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Friday, June 18, 2010

Korach's Gripe Part Two

Okay--I think I can do better next week and get something by Thursday. Thanks for the suggestion, Hyla! In the meantime, this finishes off the basic thought I had from last week's parsha:

Now we can understand the midrash brought earlier. In the midrashic version of Korach's claim, the people are represented by the tallit which is made entirely of t'chelet. According to the Torah, a four cornered garment must have one thread of t'chelet in each corner in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. Korach wants to say that implies that the t'chelet is special—just a little bit of t'chelet will exempt the entire garment; therefore, a whole lot of t'chelet would certainly exempt the garment! Just like the people are currently led by just two people, Moshe and Aharon, who are holy, but the entire nation is holy so they, the nation, are exempted from this leadership!

Moshe, though, replies by saying that this is not a matter for reasoning and logic. God decreed that a garment must have tzitzit no matter what it is made from, no matter how 'holy' it might be. So, too, God decreed that Moshe and Aharon must lead the nation no matter how much collective holiness is represented by the mass of people.

The challenge of Korach from a Torah scroll is similar but adds a little something to the mix. Whereas the argument with t'chelet and the tallit is questionable because t'chelet is not really inherently holy, a Torah scroll represents the single most holy item in Judaism. It is true that for practical halachic purposes a mezuzah is less holy than a Torah scroll. So the argument is now a bit stronger when he challenges Moshe by saying that if a room is full of Torah scrolls, which are so holy, they must exempt the room from needing a mezuzah!

Here again, though, Moshe tells him that the mitzvah of mezuzah is decreed by God and applies regardless of how much holiness is contained within the room. Moshe is always arguing in these aggadot, just as he does in the Torah verses, that his position as leader is not his idea. He makes no claim to be holier or better than anyone else and, in fact, implies that he concedes the nation as a whole to be more holy.

But being more holy per se is not the point. The point is to fulfill God's will. Korach has simply lost faith that God decreed all of these things. He has come instead to rely on his own reasoning as a basis for challenging Moshe.

But Korach is wrong. It is not about reasoning, it is not even about aggregate holiness. It is about listening to and accepting what God has decreed. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yes, I Know I'm Late--Korach's Gripe Part One

I am sitting in these remaining minutes before shabbat, enjoying an espresso made with freshly ground coffee beans which I ground freshly in my new coffee grinder attachment to my new blender and feeling rather happy with life and with myself. Funny how the small things can make us feel that way.

By contrast, Korach, the star of this week's parsha of the same name, seemed to have had a hard time being happy with his particular lot in life.

The linguistic issue which kicks off the parsha is simply what is meant by the opening word ויקח vayikach. Literally the word means 'and he took.' However this word always appears as a transitive verb which means, for those of you who forget your language terms!, that it takes something – one does not simply take the way someone might simply breathe without breathing some thing.

So of course, the commentators are all over this. The Targum Onkelos does not give a literal translation here, as he usually does, and translates vayikach as v'itpalag meaning that he separated himself.

Rashi, on the second verse, brings a little story from the Midrash Tanchuma about a challenge that Korach posed to Moshe. I will quote the midrash directly here:
מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת קרח סימן ד

ויקח קרח. מה כתיב למעלה מן הענין, דבר אל בני ישראל [ואמרת אליהם] ועשו להם ציצית (במדבר טו לח), א"ל קרח למשה רבינו, משה טלית שכולה תכלת, מהו שתהא פטורה מן הציצית, א"ל משה חייבת בציצית, א"ל קרח טלית שכולה תכלת אינה פוטרת עצמה, וארבעה חוטין פוטרין אותה, בית שמלא ספרים, מהו שיהא פטור מן המזוזה, א"ל חייב במזוזה, א"ל כל התורה כולה רע"ה פרשיות יש בה, ואינן פוטרות את הבית, ושתי פרשיות שבמזוזה פוטרות את הבית, א"ל דברים אלו לא נצטוית עליהם, אלא מלבך את בודאם, הדה הוא דכתיב ויקח קרח.

And Korach took: What is written before this matter?: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, Make for them tzitzit (Bamidbar 15:38). Korach said to Moshe, “Moshe, a talit which is entirely t'chelet (blue wool) would the law say it is exempt from tzitzit?” Moshe replied, “It is obliged nonetheless to have tzitzit.” Korach said to him, “A talit which is entirely t'chelet doesn't exempt itself (i.e. fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit) and yet for threads exempt it? Tell me, a house which is full of Torah scrolls, would the law say it is exempt from having a mezuzah?” Moshe replied to him, “The house would still need a mezuzah.” Korach said to him, “The entire Torah is comprised of 275 sections and they are not enough to exempt the house, and the two sections of the mezuzah exempt the house?” He went on, “These things were not commanded to you—rather you made them up!” That is what the Torah means when it says, “And Korach took.”

Some of you may read this story and say isn't that quaint but of course, the Torah doesn't say this at all. Why make up a story like this?

That, my friends, is the challenge of reading midrash and aggadah. Chazal had deep insights into these texts and often chose to convey them through aggadah/myth. Let's try to understand how Chazal  came up with this story and what the underlying message is.

