Long road trips don’t bring out the best in people, and the extended journey of the Children of Israel from Egypt to the Land of Israel is no exception. The Book of Numbers sometimes reads like a series of variations on “Are we there yet? How much longer?” — only with higher stakes and graver consequences.
In Parshat Shelach, we read of how the spies’ report leaves the nation begging to cut their trip short and turn back to Egypt. God punishes the people by making the journey substantially longer than planned, and a defiant attempt to infiltrate the Land early ends with crushing military defeat.
In this week’s parasha, Korach, the complaints in the wilderness reach a crescendo, as Korach foments outright rebellion. Korach’s particular concern, however, isn’t about the journey. Instead, he challenges the Torah itself.
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:1), a series of three sincere questions leads Korach to become both rebel and heretic.
Question 1: “He stood and made a talit that was all of techelet [sky-blue threads]. He came to Moses. He said to him: ‘Moshe Rabbenu, is a tallit that is all techelet obligated in tzitzit?’”
This is a compelling idea. Tzitzit include “a thread of techelet on the fringe of each corner.” Seeing tzitzit serves to remind the wearer of “God’s mitzvot.” Techelet aids in remembering the mitzvot because it resembles the sea, which resembles the sky, which resembles the throne of God’s honor (Menachot 43b).
Shouldn’t using more techelet amplify its impact? Once we’ve made the garment techelet, is adding a fringe still necessary?
“He [Moses] said to him [Korach] : It is obligated, as it is written…”
Moses explains that, even if the reason behind the mitzvah has been amply fulfilled with techelet, the God-given command remains in place.
Question 2: As if checking to see if this is really how mitzvot work, Korach asks a second, parallel question: “A home that is full of books, should it be obligated in a mezuzah?”
Once the entire Torah is in a home, what need is there for a mezuzah, a single scroll affixed to the doorpost?
Moses offers Korach a similar response: even if the mezuzah represents Torah in the home, having Torah in the home is no substitute for fulfilling the obligation of mezuzah.
Question 3: It is the contrast between the first two, related questions and his last one that finally drives the rebellious Korach to heresy. First, he has Moses confirm that a person with a leprous blemish is ritually impure, and then he asks a follow-up question:
“What if it [leprosy] spread all over the person?
Following the logic of Moses’ first two responses, Korach presumably expects the answer to be that an outbreak of leprosy all over the body does not effect any halachic change. Instead, Moses tells him, in accordance with Leviticus 13:13, that the man is now considered tahor, ritually pure.
Although this last halacha is difficult to understand, Moses’ answers to Korach are consistent. It is the divine law given us at Sinai that determines what is pure or impure, and what any halachic ruling should be.
But Korach sees only inconsistency and incoherence. How is it that magnifying the techelet leads nowhere, but maximizing the area of an impure blemish generates purity?
“At that moment, Korach said: Torah isn’t from Heaven and Moses is not a prophet and Aaron is not High Priest.”
Korach’s three heretical statements correspond to each of his three questions, as he moves from challenging faith to undermining religious and ritual leadership. “Torah is not from Heaven,” he argues, because he rejects the Torah law that it is not enough for techelet to remind us of Heaven, without tzitzit. “Moses is not a prophet,” he says, because everyone has Torah to share, so Moses is unnecessary, much as Korach thinks a mezuzah should be in a house full of Torah. “Aaron is not High Priest.” He adds. Why should anyone turn to a high priest, when the laws of purity he adjudicates seem unintelligible?
Ultimately, the argument Korach and his followers make to Moses and Aaron combines these themes:
“You have too much, for the entire assembly are all holy, and God is in their midst; why should you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” (Numbers 16:3)
We are all techelet, claims Korach, and you two are the unnecessary tzitzit. We are all books, and you two are the superfluous mezuzah. Sanctity, purity, and power belong to everyone, they are not our leaders’ to define or measure out.
What Korach fails to understand is that, even if we are all holy, all learned, all pure of intentions, even if we understand the essence of God’s path and have our own ideas of how to follow it, we still need religious leaders to guide us, as Moses and Aaron did in the wilderness.
Asking whether a given act fulfills a mitzvah is a little like asking, “Are we there yet?” on a journey. It’s not enough to want to arrive or to feel that we have. We need objective confirmation of having reached our destination.
Korach is right to be attentive to religious instinct, the internal compass of the people, but we dare not forget that the final arbiter of progress in mitzvot and in life is our eternal roadmap, the Torah.