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Parashat Korah

June 14, 2007

By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ ~ William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Traditionally, Korah‘s revolt is interpreted as a conflict revolving around issues of religious power and authority. What qualifies a person to be a leader, and who, or what determines whether his leadership is to be seen as legitimate or otherwise? The midrashim describing the objections raised by Korah to Moses’ leadership suggest several different facets of this rebellion, and of his approach generally.

At the outset (and here I quote the plain meaning of the biblical text) he challenges Moshe and Aaron with a democratic argument: ‘For all the congregation are holy and God is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the people of God’ [Num 16:3]. Korah cultivated a populist, pseudo-democratic, egalitarian style. Perhaps he spoke in high-minded terms of universal love and caring; he may have pretended to be everyone’s ‘friend.’ Indeed, one of the midrashim portrays him as the defender of the poor and downtrodden, denouncing Moses for impoverishing a helpless widow with the numerous rules of tithes and priestly gifts, so that by the time all religious duties were discharged, there was nothing left to live on. Yet, we are told, Korah was himself extremely wealthy and enjoyed the good things of life.

A second midrash, which develops the proximity of this parashah to that of tzitzit, depicts Korah appearing in the camp with 250 of his followers, all wearing pure blue tallitot, but lacking the fringes themselves, so as to say ‘If one blue thread in the tallit is sufficient, surely an all-blue tallit is even better!’ What does this signify? Some suggest that this may again have been a demonstration of populism, of equality: all Israelites are ‘royalty,’ the deep blue known as tekehelet being a symbol of aristocracy.

But there may be another connection. The azure of the tzitzit, according to another midrash, carries deep theological associations. ‘The blue reminds one of the sea, the sea of the firmament, and the firmament of the Throne of Glory.’ The single thread of tekhelet serves as a subtle hint of this symbolism. Perhaps the 250 men dressed in all-blue tallitot were suggesting that they were already on the highest level of consciousness, as if to say, ‘We can jump directly to the highest spirituality, wearing the garments of holiness of the sublime. We are all mystical adepts; we don’t need the slow, arduous, indirect path to the Divine.’

But in so doing, they forget an important insight. The Talmud contrasts the ‘short but long path’ ‘- i.e., ‘shortcuts” that ultimately go nowhere ‘- to the “long but short path” ‘- the long, careful, life-long journey that ultimately leads to “the mountain of the Lord.” It seems to me that this lesson is applicable to some of today’s popular mystical schools.

But there is something else as well. In a third midrash, Korah posited a case in which a house is full of sacred books, but is lacking the requisite mezuzah, with its two brief sections from the Torah, posted at its entrance. Such a house has not fulfilled its halakhic requirement ‘- a situation which Korah ridicules as yet another example of the absurdity of Moses’ Torah. Yet in truth such a house might be described as one that celebrates learning, scholarship, erudition ‘- but the absence of the mezuzah symbolizes the lack of shape given to this learning by the mitzvot. The mezuzah, so to speak, contextualizes the Torah; by presenting in succinct language the ikkarei ha-emunah, the essential principles of the faith, it provides a framework within which to read and understand all the myriad ideas and stories and laws of this vast literature, thereby transforming pedantry or scholasticism into study as a living faith act. Without guiding principles as an Archimedean point, one can get lost as one attempts to ‘swim’ in the ‘sea of Talmud,’ in the broad sense of Jewish study.

We live in an age of great yearning for religious truth. The secular gods of the last century (as long since observed by Daniel Bell in his The End of Ideology) are all dead: socialism, liberalism, science, universal secular humanism, nationalism. Liberal capitalism is regnant in our world, albeit not as a value system, but as a reality to which all must adjust themselves. Hence many people seeking something else beyond their mundane everyday concerns in the old truths of tradition.

At times this yearning is filled by charismatic leaders ‘- of the type which I can imagine as being similar in spirit to Korah of old. Yet there is a grave danger in the overwrought emotionalism of the religious life based on such charisma. Moreover, a person who displays warmth, intensity, and passion can win over the crowds ‘- but at times may prove to be unscrupulous, manipulative, and unethical, wreaking great harm in the lives of the individuals who follow him ‘- as shown by sad experience of recent years. Perhaps the Korah story may serve as a warning of the dangers of bad leadership, and the need for care and vigilance in choosing one to follow.