Between the Lines—Korah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

 

Numbers Rabbah 18:3

ויקח קרח מה כתיב למעלה מן הענין (במדבר טו) ועשו להם ציצית קפץ קרח ואמר למשה טלית שכולה תכלת מהו שתהא פטורה מן הציצית א״ל חייבת בציצית א״ל קרח טלית שכולה תכלת אין פוטרת עצמה ארבע חוטין פוטרות אותה בית מלא ספרים מהו שיהא פטור מן המזוזה אמר לו חייב במזוזה א״ל כל התורה כולה רע״ה פרשיות אינה פוטרת את הבית פרשה אחת שבמזוזה פוטרת את הבית אמר לו דברים אלו לא נצטוית עליהן ומלבך אתה בודאן

 

"Now Korah . . . betook himself . . . [to rise up against Moses . . . ]" (Num. 16:1-2) What is written prior to this passage? " . . . Instruct them to make themselves fringes [on the corners of their garments through the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.]" (Num. 15:38)

Korah jumped up and asked Moses: "If a tallit [were to be made] entirely of blue, would it [not] be exempted from [the mitzvah of] fringes?" Moses answered him: "It requires fringes [nonetheless to fulfill the commandment.]" Korah retorted: "A tallit that is entirely blue cannot exempt itself from this obligation, yet the four blue threads [among the fringes] do fulfill it?!? Would a house full of Torah scrolls be exempt from [the mitzvah of] mezuzah?" [Moses] told him: "It requires a mezuzah [nonetheless to fulfill the commandment.]" [Korah again] retorted: "An entire Torah scroll, which contains two hundred forty-five columns, cannot exempt a house [from needing a mezuzah], yet one column in a mezuzah fulfills [the commandment upon] a house?!? These are things which you have not been commanded, but you are inventing them out of your own mind!"

The antagonist of this week's Torah portion rises and falls, according to the midrash above, when the logical fallacies in his argument reveal his true intentions. Korah, leading a revolt against Moses and Aaron, challenges the brothers' leadership as detached from the Israelite people. Korah states that " . . . all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation?" (Num. 16:3). While this may seem at first blush like a legitimate grievance, the midrash shows how Korah denies both the holiness of our symbols and their ability to represent the whole of our community.

In order to appreciate this rabbinic interpretation of Korah's rebellion, we must first grasp how it hinges on the concept of smichud ha-parshiyyot, or "the adjoining of biblical passages." Our ancient Sages often derived special significance from the adjacent location of otherwise unrelated verses, an approach that leads to the imagined dialogue between Korah and Moses regarding the commandment of tzitzit (ritual "fringes"). Rather than piously inquiring how to fulfill this divine decree, Korah treats his duty with disdain by pointing to hypothetical situations that make the commandments seem absurd and irrelevant. This reading applies Korah's argument with Moses and Aaron—that these leaders neither represent the people nor God's authority—as the logic he might have used to question how ritual objects like tzitzit or a mezuzah function as symbols for God and Torah. Instead, Korah accuses Moses of "inventing them out of [his] own mind," revealing the actual nature of his dispute. This midrash depicts Korah first as conflating the part with the whole and then as denying these commandments as fiction entirely. If Korah were really in pursuit of truth and holiness, he might have seen that tekhelet and mezuzah, like Moses, become holy because they stand apart from the whole that they represent. That is the deeper meaning of sacredness, which points to the uniqueness of God and of Israel.