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Korach 5779. Why Leadership? Why Law?

Korach rallies the people with his slogan:

“All the community are holy, all of them!

God is amongst them!

Why do you raise yourselves over the community of God?!”

Whereas this egalitarian statement can be seen as an assault upon the very notion of leadership itself, Korach is in fact attacking Moses and Aharon personally. For him, they have seized “too much” power. Not only has Moses failed as a leader (with the episode of the Spies) but Aharon and his sons have exclusive access to God.

The Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, suggests that Korach’s argument extends beyond Moses and Aharon and their personal failings.

"'And Korach took…' (16:1)

What parsha precedes this episode? - 'Speak to the Israelites concerning the making of Tzitzit (fringes).'(15:34)

Korach stepped forward turning to Moses: 'You say, "Put on the fringe a thread of blue (t'chelet) wool."(ibid.) What about a garment that is itself a blue colour (t'chelet), would it not be exempt from the blue thread (on the Tzitzit)?'

Moses replied, 'It is obligatory to have the blue thread.'

Said Korach, 'A garment which is all blue is not exempt and four meagre threads do the trick!?'

Korach said: 'A room full of Sifrei Torah, would it need a Mezuza?'

Moses answered in the affirmative.

Korach replied, 'The Torah contains 275 sections and they are not enough to fulfil the house's obligation to have a Mezuza, but these two sections (written in the Mezuza scroll) will fulfil the obligation for the entire house!?

- Moses, you must be making this stuff up!" (Midrash Tanchuma)

The Midrash suggests a connection between the Korach story and the preceding passage, which speaks of Tzitzit.

In this reading, Korach is not merely critiquing Moses, but he is in fact mocking the Torah, the law. After all, if the whole garment is blue, why do the fringes require a blue thread? If the house is filled with Torah scrolls, doesn’t the obligation of a Mezuza seem like an absurdity? The law in these cases seems ludicrous, illogical, impossibly pedantic. And by the same logic, if all Israel are holy, why does the nation need a Moses to guide them, or a High Priest to serve on their behalf? Would it not be better for all Israel to serve God directly, to bring incense themselves? If the people are all holy, why designate a delegate?

The Midrash establishes an intriguing connection. The critique of Moshe and Aharon’s leadership finds its parallel in an offensive against Halakha. And here we encounter a question which irks many: What happens when a law seems to be a mere technical ordinance, making no significant contribution to the ideas or spirit of the law as a whole? Since Moshe is the conduit for Torah, it is he who transmitted the laws from God to Israel. This Midrash suggests that the revolt against Moses is in fact a manifest rejection of the notion of Halakha!

So please discuss:

  • ​Why does a house filled with Torah scrolls need a Mezuza?

  • Is the leader chosen because he is the only holy one, or might Israel need a leader although the community is all holy?

  • Both law and government are societal contracts that guide and shape society to ensure that things are orderly and fair. Is it fair to say that Korach attacks both the notion of government and law?

  • Do you find aspects of Korach’s critique compelling? We live in an egalitarian age in which we expect to treat others and to be treated as equals, where we believe in the right of all citizens to be elected to high office. Is Korach entirely wrong? If he is partially correct, what makes his revolt illicit?

Shabbat Shalom!

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