Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 26, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Korach

From Rabbi Michael Arsers

This week’s Torah portion, Korach, tells of a rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. Korach, along with two hundred and fifty of the people, approaches Moses and challenge him, saying, “All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Meaning, why are you the leaders?

In a midrash, we are told that Korach asked Moses two questions. “If you have a garment which is all techelet (a kind of blue) do you need a fringe of techelet?” As we know from last week’s portion, the mitzvah of tzitzit requires us to attach a fringe of techelet thread to a four-cornered garment. (Today our tzitzit are white since the source for the techelet color was lost long ago.) Korach is saying, if you have a garment which is entirely techelet what is the point of attaching a techelet thread to it. His second question is, “if you have a room full of Torah scrolls do you need to affix a mezuzah to the room?” The mitzvah of mezuzah requires writing the paragraphs of the shema on a small parchment and fixing it to the doorposts of the house and of all the rooms in the house. But if there is a room full of Torah scrolls, what is the point of attaching these two paragraphs from the shema to the doorpost? These sound like the kind of halachic questions that someone might ask a rabbi. However, Korach is not really asking a question. He is trying to show how ridiculous it is.

There are many kinds of questions. Over the years, I have heard questions that people ask in order to know what is the correct way of dealing with some issue of shabbat observance or of kashrut or pertaining to the davening. People often ask questions because they are curious about something stated in the Torah or they are curious about some Jewish practice. Sometimes people are troubled by something they hear in the Torah reading. All of these are legitimate questions which deserve good answers. But, sometimes, someone asks a question because they want to show how ridiculous or stupid the whole Torah is. Fortunately, I have not often been challenged with such questions.

This last kind of question is particularly problematic when it comes to the Oral Torah. The rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash very often relate fanciful stories or make statements that sound outlandish or beg credulity. As an example, there is a midrash on the giving of the Torah that states that G-d held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites when He offered them the Torah. This description of the event is based on a verse that says that “the Israelites stood at the bottom of the mountain.” The word for “bottom” can also mean “under”. So, to the authors of the midrash, this suggests that G-d actually picked up Mt. Sinai and held it over the heads of the Jewish People. What is going on here? This midrash is suggesting that there was an element of compulsion in the Jewish People’s acceptance of the Torah, it was as if G-d held a mountain over their head. This view of the revelation is in contradistinction to the view presented in another midrash in which G-d offered the Torah to other nations before he offered it to the Jews. Each nation asked what was in the Torah and when He told them, they said “no thank you.” When He offered the Torah to the Jewish People, they said, “We will do it and we will hear it” showing that they accepted the Torah freely even before they knew what it contained. The midrash which describes G-d holding the mountain over their heads, presents a different view. That the Jewish people who, after all, had been slaves in Egypt and had witnessed open miracles performed by G-d and whose very existence in the wilderness was completely dependent on G-d, did not entirely  feel themselves free to choose. There was an element of compulsion. These are two understandings of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. But the point is that the midrash is teaching us something of importance. It does so by taking a word from the Torah and creating an image that conveys the idea of compulsion.

I can imagine someone asking about this midrash saying, “Isn’t this ridiculous? Do you really believe that G-d held a mountain over the heads of the people?” The questioner is really saying, “isn’t this whole body of literature ridiculous?” Of course, this same type of question could be asked about many stories and statements in the midrash. The intention is to delegitimize the whole system. If this story on this page of the Talmud is ridiculous then the halachic discussion on the next page is also not to be taken seriously. It is part of the same work, it comes from the same source.

This is precisely what Korach is doing. The intention of his questions is not to find out what the halachah is, but, rather to delegitimize the whole system. He is really trying to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron which is based on the system.

When we read the Bible, the Talmud, or Midrash and we come across narratives that beg credulity, our approach needs to be to take the tradition seriously and ask what is this trying to teach us. The Torah – both Written and Oral – have stood the test of time. The teachings of the Torah are filled with wisdom and insight into the nature of G-d, the world, the relationship between G-d and man, and the relations between human beings. Very often, they are trying to convey ideas about subjects that are not easily discussed and therefore they use fanciful stories and exaggerations to try and convey an understanding of things that are difficult to comprehend. Our approach to our sacred literature needs to be serious and respectful. When we encounter a statement or thought that seems beyond belief or contrary to our way of thinking, we need to challenge ourselves to come to a proper understanding, one that recognizes the profound depths of meaning that are contained in the works of our tradition.

Good Shabbos!

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