Weekly Torah Commentary — Korach June 20, 2014

Bamidbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Our Torah reading this week tells the story of a Levite, a cousin of Moses, named Korach, who instigated a rebellion against Moses and Aaron in an ill-advised bid for leadership of the children of Israel. Verse 1 of Chapter 16 of Bamidbar/Numbers starts with these words: ‘And Korah took...’ but it does not say WHAT he took.

Early commentators taught that Korach took himself and his co-conspirators out of the congregation. No longer did he want to be part of the “group”, he wanted prominence. He was tired of being a follower; he wanted to separate from the crowd and thrust himself into a position of leadership.

We get our first clue to his intentions by considering the meaning of his name. Korach alludes to an inclination towards divisiveness. In the Torah verse containing the prohibition “You shall not tear out a bald spot as a sign of mourning for the dead.” The word for ‘bald spot’ is korhach. Pulling out the hair from one’s head leaves an unnatural bare area where there should be hair; tearing Jews away from one another, as implied by the name Korach, leaves an unnatural emptiness where there should be unity.

Korach wanted to be a leader, and no price was too steep for him. If becoming a leader required him to break with the nation and start a new following, then he was prepared to do so. If it required the disrupting the unity of the children of Israel, so be it. It was fine with him.

But why was Korach so callous about the unity of the people? Why was he rebellious against Moses and Aaron, the leaders appointed by God? His name gives us yet another insight. The Hebrew word for “ice” is spelled with the very same Hebrew letters that spell his name. ‘Kerach’ in Hebrew means ice or ice cubes. Written with Hebrew letters, it’s even clearer that the same letters are used. Korach, as his name implies, was a cold and calculating person. Have you ever met someone like that? Not very pleasant, are they?

Korach went after his selfish desire for leadership with no regard for anything or anyone else. The fact that God had appointed Moses and Aaron meant nothing to him; unity was irrelevant. What mattered – and all that mattered – was attaining the coveted role of national leader. He was determined that nothing would stand in his way.

In the very first chapter of the book of Genesis, on the second day of creation G‑d made a “firmament” “to separate between the water that is below the firmament and the water that is above the firmament.” This was the first “division” in history, and the spiritual root of all future divisiveness, including that of Korach. Why?

The “upper waters” represent sanctity, holiness, the abode of God Himself. The “lower waters” represent secularism, naturalism, all which is native to this sphere in which we live. G‑d separated the two at creation, but intended for man to reunite them through living in this natural world according to His Torah and His Ways.

Whether consciously or not, Korach sowed division between God and the natural world, between the will of God for His people and his own will to rule. He thought he was rebelling against Moses and Aaron because they were the very vehicles through which the Word of God – the Torah – was delivered to the children of Israel. In reality, he launched a cold and calculating rebellion against God Himself.

Years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union. It was winter and very cold. The rivers and lakes were frozen over. Ritual immersion was suspended until the weather warmed up in late spring. As the ice melted, it became easy for Jews to immerse themselves once again before holidays and shabbat and for Christians to resume baptismal ceremonies.

When a lake is frozen over, it requires an enormous amount of motivation and energy to break through the layers to the water below. Likewise, when hearts become cold, motivation and energy to embrace the Word and the ways of God are far removed from a person’s consciousness. A cold heart paralyzes the one who has it. Spiritually, he is numb, frigid, wrapping his protective rationalizations around him like a heavy fur coat. Once the ‘ice’ of apathy toward and disinterest in spiritual matters covers a heart, it is very difficult to break through.

How then do we protect ourselves from becoming ‘cold’ towards God and His Torah? Maintaining an attitude of gratitude towards our God for His daily blessings, a thankful spirit even in less than perfect times and choosing to derive our joy from His love for us, rather than material circumstances, is a three fold foundation on which to build – or rebuild – our passion for Him and His sacred Word.

In Tune with Torah this week = recognizing the profound lesson that Korach’s rebellion teaches us calls us to account. Do we seek prominence and position regardless of the cost? Are we easily offended when someone else is honored or recognized before us? Do we ever feel as though we can hear God as well as the next person? Perhaps we can….but the truly humble person knows how to esteem others as better than himself. In a letter to his son written centuries ago, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, known as the Ramban, exhorts his son to embrace and cultivate humility with these stirring words, “Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes. If another is more wise or wealthy than yourself, you must show him respect. And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that he may be more righteous than yourself for if he sins, it is the result of error while you should know better.”

May WE all walk humbly before our God and before one another.

Shabbat Shalom

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