D’var Torah – Parshat Korah

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CheslerWhile to some the unpredictability of our election year seems unprecedented, I am reminded of Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1968, in which White argued that each month that year brought with it something both unpredictable and unforeseen.  January brought the Tet offensive, a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong but an astounding political victory.  February saw Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s surprising second-place victory in the New Hampshire primary [remembered by many as a victory, rather than the unexpectedly close second that it actually was].  March saw President Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election.  And so on until the end of the year.  It was a year of political assassinations [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June] and turmoil here [the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August] and abroad [the Paris student riots in May].  Looking back one wonders how there was time to catch one’s breath.

This political year has also been unpredictable.  There has been Donald Trump’s defeat of the largest array of contenders for the presidency in recent memory and Senator Bernie Sanders’ vigorous campaign.  There has been the vote in Britain to leave the European Union and the reaction to that vote of those who favored it.

For us, Jews and Ramahniks, amidst all the unpredictability we have camp and Torah, forces of stability and constancy.  Even though camp is different each year, not only new campers and staff, but also new buildings and new programs, part of what makes camp so special is its ability to assimilate all the changes so that it seems in some ways each summer that this is how it always has been.  In my own life, I have been coming to camp since 2000, and this year my wife, Carol, and I have graduated to New Staff Housing, since this summer marked the first time we came to camp without any children in the bunk with us.  What I find surprising is how in some ways it seems as if we have always lived there.

Our parashah this week, parashat Korah, takes its name from the villain, rather than a hero.  Korah, a cousin of Moses, takes issue with his leadership and that of Aaron.  He is particularly vexed, in the rabbinic understanding, because his family has been overlooked for honor.  As Jacob Milgrom notes in his JPS Commentary:

According to the rabbis, Korah maintains that since the sons of Amram, the eldest of Kohath, assumed the leadership of the people (Moses) and the priesthood (Aaron), the position of the head of the family should have gone to himself, the eldest of the second son of Kohath. Instead, it was given to Elizaphan son of Uzziel, the youngest son of Kohath, . . .

The opening verse of the Torah Reading presents us with an interesting grammatical problem, lost in the translation.  In the Hebrew it is va-yiqah Korah, “And Korah took”, without specifying an object.  In the NJPS translation the verse reads: “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself,” with a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.  Rashi, following the Targum, the Aramaic translation, emphasizes that Korah set himself apart.  This is not unlike the explanation given for the phrase Avram Ha-Ivri, in Sefer Bereshit , the Book of Genesis [14:13].  In Genesis Rabbah, three explanations are given for the work ha-ivri, which we translate as Hebrew: 1) descendant of Eber, the great-grandson of Shem, Noah’s son; 2) from across the river, since Avram came from Babylonia, and 3) that he took himself to one side, as the first monotheist, separating himself from everyone else.

The question these comments raise is how do we know that Avraham did the right thing by separating himself, whereas Korah did the wrong thing?  After the fact, of course we know, but in real time, how was an Israelite supposed to know that Korah was wrong?  It seems the clue is in the nature of Korah’s questioning of Moshe’s authority.  In the Torah, Moshe berates him for not being satisfied that as a Levite he has an exalted state among the Israelites, he wants more.  In the rabbinic imagination, he asks Moshe if a four-cornered garment that is entirely blue, still requires tzitzit with a thread of blue.  When he is told yes, he responds, a single blue thread exempts a garment from blue, but a garment entirely blue cannot exempt one from the requirement?  Then he asks if a room full of Torah books needs to have a mezuzah; when he is answered yes, he makes the same kind of comment as before.  While the questions themselves may be legitimate [frankly, they do not seem so different from other questions one finds in rabbinic literature], Korah’s additional comment enables us to realize that he is more than curious, he wants to attack the authority by exposing it to ridicule.  Korah’s argument would have been easier to accept if it were not so narrowly a matter of self-interest.  For, he does not challenge the elevation of his family above the average Israelite, but only that his is not elevated enough.  It is as if in a hereditary monarchy one of the male relatives in the line of succession only questions his position in the line of succession rather than why his family should be singled out at all.

As we look forward to the election this November, the voters among us will be making an important choice, for the differences between the candidates in temperament and policy seem so large.  As we consider whom to vote for, we do well to take the lesson from Korah, that the one who steps forward to replace the current leader demonstrate that his/her concern is truly for the welfare of the community, rather than what is only best for the candidate.  Is the campaign about building up the country or about tearing down the other candidate?  We can all agree, I think, that our hope for the election is that the winner truly is the best one for our country, regardless of for whom we will actually vote.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Barry J. Chesler