Kollot Haftarah Dvar Torah: “All the community are holy” – What Korach gets wrong

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 29 June 2019

What does Korach do wrong?
As Ella has told us, his fate and that of his followers is pretty extreme – the core leaders of the rebellion are swallowed up alive by the earth, the 250 followers consumed by fire.

Yet at first reading, not a great deal about what he says seems unreasonable.  He merely challenges leadership and stands up for equality among the people.  It can surely not be the position of Torah that authority can never be challenged? Or that we are not equals in the eyes of God?

This morning’s haftarah, taken, as is the tradition in our Kollot services, from rabbinic literature, gives an answer to this question.

I’ll come specifically to the haftarah in a moment.  But first a few general thoughts about its message.

The philosopher Martin Buber identified three mistakes that the Israelites made in the wilderness in their understanding of the covenant with God.

The first was an expectation that the covenant was a guarantor of success and prosperity – reflected in their complaints and murmuring.  The second was an expectation that they should have God physically present with them at all times – most clearly articulated in the episode of the Golden Calf.

The third, the one that was most problematic, certainly to Buber, was the belief that the covenantal relationship meant that they were, by definition, holy.  And therefore that whatever they wanted to do was necessarily blessed by God – their will is God’s will, there is no additional effort required.

This was the mistake of Korach when he stated “all the community are holy, all of them”.  We can interpret this phrase charitably, as Cantor Sarah Grabiner did last night, as an expression of equality – no Israelite is more holy than any other.  But this is not Buber’s understanding.  Rather, he reads Korach as asserting a kind of ethnic holiness, irrespective of action.  That Israel can do anything and call it God’s will.

The challenge of Korach was fundamentally an antinomian one – setting identity against obligation; freedom against commandedness – undermining the very concept of mitzvah.

The rabbis, of course, do not articulate this in quite the same way.  But they do understand that Korach’s rebellion is a challenge not just to Moses but to the concept of law – to the legal idea that he represented.

A number of midrashim express this idea.
There is a famous text in the Jerusalem Talmud and also found in a number of midrashic collections, that has Korach ridiculing the law by asking questions which seem to have arbitrary answers.  Does a garment made all of tachelet – the special blue of the tzitziot – itself require blue threads?  Does a house full of books require a mezuzah?  At the end of this text, Korach dismisses Moses as just making up the law as he goes along.

This week’s haftarah, taken from the probably 11th Century midrash on the book of Psalms, takes it a step further.  The text is from a midrash on the first Psalm – “Happy is the person who does not follow the counsel of the wicked”.  The wicked, in this reading, being Korach.

How in our midrash does his wickedness articulate itself?
He tells a convincing story of legal exploitation of the vulnerable to the benefit of Moses and Aaron – presenting a series of agricultural and temple-based laws as not merely arbitrary but corrupt; he subverts the Torah law itself – including law designed to protect the vulnerable, and to enable the activity of the Temple – making it an instrument of oppression.

It is a piece of perfect twenty-first century political propaganda.   He dismisses the entire concept of divine law, undermining the idea of mitzvah itself as a scam.

Importantly, in our midrash his voice is counterbalanced by those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked – his sons.  This is especially important in this context as a dozen or so of the psalms are subtitled “livnei Korach” – “of the sons of Korach”.

According to our text, in their rejection of this voice his sons become pillars on which the world stands.  As, therefore, can we.  But to do so is a choice, not an automatic right.

Aspects of Korach’s antinomianism might have some resonance for us.  We can argue – indeed, as Progressive Jews, we must argue – about the meaning, relevance, sanctity of our legal inheritance; differentiate between good and bad law, between that which is sacred and that which is not.  But Korach’s challenge is not to the detail but is to the very concept of Jewish obligation as unnecessary.  This is what he does wrong when he states that “all the community are holy, all of them”.

What our tradition understands, though, is that we are not just holy because we are Jews.  Rather, we have to become holy in our lives – we must do so over and over again, each and every day.  It is an act of choice, of effort.  We have to strive to reach holiness.

Midrash Tehillim 1:14

These are the sons of Korach, who did not follow the counsel of their father…

[AND DOES NOT SIT] IN THE COMPANY OF SCORNERS (Psalm 1:1) – This is Korach who spoke in scorn about Moses and Aaron.

What did he do?  He assembled all the community… and began to speak with scorn.  And he said to them:

There was a widow in my neighborhood and with her were two fatherless girls and she had one field.  She came to plough and Moses said to her, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.”  She came to sow, and Moses said to her, “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.”  She came to harvest and to stack sheaves, and he said to her, “Leave me the gleanings, and the overlooked sheaves and the corners.”  She went to do the threshing, and he said to her, “Give me various tithes.” She submitted herself to the law and gave them to him.

What did she do? She sold the field and acquired two sheep to wear their wool and to sell their offspring.  When they gave birth, Aaron came and said to her, “Give me the first-borns”…  She submitted herself to the law and gave them to him. The time came for shearing and she sheared them. He said to her, “Give me the first portion of your shearing”…

She said, “I do not have the strength to withstand this man; behold I will slaughter them and eat them.  When she slaughtered them, he said to her, “Give me the foreleg, the jaws, and the maw.” She said to him, “Even though I have slaughtered them, I have not been saved from his hand.  She proscribed them under a cherem.  He said to her, “Give it to me for it is written, ‘Everything that has been proscribed in Israel shall be yours.’” He took it and went.

He left her weeping – her and her two daughters.
Is such a thing right?  This ill-fated, robbed woman!  All this they [Moses and Aaron] do, and they blame it on the Holy One!

These are the sons of Korach. When the company of Korach were swallowed up, his sons were left like the mast of a ship.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said: The three of them were not standing together in one place but each one was left standing by himself like three pillars.
This is as they say in the tradition: “On what does the world stand?  On three pillars.”