This Week's Torah Portion: A Challenger Confronts Moses and Aaron (Part 37)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.



Dëvar Torah – Parashath Qorach (numbers XVI, 1-XVIII, 32)

In last week’s parasha, we saw two consequences of an erroneous theory concerning the derech hateva‘, the “natural order” — the theory that Israel’s re-entry into the natural scheme of things misled the spies to report lëshon hara‘ concerning the land of Israel.

The resultant extended sojourn in the desert (to allow the generation of the Exodus to die out) brought about such despair among that generation as to cause them to abandon the Sinai covenant, which resulted in Tzëlafchad’s self-sacrificial and tragic act.

This week’s parasha discusses another, more pernicious consequence. That the two parashoth are connected is suggested not only by their proximity, but by the Talmud’s interpretation of Genesis XLIX, 6: “May my soul not come into their secret, may my honor not rejoice in their community.” The first clause refers to the spies and the second to Qorach and his group (cf. Sanhedrin 109b).

Who was this Qorach after whom this parasha is named? What was this incident?

The parasha tells us of a dispute which arose in Israel in which a certain Qorach of the tribe of Lévi convinced some 250 prominent men to follow him in a challenge to the authority of Moshe. And Aharon. “You have taken too much on yourselves,” he declared, “For the whole community is holy and Ha-Shem is among them. Why should you raise yourselves up over the community of Ha-Shem?” (XVI, 3). The dispute led to a showdown between Moshe and Aharon on the one hand, and Qorach’s group on the other, which ended with the latter being swallowed up by the earth.

However, the text tells us nothing of the nature or issue of the dispute. For that, we must turn to the Oral Torah.

The last four verses of last week’s parasha discuss the commandment of tzitzith. This requires that a four-cornered garment be hung with tzitziyoth (“fringes”) constructed with four strands of wool passed though a hole at the corner of the garment such that there are eight ends hanging from the hole, six of which are white and one dyed a light blue called tëchéleth. These are then wound and knotted five times with the ends allowed to hang free. The four-cornered garment on which the tzitziyoth are hung is called a tallith, and the obligation is to wear one every waking moment.

The Midrash Tanchuma explains the dispute as arising from Qorch’s suspicious jealousy of Moshe. Qorach imagined that he had been cheated out of a leadership position by Moshe and Aharon, reasoning as follows: Qorach’s father Yitzhar was the second of the four sons of Qëhath ben Lévi. The others were, in order, ‘Amram, Chevron, and ‘Uzziel (cf. Exodus VI, 18). The two sons of the eldest brother, ‘Amram, quite naturally achieved prominence, Moshe being the virtual “king” of Israel, and Aharon the kohén gadol (“high priest”). As the eldest son of the oldest brother, Qorach expected this imaginary “seniority system” to award him the next “plum,” the nësi’uth (‘residency”) of the Qëhathi family. Instead, Moshe appointed the middle son of the youngest of the four brothers, Elitzafan ben ‘Uzziel, to the position (Number III, 30).

Qorach was outraged that he had been passed over for this position, completely ignoring the fact that none of these appointments had been made at Moshe’s discretion. This was the source of Qorach’s animus against Moshe; it can be sensed in Qorach’s own words cited above. But what argument did Qorach use to persuade those other 250 men?

The midrash goes on to tell us that he distributed tallithoth which were dyed entirely tëchéleth. In front of the group thus attired, Qorach asked Moshe if such tallithoth still needed a blue thread to render them kosher. When Moshe answered “Yes,” Qorach and his friends heaped scorn on him. “Is it possible that a non-tëchéleth tallith can be rendered kosher by a single blue string, while a tallith which is entirely tëchéleth does not make itself kosher?!?”

The 13th century sage known as the Ramban notes that this could only have happened in the wake of the incident of the spies. Fueled by their bitter disappointment and resentment at being left to die in the desert, these otherwise great men fell for Qorach’s propaganda, which skillfully and, I believe, deliberately missed the point.

The purpose of tzitzith is not to render kosher a square garment. The tzitziyoth serve as an aide mémoire of the 613 commandments of the Torah. The gimatriya or numerical value of the word tzitzith is 600, as Rashi explains; the eight ends make 608, and the five knots add up to 613. The tëchéleth thread, sky-blue in color, is intended to remind us of the heavenly source of these commandments (cf. Even ‘Ezra ad loc.). The garment is only a facilitator, enabling one to wear them constantly, to look at them and be conscious of them, and from them of one’s duties and obligations.

Not by chance was this commandment enumerated after the parasha of the spies, nor by chance did Qorach pick this one to ridicule. Re-read the verses in parashath Shëlach: the tzitzith is such that to look at it is to remind oneself of Ha-Shem’s demands on us. But how it serves to remind the wearer is part of the Oral Torah, and requires a teacher, a rebbe, a Moshe.

By destroying through ridicule the connection between the Oral Torah’s propagators and its heavenly origins, Qorach was promulgating a “protestant” revolution, a scant two years after the Sinai revelation. Hear his words, Kol ha‘eida kullam qëdoshim: the whole of the community are holy, Moshe; our intentions are honorable — let each one study the Torah for himself, find his own insight. Maddua tithnassë’u ‘al qëhal Ha-Shem? Who gave you a monopoly on truth? By what right do you tell us qëdoshim what the Torah does and does not mean?

The Rabbis call Qorach’s dispute a nachloqeth she’éyn sofah lëhithqayyém (cf. Avoth V, 17), a dispute which is not destined to last. True, as we learn from this parasha: but it is a machloqeth, which breaks out anew over and over again. The source is always the hurt pride or thwarted ambition of some individual, a Tzadoq, an ‘Anan ben David, an Abraham Geiger. The result is an attack on the Torah and its expounders out of “principle.” A “movement” of Tzëduqim (“Sadducees”), Qëra’im (“Karaites”), or Reformers. The end of the dispute is not usually so dramatic as that of Qorach, but it is no less certain.