with sky-blue tekhelet dye, is it or is
it not exempt from the obligation of tzitzit?' Said Moshe: 'it is nevertheless
obligated in tzitzit!'
Korach then retorted: 'if a garment that is colored entirely with
sky-blue tekhelet dye cannot exempt itself, shall four small threads then
asked: 'if a house is entirely filled with scrolls of the Torah, is it or is it
not exempt from the mezuza?'
Said Moshe: 'it is nevertheless obligated to have a mezuza!' Korach then retorted: 'if an entire
Torah scroll that contains 275 separate sections cannot exempt the house, shall
two small sections in the mezuza scroll then exempt it?!' Korach concluded: 'you were not
commanded concerning these things and have fabricated them from your own
mind!' This is what is meant by the
verse: "and Korach took".
WHAT DID KORACH TAKE?
The Midrashic reading, while fanciful and seemingly forced, actually
deftly succeeds in addressing some of the more pressing textual and contextual
issues that are raised by the narrative.
The Midrash begins by quoting the opening verse of our
Parasha. While in the
introduction above I have translated it as "Korach son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat,
son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of
Reuven, all arose before Moshe along with two hundred and fifty men from the
people of Israel…," a more literal rendition would have been: "AND Korach son of
Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi TOOK ("vayiKaCH"), and Datan and
Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of Reuven. THEY arose before Moshe along with two
hundred and fifty men from the people of Israel…"
For all of the medieval commentaries, the opening verb of our section –
the "vayikach" or "he took" –
grammatically left suspended by virtue of its lack of a completing
object, is understood to be either idiomatic or else lacunar, but certainly not
literal. Rashi (11th
century, France), for instance, understands the idiom to mean that Korach
separated himself and his party for the sake of confronting Moshe and
Aharon. He "took himself," as it
were, to disagree with Moshe. Rabbi
Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) instead supplies what he
believes to be the missing word: "Korach (and his cohorts) took MEN," a
reference to the two hundred and fifty "princes of the congregation, members of
the assembly, and men of renown" mentioned in the next verse. Rav Sa'adiah Gaon (10th
century, Babylon) and the Ramban (13th century, Spain) both follow
Rashi's lead, though they explain the idiom differently. The Rashbam (12th century,
France) and the Seforno (15th century, Italy) adopt the reading of
the Ibn Ezra. The Midrash, however,
takes the expression in its most literal and straightforward sense: Korach
indeed TOOK an object, namely the garments dyed with sky-blue tekhelet,
making clever use of them to trigger the fray between himself and Moshe!
WHEN DID KORACH REBEL?
On a related subject, the classic commentaries argue vehemently about the
chronology of events associated with our Parasha. Some of them, such as the Ibn Ezra,
relate that Korach's rebellion took place soon after the Mishkan was inaugurated
and the Levites were installed in the service, these events having transpired
while Israel still stood at Sinai and quite some months before the dispatch of
the spies. Others feel that
Korach's conflagration of discontent was ignited by what immediately followed
the return of the spies with their damning report, for in the aftermath of that
debacle the people of Israel were condemned to perish in the wilderness and they
must have felt that Moshe and Aharon had failed them. This is the opinion of the Ramban who
sees all of the Torah's narratives as being organized in strict chronological
sequence unless the text specifically tells us otherwise.
But the Midrash goes one step further: not only can we connect the
rebellion to the preceding events in some sort of a general way, but we can even
relate it precisely! That is to say
that the final section of last week's Parasha introduced the mitzvah of
the tzitzit or fringes that God commands the people of Israel to affix
upon the corners of their garments.
According to the provisions of the Torah, the people of Israel shall
"place upon the tzitzit upon the corner a twisted thread of sky-blue
tekhelet. The tzitzit
shall be for you, and you shall see it and remember all of the commandments of
God and perform them. You shall not
stray after your hearts or your eyes…" (Bemidbar 15:37-41). This then is exactly what Korach TOOK,
as related earlier but never spelled out, namely beautiful and precious garments
of sky-blue tekhelet. The
conjunction "and" that introduces the section ("and Korach took") is composed of
a simple prefix "vav" that might otherwise have been overlooked as
entirely conventional. The Midrash,
however, attaches special significance to this "vav," for it regards it
as creating a cohesive link between our matter of Korach's rebellion and the
previous passage that related the command concerning the tzitzit.
This then is the thrust of the Midrashic reading: wealthy Korach
separated his men and prepared them for the fray by clothing them in expensive
attire elsewhere reserved for royalty, thus winning them handily to his
cause. This much is seemingly
inspired by the broader context itself.
But now the Midrash, in describing how Korach provocatively presents his
men in blue to the assembled masses, offers us the critical thematic content of
its reading: these tekhelet clothes, perfectly fashioned and tailored in
every respect, had but one glaring and conspicuous omission: the corners of the
garments were bereft of tzitzit!
Korach's intention was to use these very garments as an opportunity to
publicly upbraid humble Moshe, to shamelessly expose him for the self-serving
fraud that Korach portrayed him to be.
HOW DID KORACH WIN THE HEARTS OF
THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL? HOW DID THE
RABBIS UNDERSTAND THE EPISODE?
How impassioned and sincere was Korach's question, asked of the aged
lawgiver with due gravity and decorum.
If the Torah mandated a single thread of blue for every corner of a
garment to serve as a reminder of God's laws, then surely a garment colored
entirely with blue should accomplish the same goal without those additional
threads! Who needs an extra thread
of blue when the whole garment is already so dyed? The IMPLICATION of the matter is of
course even more pointed: just as a garment that is entirely blue needs no
tekhelet, so too a congregation that is entirely holy needs no additional
leaders to bring it closer to God.
Or to quote the verse that Korach himself uses as his opening salvo:
"Don't you have enough?! The entire
congregation is holy and God is in their midst. Why, then, do both of you exercise rule
over the congregation of God?!" (Bemidbar 16:3). In the Midrash, this implication is
amplified by Korach's second question concerning the mezuza. Just as it is unreasonable to demand
that a house filled with Torah scrolls be obligated to have a mezuza,
since the said Torah scrolls anywise contain the scriptural section found in the
mezuza and many more besides, so too are Moshe and Aharon entirely
superfluous as leaders and guides for a people that is inherently holy and
imbued with God's presence.
Let us therefore weave the strands of the Midrashic reading
together. The Midrash connects the
rebellion of Korach to the context that immediately precedes our section, it
adroitly explains the otherwise curious use of the verb "vayikach" as
well as the conjunctive prefix, and it provides us with a riveting image of a
skillful demagogue who is able to deftly undermine Moshe's leadership by
appealing to the lawgiver himself and to the very laws that he has communicated
in God's name. All of this is
ultimately anchored in the text itself, and carefully pinned on Korach's own
words! In short, the Midrash
provides the student with an interpretation that while not in conformity to the
straightforward reading is nevertheless a virtuoso illustration of what diligent
study can yield.
While the final result of this endeavor may strike us as unduly
whimsical, that would miss the point.
The Rabbis of the Midrash were extremely careful in their reading of the
Torah, rightly regarding it as the words of the living God. When they read a narrative in the Torah,
they paid scrupulous attention to its grammatical structure, to its linguistic
nuance and to its major and minor themes.
They painstakingly mined the text for its implications and meticulously
read between the lines in order to expose the finest gradations of meaning. Their investigations were anything but
haphazard or careless. And while we
may take issue with their methodological approach (as the medieval commentaries
often did) we dare not underestimate their contribution.