Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Korah 5756
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
June 22, 1996 5 Tammuz 5756
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
I head off this Thursday for Jerusalem, Moscow and Prague for the Seminary's very first leadership mission, with a strong delegation of Seminary supporters from across the country. I will return after the July 4th weekend and intend to write two or three Torah comments before my annual respite in Vermont for the month of August.
I hope to resume our class with Parashat B'reishit on October 12.
Have a wonderful summer.
Our parasha this week bears and perpetuates the name of Korah, the arch rebel against Moses's leadership. But Korah and his fellow Levites do not challenge Moses alone. They are joined by members of the tribe of Reuben (Numbers 16:1). The uprising is of a composite nature, hatched according to the midrash, our of proximity. Both the tribe of Reuben and the clan of Kohath were located on the southern side of the Tabernacle when the Israelite camp was in motion (Numbers 2:10, 3:29). In time, Korah's grousing must have incited the resentment latent in Jacob's firstborn, Reuben, at being displaced by Judah, whose tribe led the camp (Numbers 2:3). Thus, the dry lists which open the book of Numbers carry the seeds of later calamity. Without the instigation of Korah, the descendants of Reuben might have accepted their demotion, prompting the midrash to comment: "Woe to the wicked and woe to their neighbors!"
The convergence of multiple grievances, then, gives rise to a major rebellion. The Levites, with Korah at their head, claim an equal measure of holiness, entitling them to share power with Moses and Aaron. The Reubenites, under Dathan and Abiram, accuse Moses of failure to fulfill his political promise. Having led the people out of "a land flowing with milk and honey" only to die in the wilderness, Moses had betrayed their confidence (Numbers 16:13).
Again the midrash seizes a detail to turn a passing story into a lasting moral lesson. In anger at the charges by Dathan and Abiram, Moses protests to God: "I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them (Numbers 16:15)." From which Rabbi Yohanan draws the conclusion that Moses was a man of means. How so? Not that he drew no salary as leader of Israel. If that were the case, his claim never to have appropriated an ass that did not belong to him would have been self–evident. The point of his protest is that even with a salary he was free of greed, because he never allowed that salary to become immodest. A wealthy man, Moses had no need of a large remuneration for sustenance. His financial independence rendered him immune to corruption. He was not in public service to amass a private fortune.
R. Yohanan's insight clearly touches on the timely and crucial question of what are the proper qualifications for public office. Nor does he shy away from offering his own answer. It is the character of Moses which exemplifies R. Yohanan's conviction that "God's presence graces only a person endowed with bodily vigor, wealth, wisdom and humility." My purpose in citing his view is not to weary you by justifying each and every qualification mentioned, but rather to share with you the remarkable interpretation of it by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860–1941), in his beloved work, the Torah Temimah.
Epstein, an esteemed member of the Lithuanian rabbinic aristocracy and long–time resident of Pinsk who never occupied a pulpit, suggests that the only indispensable qualification for divine selection is humility. Indeed, it is the equivalent of all the others together. The reason for this is because traits like vigor, wealth and wisdom tend to inflate one's ego. People of exceptional talent or wealth are often insufferably arrogant. Not all instances of humility are alike, says Epstein. The modesty of a person with no accomplishments to his or her credit is warranted and natural. The modesty of someone who stands above the crowd is an act of overcoming. The demeanor of this man or woman, entitled and prone to feel superior, is marked by an admirable degree of self–control. This is the true force of the Torah's revelation that "Moses was a very humble man (Numbers 12:3)": despite his vast endowments, he did not lord it over anyone.
What excites me about Epstein's interpretation of R. Yohanan is not only its psychological profundity, but also its striking approximation of the view held by his older German contemporary, Nietzsche, the greatest psychologist of the 19th century. At the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he defined human nature with an unforgettable image: "Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss." The goal is to transcend that duality through self–mastery. Later in the same work, in words that recall Epstein, he declaimed: "Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want good from you. Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws." The paragons of virtue are not the naturally meek, but those humans who pulsate with passion and talent which they subdue in a lifetime of torment and triumph. Genuine morality is not natural.
That has always been the normative view of Judaism, enunciated in the rabbinic principle that "one who performs a deed because it is commanded is deemed more praiseworthy than one who does it voluntarily." Actions that come instinctively fail to stretch us. Growth results from reaching beyond ourselves. To walk the path of Jewish living calls for constant self–exertion till we internalize and embody the ideal. As Jews on a moral journey, the natural is not our point of departure, but the end point.
The psychic energy required to enlarge our capacity for good was best expressed in the Talmud by Yehuda ben Tema in a cascade of memorable images: "Be tough like a leopard, adroit like an eagle, swift like a deer and strong like a lion to perform the will of your Father in Heaven." And it is with this stirring call to ceaseless effort in the pursuit of self–mastery that Jacob ben Asher opens his majestic compendium of Jewish law, the Arbaah Turim, which he finished in Toledo in 1340. What an inspired choice! To become human is the culmination of super–human effort.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,