How did the Earth Get Involved in Politics?

Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy –Walter Benjamin, The Destructive Character

This week’s perasha is concerned with the revolt of Korach, a leading Levite, against the desert leadership of Moshe and Aharon. The story is a bit complicated; there seems to be more than one revolt, with more than one ensuing outcome–Korach and his crew are swallowed up by a gaping crater that opens in the ground, while the 250 would be usurpers of the high priesthood are consumed by an incense driven conflagration. I will not attempt to unravel all the difficulties in this text; I am concerned with essentially two pivotal matters, as we will see. At any rate, I believe there is more here than merely post-revolution factional rivalries, as those of the Mensheviks versus Bolsheviks, that Michael Walzer reads into the Korach narrative.

The text itself , in verse 16:3, states that Korach and his crew gathered before Moshe and Aharon, arguing:

You have taken upon yourselves too much; for the masses are all holy and within them is the Lord, (and if I may paraphrase into New Yorkese) Who made you such a big shot over Gd’s congregation?

The Midrash and Zohar add an entire series of issues into what appears to be a dynastic battle between Moshe and Aharon’s clan versus that of Korach’s for tribal and national domination. The Midrash Rabba states that Korach took a talit made entirely of blue material and claimed ‘should this all blue talit require an additional blue fringe to be proper? Does a study hall full of books require a further small supplementary text on the door (a mezuzah) to be acceptable?’ The Zohar adds that Korach had problems with the Sabbath and Torah as well. Why do the midrashim need to amplify Korach’s dissension from Moshe and Aharon? Why turn a political disagreement into a heretical faction?

Furthermore, perhaps Cecil B. DeMille was on to something? In his epic film, “The Ten Commandments,” DeMille decided that a better use of the punishment involving swallowing sinners into the ground would be as a consequence of the golden calf, where the people regressed back into frank idolatry. Is there a reason that this supernatural type of punishment should have been invoked after what appears to be a mere political battle, rather than after a much worse situation such as the golden calf? Our survey of the literature first, followed by my own ‘contemporary’ attempt at reading this episode, will need to answer these two questions:

1. Why the transformation of Korach’s revolt into a religious heresy, and 2. why did there need to be such a dramatic Divine intervention in specifically this episode?

First of all, let us examine the argument of Korach that the text cites. Two common approaches are found in the Hassidic commentators about Korach’s argument. One, that what he said, about all the congregation being holy, is a true statement. As R. Tzadok Hacohen puts it: if it wasn’t in some way true (that the people are all holy), it wouldn’t have been cited in the Torah. Two, Despite the objective veracity of the comment he made, Korach himself didn’t actually believe it.

So what is the true component of Korach’s statement? According to the Tiferet Shemuel, once the people received the Torah, then all had equal access to the text, thus seemingly, in the ideal situation, there would be no need for a ‘ spiritual leader’, a ‘rav’. The Tiferet Shelomo reads Moshe’s answer, in 16:9, where Moshe opens with ‘a small thing to you’, with the ‘to you’ meaning that the reply to them was in their own message (which begins “rav lachem”): this is proof that if anyone needs a rav, a spiritual leadership, it is you folks’. But in theory in an ideal future the people could reach such a high level that they wouldn’t need Moshe and Aharon.

The Yismach Yisrael reads in a similar fashion. He argues that once the Torah was given, it was the responsibility of the people to interpret, to bring Torah to daily human life, and was not given to angels or supermen. Korach was arguing, from the BT Bava Metzia 49:, that Moshe was more like an angel than a man, he was not the appropriate ‘interpretive’ leader for the people, rather, Korach, with his “common sense arguments”, was the proper leader. What were his common sense arguments? His “common sense” arguments are those cited by the Midrash, that an all blue talit shouldn’t need a blue supplemental fringe, nor a house full of books a mezuzah, which are more subversions than “common sense”. Like the Tiferet Shelomo, the Yismach Yisrael finds the response in 16:9- The term used, “michem”, from your status, O Levites, you know the answer: Just as your chosen situation is not the result of your innate qualities or gifts, but rather was a gift through divine decision, so too Gd wanted Moshe to serve as conduit by which the people receive the Torah at that time. A similar idea is found in the Bet Yaakov, who explains Korach’s argument as not being in the sphere of hermeneutics, of interpretation as per the Yismach Yisrael, but in the realm of praxis. If everyone is perfected by receiving the Torah, just like the talit that already is all blue, then what good is served by further work, such as adding a fringe, or doing any mitzvah as an activity? All praxis, to Korach, is superfluous, once the ‘idea’ is understood. Hence Moshe’s challenge to the rebels: what is greater, personal holiness or praxis, as exemplified by the ketoret, the ritual incense. The ketoret episode teaches that practice is not abandoned when some ideas are grasped, the vehicle is not abandoned, as it were, the act encodes more than any one reading.

The Mei Hashiloach, and his disciple, R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, as we noted earlier, take Korach’s statement about the holiness of the congregation very seriously. To them, Korach’s statement is absolutely correct. “The people are holy and within them are Gd”. R. Tzadok feels that ultimately, Korach will ultimately be redeemed as a result of is statement. His statement is true, but not yet! At the end of days, when the world is rectified, as the BT Taanit 31. states, Gd will form a machol, a circle-dance, as it were, with the righteous. Why a circle, asks the Mei Hashiloach? Because a circle is made up of an equal set of radii to all points on its perimeter; that is, all will have identical and equal access to Gd. In fact, points out R. Tzadok (in Tzidkat Hatzadik 65), the 250 who sacrificed the incense at the cost of their lives, did so because they were so committed to the goal of universal spiritual perfection that they were not willing to live in a world in which this was no longer the case (for a brief moment, after Sinai and before the golden calf, it was the case… ) and because of their dedication to the ideal state of human perfection, their censers were used to make the copperplate covering of the incense altar in the Mishkan.

