Korach and the Garments of Sky-Blue

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


*********************************************************

This shiur is dedicated in celebration of 
Ahavya and Hillel's successful completion of shana rishona.

*********************************************************

 

Parashat Korach

 

Korach and the Garments of Sky-Blue

 

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            With the catastrophe of the Spies just behind them, the People of Israel begin their reluctant and relentless march into the wilderness of Paran at God's indignant behest.  They anxiously enter its desolate confines with a deep sense of foreboding, for they know that they will not emerge from it alive.  No doubt the people, in spite of last week's concluding message assuring their descendents a brighter future (see Bemidbar Chapter 15), feel distraught and despondent.  How difficult it is to continue with the struggles and challenges that life presents, when the promise of purpose and the dream of a destination is now so hopelessly out of reach!

 

            Into the despair steps Korach, a demagogic provocateur and a mastermind of timing, who quickly musters a rainbow coalition of malcontents to challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.  Accusing them of despotism and autocracy, Korach and his cohorts cynically contrast Moshe's earlier promises of leading them to a fertile land of fields and vineyards with their present wretched predicament:

 

Korach son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of Reuven, all arose before Moshe along with two hundred and fifty men from the people of Israel, every one of them princes of the congregation, members of the assembly, and men of renown.  They gathered against Moshe and Aharon and said: "Don't you have enough?!  The entire congregation is holy and God is in their midst.  Why, then, do both of you exercise rule over the congregation of God?!" (Bemidbar 16:1-3).

 

A BAND OF MALCONTENTS

 

            Thus it is that the leadership of Moshe and Aharon comes under the most serious and sustained attack since the Exodus from Egypt.  Some of Korach's followers, including those that hail from the displaced tribe of Reuven, are genuinely aggrieved at the election of the Levites to the service of the Tabernacle, instead of the firstborn who had served aforetimes.  Others, more populist and democratic in outlook, are disturbed by the concentration of so much temporal power in the hands of the aged brothers who now stand accused of craving power, of exploiting their office to advance personal goals, and of nepotism.  Why have these two brothers secured all of the prestigious positions for themselves and not distributed the power more equitably among the entire congregation?  Is not the entire congregation holy, by virtue of God's presence that resides among them?  Shouldn't, therefore, the service of God be open to any and all who genuinely seek His presence? 

 

            And as for Korach himself, surrounded by a protective phalanx of his loyal cronies and party hacks, the self-serving populist publicly presents himself as a genuine reformer who has the people's interests in mind.  There is however, an intensely personal angle to his seething discontent: how grievous and unfair is the appointment of Aharon and his descendents to the exalted office of the High Priesthood!  This singular honor has been bestowed upon the ineffectual prophet and his sons by Divine fiat, while Korach's own substantial talents have all been overlooked!

 

            Skillfully, Korach compiles the simmering murmurs of grievance into a lurid litany of lament, a raucous and indignant outcry now concentrated upon Moshe that hangs heavily in the hot and oppressive desert air and refuses to dissipate.  Bitterly, the people of Israel take up the dirge:  But why has Aharon been awarded the priesthood if not because he unfairly enjoys Moshe's support? And why have the firstborn of the people been disqualified from the ministering at the Tabernacle in favor of the Levites, if not because the latter are Moshe's kin?  And why has Elizaphan son of 'Uzziel been appointed as chief of the Clan of Kehat, if not because Moshe prefers him to Korach, who is Elizaphan's elder?

 

THE MIDRASHIC READING

 

            In the Midrash of Bemidbar Rabba, the Rabbis colorfully portray Korach's opening gambit:

 

The verse literally states: "and Korach took…" (Bemidbar 16:1).  What is recorded immediately preceding this section?  "Let them make for themselves tzitzit…" (Bemidbar 15:38).  Korach sprang forth and said to Moshe: 'if a garment is entirely colored with sky-blue tekhelet dye, is it or is it not exempt from the obligation of tzitzit?'  Said Moshe: 'it is nevertheless obligated in tzitzit!'  Korach then retorted: 'if a garment that is colored entirely with sky-blue tekhelet dye cannot exempt itself, shall four small threads then exempt it?!' 

 

He further asked: 'if a house is entirely filled with scrolls of the Torah, is it or is it not exempt from the mezuza?'  Said Moshe: 'it is nevertheless obligated to have a mezuza!'  Korach then retorted: 'if an entire Torah scroll that contains 275 separate sections cannot exempt the house, shall two small sections in the mezuza scroll then exempt it?!'  Korach concluded: 'you were not commanded concerning these things and have fabricated them from your own mind!'  This is what is meant by the verse: "and Korach took".

 

WHAT DID KORACH TAKE?

 

            The Midrashic reading, while fanciful and seemingly forced, actually deftly succeeds in addressing some of the more pressing textual and contextual issues that are raised by the narrative.  The Midrash begins by quoting the opening verse of our Parasha.  While in the introduction above I have translated it as "Korach son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of Reuven, all arose before Moshe along with two hundred and fifty men from the people of Israel…," a more literal rendition would have been: "AND Korach son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi TOOK ("vayiKaCH"), and Datan and Aviram sons of Reuven, and On son of Pelet, son of Reuven.  THEY arose before Moshe along with two hundred and fifty men from the people of Israel…" 

 

            For all of the medieval commentaries, the opening verb of our section – the "vayikach" or "he took" –  grammatically left suspended by virtue of its lack of a completing object, is understood to be either idiomatic or else lacunar, but certainly not literal.  Rashi (11th century, France), for instance, understands the idiom to mean that Korach separated himself and his party for the sake of confronting Moshe and Aharon.  He "took himself," as it were, to disagree with Moshe.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) instead supplies what he believes to be the missing word: "Korach (and his cohorts) took MEN," a reference to the two hundred and fifty "princes of the congregation, members of the assembly, and men of renown" mentioned in the next verse.  Rav Sa'adiah Gaon (10th century, Babylon) and the Ramban (13th century, Spain) both follow Rashi's lead, though they explain the idiom differently.  The Rashbam (12th century, France) and the Seforno (15th century, Italy) adopt the reading of the Ibn Ezra.  The Midrash, however, takes the expression in its most literal and straightforward sense: Korach indeed TOOK an object, namely the garments dyed with sky-blue tekhelet, making clever use of them to trigger the fray between himself and Moshe! 

