There is a Hasidic understanding that, to exist at all, even evil must contain some sparks of light. For if evil did not speak the language of goodness, it would have no drawing power.
In this week’s portion, Korach challenges the leadership of Moses, his first cousin. Couching his aspirations, ostensibly of a totally spiritual nature, in democratic, inclusive language, Korach accuses him of nepotism, goading him for conferring the high priesthood on his brother, Aaron.
Put on the defensive, Moses and Aaron “fall on their face.”
Was Moses unable to remember his response 40 years earlier, at the Burning Bush, when God originally appeared to him and called him to lead the Chosen People? Feeling unworthy, he pleaded desperately that God choose someone else, as he “was not a man of words.” But God would brook no denial that He had chosen the right person, suggesting Moses share the public relations side of the job, and ultimately the High Priesthood, with his older brother, who had a greater gift for language and was more approachable.
What did Korach say to provoke such anguish and self-doubt at this later stage in Moses’ career, when he was more experienced and had proved his worthiness countless times over?
Could Moses and Aaron have reacted this way precisely because they, too, were momentarily seduced by Korach’s gift for fine language, as when he says, “You take too much power to yourselves, for all the community is holy and God is in their midst” (Numbers 16: 3)?
Years later, the prophet Isaiah expresses almost the same sentiment: “Your People are totally righteous, a branch of My planting, the work of My hand, in whom I take pride. The least shall become a thousand” (Isaiah 60: 21–22). What is the difference?
Korach’s entire stand turns on the translation of kol, “all.” While the sentiment expressed may have been admirable, the meaning is not precise. With the incontestable proposition that all Jews have some point of holiness in them, was he suggesting that each Jew was equally holy in his or her own way? Or that, as a collective, the people are holy, absolutely?
To describe what equality signifies in the next world, the Izbitser, a 19th-century Hasidic thinker, quotes from the Talmud (Taanit 31a) the wonderful metaphor of the circle dance, where “all points in a circle are equidistant from the center, with no one closer than another.”
The differences between Korach and Isaiah and the Talmud lie in timing as well as aspiration. While the prophet and the Talmud describe a desired future, Korach is intimating that this vision is true in a particular political context in his own time.
According to the Midrash, Korach brought out 250 prayer shawls dyed completely blue — a color that connotes holiness — as a visual aid to demonstrate the holiness of the Jewish people. Wearing it as a uniform with the notables of Israel he had lured to his side, he taunted Moses.
This example alone begins to reveal the totalitarian territory to which Korach is headed. Unlike a tallit, a simple four-cornered garment with the mandatory fringes containing one thread of blue, Korach’s all-blue version posits some unified, otherworldly abstract that erases the performance of any particular ethical or ritual act.
In the sparring match that follows, Moses shows he understands completely the motivation underlying the rhetoric of his cousin, a Levite: “Does it seem a small thing that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near Him to perform the service of the tabernacle?”
Here the Izbitser raises an interesting point: “When God gave Korach the status of a Levite, Korach didn’t turn it down on the grounds that nobody in Israel should be higher in status than anyone else.” For all the intrinsic truth of Korach’s words about the holiness of each Jew, he himself did not live by his own teaching. Otherwise, he would have demurred, as Moses initially did, from being part of a hierarchy.
This suggests his real motivation: to take over the High Priesthood for himself. Despite his eloquent espousal of equality as an ethical value, he exposed himself as a power seeker incapable of sharing.
With this realization, Moses proposes to Korach and his following that they take part the next day in a “spirituality” contest, in which Aaron and all of Korach’s party compete with incense offerings. However, only one—the holiest and closest to God—would emerge from this ordeal alive. The rest would be consumed with fire.
Korach and his faction accepted these conditions, again negating Korach’s words: If indeed he believed in equality, why would he have agreed to Moses’s terms? Only one would be the winner—and he believed it would be him! His own following would die, but what did he care! He was only exploiting them for his own ends.
Korach was clever enough to understand the stakes yet was driven by the ambition to be the last one standing, at the expense of his followers. His actions betray his language as empty rhetoric, and his true motivation as rooted in pure selfishness.
For all the intrinsic truth of Korach’s words about the holiness of each Jew, he himself did not live by his own teaching.
In vindication of Moses and his mission, God has the earth “open her mouth” and swallow Korach and his faction, while Koach’s 250 followers were indeed consumed with holy fire.
Nevertheless, the Izbitser reminds us, Korach’s words — “All the community is holy and God is in their midst” — are true for all time, even though their speaker was unreliable. Indeed, because of the beauty of this language alone, King David rehabilitates not only Korach’s surviving descendants but Korach himself, with several psalms that are described in their opening verses as being by the “sons of Korah.” The implication is that Korach’s children, or the few who repented, survived to take their place as lead musicians in the Sanctuary.
Although we must be wary of the specious use of language, the suggestion is that even the trappings and “children” of goodness will ultimately find their true function for the benefit of us all.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Friday, June 11, 2021
Tammuz 1, 5781
Light Candles at 8:09 pm
Torah Reading: Korach: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: Samuel I 11:14 – 12:22
Shabbat ends 9:18 pm