Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 30, 2006

Parsha of the week –Rebel without a cause?

It’s probably coincidental, but Rabbi Jonathan Sacks starts off his discussion’s of this week’s parsha with a discussion of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which I mentioned I had seen on the streets of Buenos Aires. The book was apparently commissioned by the Russian secret police, to convince Czar Nicholas II that Jews were behind the political unrest in Russia and to persuade him to abandon liberal reforms, according to recently published archives . Others believe the book was created by Czar Nicholas’ propagandists to divert popular anger away from the ruling family to a more accessible target. Whenever I encounter someone who to some degree has internalized the book’s fabrications, I joke that somehow I must have stepped out of the shul when they discussed how to get rich. The analogy he draws with the Protocols and this week’s parsha focused on Korach’s sedition is that: If you seek to understand an accusation, look at the accuser, not the accused.

To some extent, he is dodging the bullet on Korach and his particularly enigmatic end. For his role in questioning Moses’ position as divine intermediary and his brother Aharon’s position as the ‘Kohan Gadol’ or high priest (and by extension the entire priestly geneaology), Korach and his co-conspirators were swallowed alive by the earth. Or rather the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them as the text has it. Further compounding the mystery of this event are Moses words preceeding it. Once the Korach’s party is separated from the rest of the wandering Jews, he starts out by saying: Through this shall you know that G-d sent me to perform all these acts, that it was not from my heart. The next sentence in the Torah is even more confounding: But if G-d will create a new phenomenon, and the earth open its mouth and swallow them and all that is theirs, and they will descend alive to the pit. The actual Hebrew word used for create is “berah”, the verb that the Torah uses to describe the creation of the world — a categorically distinct word that has obviously attracted endless amount of speculation amongst Jewish scholars, mystical or otherwise, that implies an action has no precedent.

Once Korach is presumably dispatched, Moses is commanded to assembles all the staffs from the heads of the tribes, with Aaron among them. Aaron’s staff flowers and bears almonds (which apparently is the fastest sprouting fruit) signifying that he bears divine favor. Later traditions teach that despite Korach meeting his end in an unprecedented fashion, he was not denied a share in the world to come.

The more obvious and ethical lesson here is that clamoring for power and fostering division will invoke divine retribution. Korach is frequently used by Torah commentators as paragon of characteristics that should be avoided — much like Rabbi Sacks in pointing out the responsibilities of leadership rather than the privileges. Korach is also portrayed as a man of great wealth, and many point out that it could have been the source of his arrogance. But why is this episode so replete in symbolism if the purpose is simply to provide an ethical parable. Some more radical commentators argue that it is essentially a piece of propaganda to cement the status of both Moses as the source of the Oral Law and the priestly hierarchy. The rules relating to the priestly duties that follow the passage would seem to support that analysis.

Still, that doesn’t quite do justice to all the curious chain of events or connect the symbolic dots. The Maharal of Prague (of the Golem fame) points out that the human being is called adam, associated with adamah (earth), because, unlike other creations, whose identities are fully realized when they emerge, man’s potential perfection must be developed by him, over time, as a result of his own efforts. This would, to my mind, connect the flowering almond with the earth opening up.

The Ethics of the Fathers further eloborates on the purpose of the Korach episode.

A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value,
But a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure.

What is an example of a controversy for heaven’s sake?
The deba tes of Hillel and Shammai.
What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake?
The rebellion of Korach and his associates.

In other words: It teaches us that if we do not have a higher sustaining cause, challenging authority is simply spreading graffiti, destroying without creating.

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