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Parashat Korach 5776 — 07/09/2016

Parashat Korach 5776 — 07/09/2016

Bamidbar 16:1-18:32

Most of the commentary on parashat Korach tries to explain Korach’s motivations, and the motivation of the men who followed him. R. Steinsaltz takes a different approach in this essay – he inquires into Moshe Rabbeinu’s motivation for the unusual way he handled this particular situation:

This is not the first time that people quarrel with Moses; he had dealt with similar conflicts several times already. …But this case is different. The rebellion here is led by respected people: Korah, Datan and Aviram, and another group of tzaddikim – leaders of Israel, 250 princes of the community. … And yet, strangely, Moses’ reaction is much sharper than in other cases. in the other quarrels: … “Moses became very angry … If these men die the common death of all men … then Gd has not sent me. But if Gd creates something entirely new, so that the ground opens its mouth.’ you shall know that these men have spurned Gd” (16:16-30). Moses wants the earth to swallow them up, which is no ordinary punishment. He wants Gd to implement a supernatural event for this purpose alone. …

This question appears in the literature and is even alluded to in Pirkei Avot, where it says that one of the ten things that were created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight is the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korah and his followers. Moses calls for something that is beyond the natural order to intervene in the dispute and decide it. What exactly is Moses so angry about? What made this dispute different from all the others? (My red highlight)

It turns out that this was not simply a rebellion against Moshe’s leadership. It is a much more fundamental point – an epistemological point – how do we know that the Torah that Gd gave Moshe Rabbeinu is true? In fact, how do we know that Gd gave Moshe the Torah at all, that he didn’t make it up on his own?

This is a very serious matter, because it relates not only to the people’s perception of Moses’ role as the instrument of Gd, but also to a time and a place that are more essential and important. Before the revelation at Mt. Sinai, Gd says to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak with you. And then they will believe in you forever” (Ex 19:9). We rely on Moses not as a secondary source, not as an additional element on account of his being a great and wise man. Faith in Moses as Gd’s prophet is fundamental to our faith, and it is not for naught that Maimonides establishes this as one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith.

He [Moses] sends them [Korach and his crew] to Sheol because they are impinging upon a deep and basic point; they are undermining the foundation of the Torah’s message.

The reason that belief in Moshe’s prophecy is so important, is that it underpins the entire project of Torah. If Moshe Rabbeinu is speaking on his own, then Gd’s word is simply not Gd’s word. It may be inspired by Gd, but it is at very least Gd’s word as filtered through the personality and intellect of Moshe. In that case we might give it very great weight, due to Moshe’s great stature as a “great and wise man,” but we would not give Torah the absolute weight that our tradition assigns it, as the unfiltered word of Gd. In other words, for knowledge to have an absolute basis, it must come from an absolute source. Korach’s problem was that he challenged the authenticity of that source. Without an absolute source, we are thrown back on the vagaries of our own intellects and our own perceptions, both of which we know full well are fallible. This is why Moshe had such a strong reaction to this particular challenge, and not to the others.

Of course we face the same problem ourselves, every day, and without the benefit of having stood ourselves at Mt. Sinai, nor with the benefit of having a leader who “spoke with Gd face to face” (unless you believe in Ted Cruz). We may “believe with perfect faith that the Torah that is in our hands today is the Torah which was given to Moshe Rabbeinu” (Rambam, 8th Principle of the Faith), but we are also aware that Torah has many layers of meaning, multiple allusions and various ways of reading the actual words, not to mention words that nobody knows exactly what they mean any more, odd grammatical constructions, and information that is just left out. How do we fill in the gap between the “unfiltered Word of Gd” that we believe we have in Torah, and our actual beliefs and actions?

To a certain extent, we rely on our tradition. We have an extensive oral tradition (which has now been committed to writing) that fills in many of the gaps. For example, the Torah tells us to slaughter meat “as I have shown you.” That is not a big help when you’re raising animals for food. Instead, we have to turn to tractate Chullin of the Talmud. The Mishayot of the tractate record the traditional knowledge of what Gd “showed” Moshe. The gemara explains the Mishnah, in particular why there are differences of opinion in the mishnah and how those differences are to be resolved, or, if they cannot be resolved, which opinion is to be followed in practice.

