In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we read of simultaneous multiple rebellions against the regime of Moses, his brother Aaron the Kohen Gadol, and their silent partner, God. Strangely enough, although we know the rebellions failed to topple the leadership and we have more quotes from Korach and his cohorts than we often find from major figures in the Bible, we don’t actually know what the content of their arguments was. Scandal – yes. Revolt – yes. Challenge withstood – yes. But the essence of their arguments was – as the talmud tells us of any dispute that is not for the purpose of heaven – not destined to remain (en sofa lehitkayem).
Rabbinic midrashim, of course, go to town on explanations! We should (of course) be cautioned at the outset that there is a danger in seeing too much of contemporary issues in ancient texts, even for those living in the rabbinic period who projected their own concerns onto Biblical texts that predated their own times by more than a thousand years. Having said that, the method of combing the textual vicinity for hints is beautifully accomplished in this case. At the end of last week’s portion, the laws of the tzitzit with its requirement of ablue thread prompt the rabbis to challenge the law in the (virtual) voice of Korach: Why a thread of t’chelet? What if the entire garment were dyed that shade of blue? Would it still require the addition of a blue string on the corner? Korach and his buddies, the midrash tells us, proceeded to make 250 totally blue tallitot. Considering that the requirement for a single blue string was discontinued in the Talmudic period because the particular dye was prohibitively expensive to obtain and use and too many poor people were substituting cheaper colors, one can only imagine how much those 250 royal blue garments cost! And what, said the Korach character, of a house filled with Torah scrolls z- does it need a mezuzah (with only two paragraphs from the Torah) on its doorposts? Again, we notice that the question seems ludicrous in an age before the printing press made publication of books affordable to anybody outside the most elite.
How can following the rules that Moses dictated to us satisfy God’s requirements when a more complete expression will not? Korach uses his best legal arguments to tear down Moses’ authority. Maybe people would not be swayed by such legalisms in normal times, but another midrash about Korach has him representing the case against Moses and Aaron brought by a poor widow and two orphan girls who are thwarted by their laws at every step they unfortunately take. Their subsistence depends on a small field, but Moses and Aaron demand they leave aside the corners, forgotten sheaves, and also that they pay ten percent to the Kohanim (ma’aser). They shear what few sheep they own to try to make a living selling the wool, but Aaron demands the first cuttings (reishit ha-gez), and when they decide that they can’t afford to keep the sheep and that they would eat them instead, Aaron demands that which is due to the kohanim from all slaughterings. These poor ladies cannot catch a break, because at every turn, the system takes from them until helpful Korach comes along to argue their cause.
We know from experience that no system works perfectly for everybody. Even more so, the mathematician Kurt Godel proved in 1931 that no system can possibly be complete. Try to work out all the rules to be efficient and consistent, and there will always be something that doesn’t fit, that can’t be proven, that destroys the completeness of whatever system of rules you may create. As Douglas Hofstadter analogizes in his classic book “Godel, Escher, Bach; an Eternal Golden Braid,” there always exists a phonograph record that when it is played on a turntable of sufficient fidelity will produce sounds that will destroy the machine. Any and every “complete” system can be manipulated in such a way that it can destroy itself by its own rules, even the system of halacha or the laws and rules and regulations that govern life in the United States.
According to this reading, Korach pushed the process along to bring the system crashing down, ostensibly to help the poor lady. No matter that Moses and Aaron, in following God’s laws, helped the entire Israelite nation survive (receive manna, be guided by a pillar of fire, win battles against enemies). If one person suffers, says Korach, better to bring the entire structure crashing down! Like Osama bin Laden, the trained engineer from the wealthy Saudi Arabian family who could have used some of his vast reserves of money to help poor Arabs whom he claimed to represent (so, too with Yasser Arafat and others), Korach found it suited him better to tear down an entire society rather than actually giving assistance to those who most needed it. The many suffer at the hands of these demagogues and saviors, ostensibly in the name of the few who suffer.
It is always easier to tear down than to build up, to destroy a system rather than improve it. As they greatest sages of their generation, the talmudic rabbis Rav Yosef and Rabbah are nicknamed “Sinai” and “Uprooter of Mountains.” Rav Yosef’s knowledge was encyclopedic, full and useful. Rabbah, on the other hand, had a keen analytic mind, able to find chinks in every argument to riposte and ultimately, improve the clarity and strength of anyone’s thinking, especially in pursuit of the Truth. They were each outstanding academics up for leadership of the great academy of Pumbedita. In Horayot 14a, the question is raised as to which should be in charge, Sinai or Uprooter. The answer was that Sinai takes precedence because “everybody needs a provider of grain.” When, however, the position was offered to Rav Yosef, he turned it down. Rabbah served for twenty two years, after which Rav Yosef succeeded him.
It is always easier to stripmine all the beauty and profit from a system as Korach tried to do. But to build up and maintain a mountainscape, a community dedicated to what is true and good and helpful to those who most need it – to build a Sinai – is never easy. Ultimately, if they are of good character and join in the fray for the good of the community, both mountain building and gradual erosion serve to maintain a healthy and ever-improving balance in the world. When we can find the best in us all and dedicate ourselves to the hard work of perfecting rather than merely repealing or uprooting, we will always find Sinai to be a revelation.