Korach and the Meanings of Holiness and Nobility: D’var Torah for Parashat Korach

Published Jun 11, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

This week we read of the revolt of Korah, a Levite nobleman and cousin of Moshe and Aharon’s, against the exclusive Aharonide lineage for the priesthood. Much as demagogues often exploit popular unrest for their personal gain, the charismatic Korah hitches his personal coup attempt to control the priesthood to the separate populist revolt of his Reubenite neighbors, Dathan and Aviram, who sought to overthrow Moshe and lead the people back to Egypt, giving cover to his power play. For an excellent and accessible unpacking of the different strands in this fused Biblical story, and giving the political context for each one, see this new article by Dr. Ethan Schwartz, a Bible professor at Villanova University: “No Korah is Not the Hero”.

Korah’s central claim, “You’ve got too much, for all of the congregation are holy, every one of them, and YHWH is within them” (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:3) sounds, to the uncareful listener, consistent with God’s famous, earlier charge, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel and tell them, ‘Be holy, for I, YHWH your God, am holy” (VaYikra/Leviticus 19:2). Korah’s words are actually, quite profoundly, the exact opposite of that charge. For God, holiness is a commandment for how to behave: be holy, followed by a detailed range of charges for moral behavior. For Korah, holiness requires nothing; it just inheres in each Jew. As Nechama Leibowitz puts it, “Note that they do not say: ‘All the congregation is holy’ — as a unit but: ‘All the congregation are holy’, ‘every one of them’ — each one taken, individually. The assertion of individual selfish ambitions outweighs their group feeling as a ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation’. They interpreted the mission of holiness…with which they had been charged by God, in the sense of conferring on them superiority and privilege, rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and responsibilities….The titles of ‘special people’, ‘holy people’ were in the nature of demand notes presented by the Almighty for them to honour by deeds of holiness. Instead they took them to be titles of distinction conferring privileges on them” (Studies in Bamidbar [Numbers], p. 183).

The Rabbis note that last week’s parasha ends with the apparently unrelated commandment that we attach fringes (tzitzit) and a royal-blue thread (tekhelet) to our clothing and unpack the ways in which that law may serve as an instructive backdrop against which to understand Korah. Last week’s parasha concluded: (Bemidbar/Numbers 15:37-41):

“And YHWH said to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them that they should make for themselves a fringe on the hems of their garments for their generations and they shall place on the fringe of the hem a royal-blue twist. And it shall be a fringe for you, and you shall look at it and remember all YHWH’s commandments and do them. And you shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes, after which you go whoring. In order that you remember and do all My commandments, that you shall be holy to your God. I, YHWH, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to become your God. I, YHWH, am your God.’”

In contrast to other Ancient Near Eastern and, later, Roman cultures, which retained the right to wear royal blue as the exclusive domain of the nobility or the throne, the Torah commands every Jew to wear a thread, manifesting through one’s clothing, that the whole community, including poor and working class Israelites, are required to be, through their righteous behavior, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Sh’mot/Exodus 19:6).

In a famous Talmudic passage, Rav fleshes out the dynamics of Korah’s challenge to Moshe’s authority through the idiom of this commandment (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10:1/27d-28a):

“What did he do? He got up and made a shawl (tallit) that was entirely royal-blue (tekhelet). He came to Moshe and said to him, ‘Moshe, our teacher, a tallit that is entirely tekhelet – does it require fringes (tzitzit)?’ He said to him, ‘Required, as is written: ‘You shall make tassels for yourself…’ (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:12).’ 

‘A house that is full of books – does it require a mezuzah?” He said to him, ‘It requires a mezuzah, as is written, ‘and you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house…’ (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:9).…At that point, Korah said, ‘Torah is not from Heaven, Moshe is not a prophet, and Aharon is not the High Priest!’” 

Korah fashions himself a populist activist, railing against his cousin Mosheh’s self-serving and disingenuous legal formalism. To Korah, ruling that one tekhelet string suffices but an entirely tekhelet garment does not smacks of arbitrariness and indicts Mosheh’s whole system as being a Godless power play. However, what spiritual assumption underscores Korah’s “all-the-more-so” reasoning? If one tekhelet string brings me God, it should follow that more tekhelet brings me more God! His other example fleshes this out: if one little section of Torah on the entrance to my house brings God into my house, how much more will God be in my house if I have more Torah there?! The more physical, religious stuff I have, the more I have God. For Korah, relationship with God is about having “spiritual experiences”. If a little tekhelet earns me God’s shining light, then the more I jack up the symbols, the brighter the light will be. Korah’s reasoning is inseparable from his own privilege, power, and entitlement, which make him profoundly miss the point of the Divine word: the Divine word charges us to behave responsibly; for Korah, it fills us with our own divinity. The point is not to own God, though; the point is to live a redemptive life.

We do well to recall the gemara that tells that at the scene of God’s intimate revelation of compassionate identity, God was wrapped in a tallit. The Torah teaches, “And YHWH passed by [Moshe’s] face and called: ‘YHWH, YHWH, a merciful and gracious God, long-suffering, abundant in lovingkindness and truth’ (Sh’mot/Exodus 34:6). The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Yohanan said, Were this not written Scripture, it would be impossible to say such a thing. It teaches that The Holy One was wrapped like a prayer leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer. Whenever Israel sins, they should do this order before Me, and I will forgive them.  “YHWH, YHWH” – I am the One before a person sins, and I am the One after a person sins and repents” (Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShana 17b).

We wear our tzitzit to remember God’s ways and behave according to the divine charge for responsible behavior. That’s our nobility. That’s what it means to live as royalty. Our chosenness is entirely contingent on responsible actions. God also wears tzitzit, as it were, to remember God’s ways and “behave properly”, remembering the ways of forgiveness. This is the mark of a serious and truly intimate relationship – replacing lust with trust and ecstasy with patience, and affirming that deep love experiences the moment in connection with the future.

Shabbat shalom.

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