Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Korah

Parashat Korah

June 23, 2017

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

Much ink has been spilled on trying to explain what motivated Korach and his followers to rebel against Moses and Aaron, which is the main story in this week’s Torah portion. Was it jealousy, envy, desire for honor or power, dissatisfaction with Moses’ leadership, or maybe all of the above?

Interestingly, as if the above are not enough, we also find other explanations of a more halakhic nature playing a role in the dispute between Korach and Moses. The Midrash (Midrash Tanhuma, beginning of the parashah), part of which is quoted by Rashi (ad loc.), suggests that Korach began his dispute with Moses by summoning the Sanhedrin (i.e. the religious leadership at the time) and asking them to rule on whether a tallit that is entirely dyed with tekheilet (a kind of bluish-purple dye) still needs tzitzit consisting of only one tekheilet fringe on each corner. When the issue was brought before Moses, he responded in the affirmative. This ruling brought on Korach’s derision — if a tallit that is entirely white requires only one tekheilit fringe per corner, surely it should not require such if the entire garment is made of tekheilet. This derisive response on the part of Korach was meant to question Moses’ knowledge and judgment of Torah law, something that we don’t see any real indication of in the plain text of the narrative.

The above might have been motivated by the Rabbis’ desire to connect the beginning of Korach with the end of the previous sedra, namely Shelah, which deals with the mitzvah of tzitzit. However, the Midrash continues with another dispute between the two antagonists. If a house is filled with many holy books does it still need a mezuzah on its doorpost? Moses responded again in the affirmative, and Korach, in a similar vein, ridiculed his ruling. If a house has no holy books, a mezuzah that has only two parshiyot (paragraphs from the Torah) is sufficient, then a house filled with Torah works should logically not require a mezuzah. We have here a further effort by Korach to put down the Israelite leader through belittling his religious or halakhic rulings.

What lay behind the Midrash’s effort to seek a different kind of explanation for Korach’s discontent and that of his followers when the peshat (plain meaning) points to a political or leadership conflict? Perhaps the solution to this question lies in a well-known philosophical argument between two schools of thought regarding the rationality of mitzvot, an issue that dominated many of the Jewish medieval scholars, but which already had roots in the Talmudic and Midrashic period.

The issue revolved around the question to what extent one should try to find reason in the mitzvot that G-d gave us. With only a few exceptions the Torah itself does not provide a rationale for the commandments. We are told to follow them because they were given to us by the L-rd and that they would make us a holy nation. This did not stop many rabbis in the Talmud and even more so in the medieval period from attempting to find reason in each law. A lively debate ensued between the rationalists (the most noteworthy being Maimonides) and the traditionalists over the wisdom of such an effort. The latter argued that antinomianism would result from such an enterprise, for by trying to explain the law we would restrict it and maybe even short-circuit it. We would limit the law only to such cases where our rational explanation(s) apply. The former, however, argued that seeking an explanation would enhance the law in our eyes and make it more palatable to rational thinking Jews. Moreover, the Law by its very nature coming from a rational G-d, must similarly be rational.

The Midrash took this theological dispute and projected it back onto the conflict between Korach and Moses. Korach didn’t seek only political leadership; he was among the “rationalists” and wanted to undermine the Law though his use of so-called reason. Moses, however, was the loyal devotee of the traditional school, and any effort to try to explain the laws would lead to false halakhic conclusions. Who was right? Obviously, according to this Midrash, Moses’ approach affirmed by G-d won the debate. Rabbinic history, however, is more ambivalent – and to this day most of are still seeking in one way or another to find rhyme and reason in the laws we are bidden to observe. The debate goes on.

Have a Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.