Korach 5781 – Korach Gets Shut Down

By: Michael Carr

Today’s Torah portion tells the story of Korah the cousin of Moses and Aaron who questions the ‘spirtual leadership’ of the Israelites. Moses defends the divine appointment of Aaron as Kohen Gadol  and clarifies the wearing of Tallit.

Korah has been called the ‘rebel of the Torah’. Did you know that according to historical accounts ‘of the day’,  Korah and Haman were two of the wealthiest people in the world.  Korah supposedly had discovered one of the treasures Joseph had hidden during his reign.

Korah was also a Levite and born in Egypt and one of the Israelites that was witness to the miracles of the Exodus.

Why was Korah considered a ‘rebel’?

Korah’s rebellious nature showed up as a lack of spiritual intent and also a lack of desire to be an Israelite follower in the community at large.   Korah questions -(with great doubt and self-righteous authority) – why Moses and Aaron take on so much responsibility on behalf of the Israelites and actually asks Moses, “…is that not G-d’s responsibility?”

General disbelief, contemptuous statements and attempts to discredit Moses and Aaron appear to come from Korah’s ‘devine disillusionment’. For example, how could the chosen people’s path to freedom be completed with his retired shepherd cousin and his brother Aaron who Korah believes was anointed (by way of nepotism or self-assignment) as the high priest of the ‘Chosen People’.

He was jealous about Aaron’s role that he genuinely believed was his (or perhaps anyone else in the Israelite community). Elitzafan, another cousin of Korah, was also appointed a leader of the Levite family called the Kehot.   Korah had greivances for sure, felt like an outsider and due to his jealous values, wanted more than personal riches could provide.

Another example of Korah’s attempts to discredit Israelite leadership were found in his views and personal  challenge to Moses (and G-d) regarding the Mitzvot of Tallit and specifically tizitzit.

The Torah instructs Jews (men) to wear tzitzit (fringes, tassels, or strings) on the corners of a four-corner garment. Essentially the tallit material can be any shape as long as there are four corners where tizitzit are secured.  Another notable detail is tekhelet – the blue (or turquoise) string as noted in the Torah:

“…and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner….. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments to be holy (ve-heyitem kedoshim) to your God. (Num. 15:37–41)

Are there any congregants wearing Tallit that would share or show us the blue threads in their Tizitzit? – Back to our D’var -so what did Korah do?

“…he assembled 249 men who were fit to be the heads of the Sanhedrin . . . and he dressed them in four-cornered garments (tallit) made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and said to him: “Does a four-cornered garment made entirely of blue wool require fringes (tzitzit) or is it exempt?”

Moses said to them: “It does require tzitzit.”

They laughed at him, attempted to discredit and humiliate him and asked: “Is it possible that a tallit made of some other material then one string of blue makes the tallit ritually fit and, yet, this tallit which is made entirely of blue is not already ritually fit?!”

To this Moses responds with certainty and importance that a tallit made of blue wool must have a blue cord on its fringes, as the Torah (Numbers 15:38) mandates.

So Korah’s tzitzit reasoning challenged G-d and Moses. While this was antithetical to Moses monotheistic  understanding and belief in this particular Torah commandment, his interpretation and practice of the Mitzvot was inconsistent. Further, while the larger community of Israelites omniscient understanding of commandments such as the wearing of tzitzit was broadly accepted and embraced,  Korah and his small group of followers believed that their ‘loose’ interpretation of tzitzit was as good, or better, than the actual Torah commandment/Mitzvot.

One need not be a prophet to foretell that this would not end well for Korah. He and his 249 dedicated sycophantic conspirators challenged Aarons devine appointment as Kohen Gadol.  To prove the authentic appointment of Aaron, Moses instructs the 249 men to bring ‘ketoret’   (incense) to the Holy Temple as a sacrifice to G-d and there it would be set alight to determine the worthiness of those seeking the priesthood.

As we know these men assembled with their plates of incense and ultimately died by fire or were swallowed in the earth.  Additionally, almost 15,000 Israelites who objected to the decimation of Korah were afflicted with a plague which, it is said, was stopped by Aarons devine intervention with incense and atonement.

My take on this unfortunate situation is that lively and consistent Talmud study, including discussion and debate is a better practice than any Torah commandment re-write.

So a parasha named after a wealthy wannabe leader of Israelites seems a bit extreme.  Why is this parasha important?  Here are two ideas.

First, we found out that jealousy does not get one very far in life. Jealousy got in the way of Korah’s plans. He was jealous of his cousins Moses, Aaron and Elitzafan for their leadership roles within the Israelite community.  Perhaps he believed his wealth was a catalyst or default for power and leadership in the community. He believed he was as worthy an individual as his cousins to lead the Jewish people though he obviously did not find favor through the leadership of the day.

Instead of ‘complaining’ or challenging what he thought was wrong about the practice of Mitzvot to G-d, had Korach approached Moses and Aaron with the virtues of gracious and selfless devotion to G-d he might have lived longer.  He could have also authentically connected with others appropriately, practiced humility/empathy, and shown up by being of service and making a difference in his life and those of the Israelites on a daily basis.  Perhaps these are the lessons G-d wants us to take away from this Parasha.

A second take-away from the parasha is explained best by Yehuda Altein, in Chabad.org. He notes that the physical practice of Mitzvot such as donning tallit is/are inclusive of spiritual intent.  While we could explore this further, for the sake of time, let’s ‘wrap this up’ by noting that it is often the intent in the performance of the Mitzvot that is thought to be a differentiating factor rather than simply ‘going through the motions’. Perhaps this was so for Moses and Aaron in fulfilling commandments from their souls as it was with the practice of wearing tallit and not simply the act of donning tzitzit.

Finally, American philosopher, historian and psychologist William James succinctly summarizes this final idea of the parasha (and life in general) with this quote, “Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”

Good Shabbos!