This week’s parsha revolves around a serious schism within the nascent Jewish nation. Korach, Moshe’s cousin and leader of a cabal of 250 prominent citizens, challenged Aaron’s legitimacy as high priest. Like most people who disguise their personal ambitions as matters of principle, the dissenters wrapped themselves in theology. They complained to Moshe and Aaron, “For the entire congregation is comprised of holy people and G-d is in their midst, and why do you elevate yourselves over G-d’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).
Rashi elaborates: Korach and his followers contended that every Israelite stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and they all heard G-d transmit the principles of the Jewish faith (“I am the Lord, your G-d” and “You shall have no other gods”). Therefore, the dissidents argued, Moshe had no rabbinic authority over his fellow Jews. He could not unilaterally anoint his brother as high priest. Korach said Israel did not need the office of high priest nor a religious leader. Each person would live a pious life guided by the light of his own reason.
One can easily refute this argument. Korach ignored the fact that commandments three through 10, which the people insisted that Moshe, acting as G-d’s conduit, proclaim, form as central a part of Judaism as commandments one and two, which G-d articulated directly. In addition, Moshe ascended to heaven to learn the Torah and mitzvot and their meaning and exposition. Without this context, the Jewish people could not obey the Torah as G-d commanded. The people must see Judaism as an integrated religion and they always need rabbinic guidance and teachers.
Korach mounted a challenge to Moshe from the other direction. Not only did he consider every Jew the equivalent of Moshe, he questioned Moshe’s competence. Korach entered into a legal dispute. He claimed that, in fact, he knew Torah law better than Moshe.
The previous parsha (Numbers 15) concluded with the command that we Jews put tzitzit (fringes) on each of the four corners of our garments. Verse 38 states, “On the corner [you shall place] a thread of blue [wool] and it shall become tzitzit.” Verse 39 continues, “You shall [look at] it and you shall remember my mitzvot …”
Moshe taught that although G-d requires one blue strand in combination with seven additional strands of wool, a single blue string suffices in a pinch. Korach argued that if one blue thread fulfilled the requirements for tzitzit, surely a garment dyed entirely blue would as well.
Moshe rejected this reasoning out of hand.
Korach posed another halachic challenge. The Torah requires placing a mezuzah on doorposts (Deuteronomy 6:9; 11:19). Korach taunted Moshe with the argument that a room full of Torah scrolls, which encompass the Five Books of Moses, should not require a mezuzah because the scrolls contain the passages that are inside a valid mezuzah.
Moshe rejected this reasoning as well.
On the surface, Korach had a point; Moshe conceded that one strand of wool dyed indigo from the blood of the Murex trunculus snail sufficed to remind Jews of the mitzvot. By extension, an entire garment dyed indigo from the blood of that same snail should have the same effect. Therefore, wearing an indigo cloak should fulfill the requirement of tzitzit. Similarly, we hang a mezuzah containing two chapters of Deuteronomy in order to protect the room behind the doorpost. Surely, filling the room with scrolls containing the entire text of the Torah should accomplish the same result.
While superficially correct, Korach elevated form at the expense of substance. We wear a garment with fringes attached to remind us of the commandments G-d requires us to heed. Rashi (Numbers 15:39) writes that the numerological value of the Hebrew letters in the word tzitzit (600), plus the number ofstrands (eight), and knots (five) total 613, the number of mitzvot G-d asks us to remember when gazing at those fringes. The blue strand reminds us of G-d’s Throne of Glory. Conjuring the Throne of Glory fills us with the proper awe with which to fulfill our religious obligations.
Looking at the blue thread of tzitzit, even in the absence of the other seven, reminds us of G-d and His 613 mitzvot. Even the shadow of the tzitzit invokes the 613 commandments we must obey and, in that setting, the indigo thread induces awe. On the other hand, wearing clothes dyed in indigo, but without the symbols of tzitzit, does not induce in us the necessary subservience to G-d and His commandments that the mitzvah entails.
Korach made the same mistake in his challenge concerning the mezuzah. Torah study alone does not protect us. The two texts we place into the mezuzah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21) proclaim our love for G-d. Without love, Torah study can lead to destruction. The Talmud (Berachot 19a) describes the prayer that the rabbis would recite at each ordination ceremony. Quoting Psalms 44:14, they asked that the graduates use their knowledge as a salve for healing, not a sword to incite communal strife.
The story of Korach teaches us several valuable lessons as we travel through life. We must avoid the arrogance of ignorance. We inflict damage on ourselves if we think that we know everything and see no need to consult experts. At the same time, we must avoid the arrogance of intellectual laziness. We inflict damage on ourselves if we act blindly in a fact-free environment. We must observe the mitzvot regardless of whether we agree with them or understand them. Just as important, G-d obligates us to try our best to know what we are doing.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.