Korach: Prematurely Pretending

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 month ago

      Last week’s parashah ended on the mitzvah of tzitzis. We are told to put a special thread in our tzitzis—when we read the mishnah between kabbalat shabbat and maariv, it uses that word in reference to a wick—and we are told to make it תכלת, wool dyed a specific blue color from a specific dye. In the Talmud (Menachot 41b), we learn that we take four strings and pass them through the hole in the corner of the garment, getting eight fringes hanging down. The Rambam (Hil. Tzitzis 1:6) tells us that half of one of the four threads—equivalently, one of the eight fringes—is dyed תכלת. Among the white strings of normal life, we have a תכלת string, the color of the sky above, representing our תכלית.

      A common approach today is to have one “shamash” thread that is longer than the others, and to wrap it around them. (This comes from a different description of tzitzis that we will BE”H read in the book of Devarim.) Rav S.R. Hirsch’s approach is to wrap two of the fringes, one white one as well as the תכלת one. Among our drives and desires is one thread of “elevated” drives and desires. We subordinate the rest of our desires to these “elevated” ones (the white shamash fringe), as well as to the will of God that is beyond us (the תכלת fringe).

      What nobody recommends doing—indeed, what nobody, so far as we know, finds halachically acceptable—is using exclusively תכלת in one’s fringes. We are on earth for a reason, and while nobody (within our culture, at least) advocates sinking completely into this physical world (which would perhaps have been symbolized by red—אדום—fringes, symbolizing the human—אדם—and the soil—אדמה, the opposite pole of the visible spectrum from תכלת), neither do we rush ahead and try to be something we are not rather than doing our work here in this world[1].

      And this brings us to Korach and his argument. Many interpret his argument as pure demagoguery, aimed at seizing leadership for himself. Indeed, Moshe’s view of his argument appears fairly cynical as well, as if he is upset by his privileged-but-not-top position. But whatever its purpose, his argument itself deserves analysis.

      Before we dig into it, let us note his name, a topic over which we will only gloss, but which may give us a lens by which to begin our analysis. The letter ה appears twice in the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name, and its appearance can and should be studied as in many ways an ideal for how to set up one’s “walls,” and where to have one’s “entrances” and “exits.” The name קרח consists of three “attempts” to create this structure, and shows three errors that can be made: a wall that extends too far, a missing wall, a passage blocked. We should expect him to be expressing ideals, or things close to them, but for something to be wrong.

      And while we will not make the post too long by going through the analysis via his name, Korach delivers. He says that the entire people is holy—and he is correct. He says God is among us—and he is correct. His implication, too—the problem of power concentrated in one family—reflects our values. Indeed, God never again appoints a political leader from the tribe of Levi, and when the Hasmonean family takes that leadership on itself, the reaction among Jewry in general is quite critical. In the United States, whose “real culture” is inherited in large part from us, families like the Bushes and the Clintons, which attempt to create dynastic structures, lose popularity when such attempts are made, and while “élite” historians eventually lionize these attempts decades later—just look at what history textbooks say about the Roosevelts and Kennedys—they were just as unpopular then as they are now.

      The problem with Korach’s argument is intimately related to what we saw in last week’s parashah. Korach is demanding of a slave generation that they achieve Messianic perfection immediately. The Midrash Tanchumah describes Korach’s argument as טלית שכולה תכלת—a cloak entirely of תכלת. But תכלת is the ideal to which we aspire—not where we are.

      Korach is reminiscent of many young, idealistic libertarians in the United States. They see the injustice, for example, of government welfare programs—how they abuse the taxpayer, how they lock recipients in a cycle of poverty and destroy their family structure—and they want immediately to abolish welfare. They do not think about the fact that, for example, with the system currently in place, minimum wage laws have “kicked the lower rungs out of the ladders” by which these people could have worked their way up into normal life. If welfare were abolished immediately, many of them would simply starve to death, unable to find a job. The knots that our élites have tied must be unraveled carefully and with patience. Demanding immediate changes would lead to disaster, and such a disaster would only strengthen “pro-slavery” arguments in the political sphere.

      In the days in which we are privileged to live, we are witnessing, and hopefully participating, in our return to the Land of Israel, and, looking around, we see more and more glimmers of תכלת in more and more sets of tzitzis. Perhaps in the future, a restored Sanhedrin will (as we wrote some months ago) reinterpret the book of Vayikra for a vegetarian—or even vegan—world, and perhaps they will also reinterpret the laws of tzitzis, expanding the number of תכלת fringes as the general spiritual level of the people rises. Perhaps, on that level, the people will reject coercive government—indeed, according to Yirmiyahu, we may reject leadership altogether[2]. And perhaps then, we will achieve Korach’s dream. But it will not be through overthrowing Moshe’s Torah.

      The free-for-all that Korach wants turns into a death trap, and the end of the parashah is about the Kohanim and Leviim, reinforcing their role taking care of things too “close” and too “holy” so that the people, not ready to take on that role, do not die trying. We are all meant, in the end, to be a ממלכת כהנים; but impatience leads nowhere good. We may be frustrated at the infighting and contradictory messages flooding Jewish society, but attempts to ignore or will away our imperfect state will only lead us to behave inappropriately to our situation.

      When we read the third paragraph of the Shema, we must be aware of the boundaries on either side. On the one hand, we, as a people, are admonished not to hold ourselves back like we did with the spies, who were sent לתור את הארץ—and so we are admonished: לא תתורו. But on the other hand, we are only to have a פתיל תכלת; as disappointed as we may be in our level right now, dyeing our entire garment prematurely will not help.

      [1] It would be very important to include a long discussion of the meaning of the fact that in galut we eventually moved to white fringes exclusively (halachically OK according to Menachot 38a), and how תכלת is returning today, concurrently with our gradual return to the Land of Israel.
      [2] 31:33. Actually he writes that there will not be a need for teachers, but we contend that in our culture, coercive government aside, teachers and leaders are largely synonymous.

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