But if the statement and the ideal were correct, where was the sin of Korach? The sin of Korach was that as true as the isolated statement may be, Korach himself did not believe it. Virtually every textual reference to Korach has been used to prove that Korach was disingenuous, saying positive things to gain the admiration of the crowd, while at heart after something different entirely, as in the Benjamin quote above. The Kedushat Levi notes the the initial verb used of Korach, ‘Vayikach’, that he took, illustrates the problem. The Kedushat Levi explains that there are two types of tzadikkim in the world- those who only care that Gd’s purposes be accomplished, not caring who it is that gets the credit, and the other kind being those who want the credit. Thus the language used here is of ‘taking’, as in ‘taking credit’: Korach wanted recognition more than he wanted truth; had he only wanted Gd’s will to be done he wouldn’t have cared if Moshe was in charge as long as the holy work was done. The Kol Simcha also catches this note from the word vayikach, which he sees (following the Midrash Rabba) as ‘fighting words’- and when Korach appends to his statement regarding the people’s holiness that ‘why should Moshe be such a big shot’, he revealed that in fact, what Korach really wanted was for himself to be the big shot as opposed to Moshe.

The Shem M’Shemuel, who also argues that Korach’s statement is true, and should have been actualized at Sinai, had the people not sinned shortly afterwards with the golden calf, argues that Korach was positioning himself as the “populist” candidate, the man of the people, as opposed to Aaron. Thus the trial by incense. The root word Ketoret, incense, in Aramaic is also the word for binding together (similar to the , much like the root of the word for religion (religio, from the same root as the word ligate, to tie together), thus, successful offering of the incense would reveal who truly has the ability to bring the people together (and as we know from multiple texts, Aaron was an individual with great love for the people). Furthermore, the ketoret itself is representative of the people as a variegated totality, with its inclusion of the helbonah, which traditionally is held to not be very fragrant, and thus symbolic of the sinners within the community, yet, it is a crucial component of the incense when used in combination. Thus, the one who is appropriate to offer the ketoret is the one who has the capacity to bring all the disparate elements of the community together. Critical to our later argument is the difference between bringing together different types of individuals and looking at ‘the people’ as the ‘masses’.

Thus, in our review of the sources, we have touched upon several themes regarding the revolt of Korach, as reflected in the Hasidic commentators. We have seen a defense of the core argument regarding the holiness of the people, problems with the way in which the argument is actually used, and the appropriateness of the trial by incense. However, we have not touched upon the reasons why the Midrash chose to amplify Korach’s battle for Levite succession meaning of the denouement, the rather violent miracle in which the earth opens up and swallows the rebels. As we asked above, why here, and not, say, after the golden calf, where divine intervention would seem to make more sense?

Before embarking upon my own reading of this, there is a poetic reading of interest, in the weekly krovoth of Yannai, the sixth century poet of Byzantine Eretz Yisrael, worthy of note. He attributes the choice of punishment to a literary tit for tat:

Ya’an gevoha gevoha paku

Mata Mata ha’amaku

(As higher for position did they strive,

deeper into the earth did they dive)

Literary resolutions not withstanding, in order to gain an understanding of this matter, I propose that we review the way ideas take hold in societies, the way in which societies themselves are constructed and legitimated. Peter Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy, is an adaptation of the early Marxian concepts regarding commodification into a sociology of religion. Societies, he argues, are the result of a dialectical interaction between the people and their activities in the world:

The fundamental dialectic process of society consists of three moments, or steps. These are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Only if these three moments are understood together can an empirically adequate view of society be maintained. Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves . Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.

In other words, certain historical, economic, and sociological factors cause a certain type of person to become, say, a bus driver for Egged. Over time, the stereotype of what an ‘Egged bus driver’ is supposed to be takes on a life of its own, and then, future potential Egged bus drivers train themselves to behave a certain way in order to fit in and truly play the role they have chosen for themselves; a stereotype becomes an archetype.

These stereotypes are, of course, subject to alteration. Economic, political, and other changes can lead to alternative approaches to the description which then enter the cycle of reification as described by Berger above. This is natural, and the way that human culture evolves. However, there are certain institutions to whom changes of this sort could lead to an undermining of the entire enterprise. The royal houses of Europe, in order to maintain the facticity of their rule, needed to invent the divine rule of kings in order to suppress the opposition from asking uncomfortable questions about their eligibility for rule (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Xd_zkMEgkI).

This then, is a potential explanation of the choice of punishment in the Korach episode. Whereas the golden calf episode was at the core a theological controversy, theological argument was the appropriate response. However, in this seeming political controversy, no amount of argument could ever entirely justify and legitimate the rule of one man over another. Certainly were there newspapers at the time, they would have presented their reasons for support of one candidate over another, and perhaps some would have sided with one party or the other. Thus, here, more than in any other case, there would be a need for divine intervention in order to legitimate the political order. And not just the political order. For the entire mission of the exodus was at stake, and this is what the Midrashists properly sensed. If doubt could be assigned regarding Moshe and Aharon’s legitimacy as leaders, then doubt could be assigned to all aspects of the new law, the Torah.And there was no way that Moshe could have proved this by rational argument, or any type of argument, as opposed to idolatry, which is subject to theological debate, at least. Legitimation of the leadership system had to come from without, dramatically, or it would be eternally controversial (i.e., certain elections decided in Florida…)

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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