First, let's see the basic story as told in the text of the Torah. Korach and those who side with him challenge Moshe and Aharon's leadership positions. Their basic claim is:
במדבר פרק טז (ג) וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְקֹוָק וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְקֹוָק:

Bamidbar Chapter 16 (3) And they gathered together on Moshe and Aharon and they said to them, “It is much for you! For all of the community--they are all holy and God is amongst them and why should you make raise yourselves over the congregation of God?
The basic claim that Korach and his followers make is ostensibly based on things they were told that God said. For example, just before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, God tells Moshe to tell the people:
שמות פרק יט (ו) וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Shmot Chapter 19 (6) And you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the things you shall speak to the children of Israel.

So that would seem to back up the claim that the entire community is holy.

And, more recently:
שמות פרק כט (מה) וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים:(מו) וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיהֶם:

Shmot Chapter 29 (45) And I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will be for them as The Lord. (46)And they will know that I am God their Lord that I have taken them out of the land of Egypt in order to dwell among them—I am God their Lord.

So that would seem to back up the claim that God is among all of the people.

Their basic premise, then, would seem to be sound. If it is true that they are all holy and God is among all of them, what gives Moshe and Aharon special privileges to be above everyone else? 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Don't Believe Everything You Hear--Some Points From the Parsha

The main players in this week's parsha are popularly referred to in Hebrew as the מרגלים (m'raglim), generally translated as spies. Interestingly, that word does not appear at all in this story. It does figure in the story told in the second chapter of Yehoshua, but we'll come back to that in a bit.

The command here is:

במדבר פרק יג (ב) שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם:

Bamidbar Chapter 13 (2) Send men for you, that they will explore the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel; One man, one man for (each) tribe of his fathers shall you send, every prince thereof.

The key word here is ויתרו (v'yaturu) which derives from the root לתור. The meaning of this word is not absolutely clear but it seems to involve the idea of wandering and exploration. Significantly, the same root word appears at the end of this week's parsha:

במדבר פרק טו (לט) וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְקֹוָק וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְלֹא תָתֻרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם:

Bamidbar Chapter 15: (39) and they will be for you as fringes and you will see them and you will remember all of the commandments of God and you will do them and you will not wander after your hearts and after your eyes which you stray after.

Again, the meaning here is not absolute, but it implies in this context a kind of loose wandering.

We can contrast that with the story told in the second chapter of Yehoshua where Yehoshua sends two men (again the same word in Hebrew אנשים, as we see in the beginning of our story) but they are sent as מרגלים—spies.

יהושע פרק ב פסוק א וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מִן הַשִּׁטִּים שְׁנַיִם אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים חֶרֶשׁ לֵאמֹר לְכוּ רְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת יְרִיחוֹ וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ בֵּית אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה וּשְׁמָהּ רָחָב וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ שָׁמָּה:

Yehoshua Chapter 2 (1) And Yehoshua the son of Nun sent from Shittim two men, spies, secretly saying: Go and see the land and Yericho. And they went and came to the house of a woman, a prostitute and her name was Rachav and they slept there.

The contrast between the two stories and their outcomes is enormous. In short, though, Moshe's contingent was comprised of 'men' which we have seen elsewhere is a description of men of standing and importance, in this case they were the princes/leaders of each of the tribes. However, the command that they 'explore' or 'wander' seems to have been taken by them as a kind of blank check—that is they were supposed to be looking for certain general indicators, as are specified by Moshe later, but otherwise were sort of on their own to 'look around.'

Apparently Moshe thought it prudent and politically correct to send the prince from each tribe in a public sort of way. He must have thought that by using such transparent means to gather information it would be clear that he, Moshe, wasn't hiding anything from the people. He also assumed, naively, that they would come back with positive, or at least neutral, reportage.

Alas, Moshe's faith in that regard was misplaced. While they did bring back correct information, the way it was reported along with their own commentary on what they saw turned out to be extremely negative. The people, whom we know to be wary of Moshe and of God from other stories, are quick to seize upon the negative report. It is almost as if they knew in advance that things would be bad for them in the Promised Land and needed very little encouragement to believe such stuff.
Chazal learn a great deal about Lashon Hara from this parsha. Lashon Hara (literally 'evil tongue', refers to gossip of sorts or speaking ill of someone or something) is by definition 'true' (there is another term for speaking ill in false terms). However, by its nature it is a limited truth as Lashon Hara inevitably leaves out information which does not suit the teller's version of events. If you read our parsha carefully and understand what Calev is saying to the people, you will see this is true here, as well.

Yehoshua was much more careful in his use of 'men.' He sent spies, apparently professionals and not political appointees. He sent them secretly, which implies that even the Children of Israel didn't know about their mission. They were sent to gather specific intelligence and not to give some general report. And they reported directly to Yehoshua and not to the people at large.

The difference between לתור (to wander/explore) and לרגל (to spy) are very sharp and evident.

Likewise, the tendency to see what we want to see, to believe what we want to believe and to ignore truth are dramatically displayed in this parsha.

Hamevin yavin.