 

WHEN DID KORACH REBEL?

 

            On a related subject, the classic commentaries argue vehemently about the chronology of events associated with our Parasha.  Some of them, such as the Ibn Ezra, relate that Korach's rebellion took place soon after the Mishkan was inaugurated and the Levites were installed in the service, these events having transpired while Israel still stood at Sinai and quite some months before the dispatch of the spies.  Others feel that Korach's conflagration of discontent was ignited by what immediately followed the return of the spies with their damning report, for in the aftermath of that debacle the people of Israel were condemned to perish in the wilderness and they must have felt that Moshe and Aharon had failed them.  This is the opinion of the Ramban who sees all of the Torah's narratives as being organized in strict chronological sequence unless the text specifically tells us otherwise. 

 

            But the Midrash goes one step further: not only can we connect the rebellion to the preceding events in some sort of a general way, but we can even relate it precisely!  That is to say that the final section of last week's Parasha introduced the mitzvah of the tzitzit or fringes that God commands the people of Israel to affix upon the corners of their garments.  According to the provisions of the Torah, the people of Israel shall "place upon the tzitzit upon the corner a twisted thread of sky-blue tekhelet.  The tzitzit shall be for you, and you shall see it and remember all of the commandments of God and perform them.  You shall not stray after your hearts or your eyes…" (Bemidbar 15:37-41).  This then is exactly what Korach TOOK, as related earlier but never spelled out, namely beautiful and precious garments of sky-blue tekhelet.  The conjunction "and" that introduces the section ("and Korach took") is composed of a simple prefix "vav" that might otherwise have been overlooked as entirely conventional.  The Midrash, however, attaches special significance to this "vav," for it regards it as creating a cohesive link between our matter of Korach's rebellion and the previous passage that related the command concerning the tzitzit.

 

            This then is the thrust of the Midrashic reading: wealthy Korach separated his men and prepared them for the fray by clothing them in expensive attire elsewhere reserved for royalty, thus winning them handily to his cause.  This much is seemingly inspired by the broader context itself.  But now the Midrash, in describing how Korach provocatively presents his men in blue to the assembled masses, offers us the critical thematic content of its reading: these tekhelet clothes, perfectly fashioned and tailored in every respect, had but one glaring and conspicuous omission: the corners of the garments were bereft of tzitzit!  Korach's intention was to use these very garments as an opportunity to publicly upbraid humble Moshe, to shamelessly expose him for the self-serving fraud that Korach portrayed him to be.

 

HOW DID KORACH WIN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL?  HOW DID THE RABBIS UNDERSTAND THE EPISODE?

 

            How impassioned and sincere was Korach's question, asked of the aged lawgiver with due gravity and decorum.  If the Torah mandated a single thread of blue for every corner of a garment to serve as a reminder of God's laws, then surely a garment colored entirely with blue should accomplish the same goal without those additional threads!  Who needs an extra thread of blue when the whole garment is already so dyed?  The IMPLICATION of the matter is of course even more pointed: just as a garment that is entirely blue needs no tekhelet, so too a congregation that is entirely holy needs no additional leaders to bring it closer to God.  Or to quote the verse that Korach himself uses as his opening salvo: "Don't you have enough?!  The entire congregation is holy and God is in their midst.  Why, then, do both of you exercise rule over the congregation of God?!" (Bemidbar 16:3).  In the Midrash, this implication is amplified by Korach's second question concerning the mezuza.  Just as it is unreasonable to demand that a house filled with Torah scrolls be obligated to have a mezuza, since the said Torah scrolls anywise contain the scriptural section found in the mezuza and many more besides, so too are Moshe and Aharon entirely superfluous as leaders and guides for a people that is inherently holy and imbued with God's presence.  

 

            Let us therefore weave the strands of the Midrashic reading together.  The Midrash connects the rebellion of Korach to the context that immediately precedes our section, it adroitly explains the otherwise curious use of the verb "vayikach" as well as the conjunctive prefix, and it provides us with a riveting image of a skillful demagogue who is able to deftly undermine Moshe's leadership by appealing to the lawgiver himself and to the very laws that he has communicated in God's name.  All of this is ultimately anchored in the text itself, and carefully pinned on Korach's own words!  In short, the Midrash provides the student with an interpretation that while not in conformity to the straightforward reading is nevertheless a virtuoso illustration of what diligent study can yield. 

 

            While the final result of this endeavor may strike us as unduly whimsical, that would miss the point.  The Rabbis of the Midrash were extremely careful in their reading of the Torah, rightly regarding it as the words of the living God.  When they read a narrative in the Torah, they paid scrupulous attention to its grammatical structure, to its linguistic nuance and to its major and minor themes.  They painstakingly mined the text for its implications and meticulously read between the lines in order to expose the finest gradations of meaning.  Their investigations were anything but haphazard or careless.  And while we may take issue with their methodological approach (as the medieval commentaries often did) we dare not underestimate their contribution.

 

Shabbat Shalom