Parashat Korach / Between Memory and Oblivion

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“The Punishment of Korah,” from the fresco “Punishment of the Rebels,” by Sandro Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel (1480-82).
Yakov Z. Meyer

Tractate Sanhedrin of the Jerusalem Talmud mentions heretics as one of the categories of individuals denied an afterlife. Rav cites Korach, one of the chief protagonists in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 16:1-18:32), as the classic example of a heretic and explains how he became one.

“Rav says: Korach was a heretic. What did he do? He fashioned tallitot [prayer shawls] that were sky-blue in color. Korach then went to see Moses and asked him: Moses our teacher, do tzitziot [ritual fringes] have to be attached to a daily prayer shawl that is sky-blue? Moses replied: Yes, because it is written, ‘Thou shalt make thee twisted cords upon the four corners of thy covering, wherewith thou coverest thyself’ (Deuteronomy 22:12).

“Korach then asked: Does a mezuzah have to be placed on the doorpost of a house that is full of sacred books? Moses replied: Yes, because it is written, ‘And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house’ (Deut. 11:20). Korach then asked: If there is baheret [a bright spot] that is two centimeters in diameter on a person’s body, is that person ritually impure or pure? Moses: That person is ritually impure. Korach: And what if the leprosy has spread over a person’s entire body? Moses: That person is ritually pure. Korach then exclaimed: Then the Torah is not of divine origin, Moses is not a prophet and Aaron is not the high priest.’

“In response, Moses cried out: Master of the Universe, if an opening [i.e., mouth] was created in the earth during the Six Days of Creation – that would be wonderful. If not, I pray to you to create such an opening now. As it is written in the Torah, said Moses: ‘But if the Lord make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the Lord’ (Numbers 16:30)” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 10, Section 5a).

Beyond the practical questions that Korach seems to be asking here are others concerning their allegorical meaning and also Moses’ responses. Sky-blue fringes must be affixed to each corner of a garment with four corners. The fringes are meant to serve as reminders that God’s commandments must be observed, as it is written, “that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (Num. 15:39).

Korach interprets the relationship between the prayer shawl and its fringes as representing a relationship between oblivion and memory. And yet, he ostensibly asks Moses: What is one to do with a prayer shawl that embodies memory? Does it require fringes as reminders or are they unnecessary?

Behind this seemingly innocuous question lurks a challenge to Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership; this challenge is clear when Korach declares, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).

If the entire nation is holy, then there is no need for a leader, just as the fringes are superfluous – in Korach’s view – in a sky-blue prayer shawl, although Moses claims that all such garments, irrespective of their nature, must have the fringes. Thus, Moses argues, on an allegorical level, even if the entire nation is holy, a leader is still necessary.

The same allegorical undercurrent appears in Korach’s second question. God commands his nation to place a mezuzah, a piece of parchment containing texts from the Torah, on the entrance to one’s home: “And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” (Deut. 6:9). Like the fringes, the mezuzah serves as a reminder that God’s commandments must be observed.

Still, Korach asks, what about a house that is full of reminders, that is full of sacred texts? The same allegorical implications are present in this question: A holy nation does not require a leader, according to Korach. Here, Moses’ reply is similar to the one he provided for Korach’s first question: Such a house does require a mezuzah and even a nation that is entirely holy still needs a leader.

Korach’s third question is the most important of all because, following  the reply, he is essentially considered to be a heretic. If a small “bright spot” appears on a person’s body, that person is ritually impure and must undergo a process of purification. However, if leprosy has spread over a person’s entire body, Moses – basing himself on Leviticus – rules that such a person is ritually pure: “And if the leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his feet, as far as appeareth to the priest; then the priest shall look; and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague; it is all turned white: he is clean” (Lev. 13:12-13).
Korach’s first two questions are not merely rhetorical attempts to bolster his theological position vis-à-vis Moses, but also an effort to clarify the essence of his own religious faith. Moses’ replies to the two first questions are an implicit declaration that a holy nation still needs a leader. However, the answer to the third query is inconsistent with the first two – although, according to Korach’s line of thinking, it should have accorded with them.

In Korach’s mind, this latter reply proves that the Torah itself is not a coherent, consistent set of laws, and his heresy is reflected in his response to what he sees as the Torah’s inherent self-contradictions. He regards the third reply as proof that he is right: A holy nation does not require a leader. This last answer leads him to the conclusion that the Torah itself, according to what he regards as its inherent inconsistency, supports his radical reading of its text.

For his part, Moses negates himself in the Torah’s presence and does not seek in its text coherence, consistence or "authorization" of his theology. Quite the contrary: If the text accords with Korach’s view, it can be realized. However, this surprising authorization is so devastating for the rebellious Korach that an internal self-contradiction arises within his inner being and he heretically declares, “Then the Torah is not of divine origin, Moses is not a prophet and Aaron is not the high priest.”

Realizing the threat Korach poses, Moses calls on the Master of the Universe to create an opening, or mouth in the earth, to swallow up Korach the heretic because the latter is not prepared to stand alongside Moses on the same textual expanse of land.