Now anyone who has ever looked at a page of Talmud knows that there is a lot of controversy and difference of opinion among the Sages, often on very fundamental points of understanding. And nobody disputes the fact that both the Mishnah and the Talmud are the redacted record of discussions, and sometimes simple majority votes, among the Sages. In other words, other than certain statements that are recorded as having been transmitted to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, there is no question in anybody’s mind of the Talmud’s being revealed wisdom – it is not. Of course this goes even more so for the commentaries on the Talmud, and the later Rabbinic literature. Note that I am not casting aspersions on our tradition by any means, as I hope the following paragraphs will make clear. I am only pointing out that nobody claims the same authority for any part of the tradition as we assign to Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy.

Where does this leave us in our day and age? There is a concept that is relevant here. It is called da’at Torah – the Torah’s mind/way of thinking. There is a verse (Deut 17:9) that commands us to go to the judges that “will be in that time.” The Rabbis ask who else would we go to? The homiletical answer is that we don’t try going to the judges of a previous generation, because we think they were on a higher level than the guy we grew up with. The reason for this is not simply that we have no other choice. It hinges on the fact that the judges we have in our time have spent many years steeping themselves in the traditional literature, learning how to read it and to understand it from their teachers, who in turn learned it from their teachers, and so on. In so doing, we hope that they will have imbibed da’at Torah – that they are capable of looking at questions from the Torah’s point of view. And Torah’s point of view is Gd’s point of view. This is not to say that we have access to the same level of intimacy with the Divine that Moshe had, but that certain members of the community can approach it by raising their level of consciousness through all the procedures that are laid out in the tradition.

How do we know if someone, if anyone, has reached the level of da’at Torah. This is a vexing question, and I can only suggest the answer that has worked for me. It’s a scientific test. You see if someone’s advice works out for you consistently – if (s)he says, “Do X and your experience will be Y,” and you do X and your experience is Y, or at least you can see that you’re moving in the direction of Y, then that person probably has something on the ball and is worth listening to. If the X and the Y are in the realm of spiritual growth, where most of us are pretty clueless, then all the more so, it seems like it would be useful to follow their teachings. This advice doesn’t have to be in the realm of great miracles either, it can be very practical advice. Eventually, as a person’s track record grows, and they start to make more and more sense to you, your trust in them will grow. On the path of spiritual growth, once one has found a teacher who has trodden the path himself, it pays to follow him up the mountain.

Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Our haftarah describes the coronation of King Saul by the prophet Shmuel. It is really about Shmuel’s being rejected by the people in favor of having a king “like all the other nations around us.” The connection to the parashah is the revolt of the people against their Divinely-appointed leadership; the specific connection is that both Shmuel and Moshe Rabbeinu contend that they have taken no personal advantage from their positions, even in cases where it would have been permissible.

Shmuel was consecrated to serve Gd at the Tabernacle in Shiloh from age 2. His prophecy was at such a level that it was compared to Moshe’s and Aharon’s together! Yet the people ask for a king. Gd comforts Shmuel by telling him that the people are really rejecting Gd and His rule over them, of which Shmuel is only the agent, and not Shmuel himself.

Shmuel is said by our Sages to have merited the same level of prophecy as Moshe Rabbeinu, only the generation was unworthy. Or, in the words of Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth!” What does it mean that “the generation was unworthy”? In one sense, it can mean that the accumulated stresses and strains from a society which is living life out of sync with Gd’s will creates a kind of spiritual “smokescreen” through which even the most enlightened cannot see. Or, it might mean that Gd cannot reveal a level of truth to the prophet that is too far above the heads of his audience. Our Sages say that Torah could only be revealed to a people that ate manna every day. That is, when the people had the presence of Gd virtually at their doorstep every day, they could receive the Truth in its unfiltered form. Later generations apparently had fallen from this level. Their truth had to be filtered through the imaginative faculty of their prophets. Therefore the prophets themselves, despite their own personal worth, could not be given the same level of revelation. Nowadays we don’t have any prophets at all. That is why we pray every day for the arrival of Mashiach!