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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? 

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