Korach-Chukat: Is Judaism inherently rational? 

​Was Korach an absolute idiot? Did he not witness Hashem performing miracles through Moshe and Ahron? Why on earth did he think that he’d be able to take over and lead the Jewish people? 

The great commentator Rashi, asks this question, and responds that Korach was certainly not stupid. The reason he fought against the leadership of Moshe and Ahron was that he had a prophecy that his family was greater than Moshe and Ahron combined. He understood this to mean that he himself was greater than Moshe and Ahron. His mistake was that it was not referring to him, but the great prophet Shmuel (Samuel), who, a few generations later, led the Jewish people, anointing both King Saul and King David. 

Still, how could this prophecy have caused Korach to go against Hashem’s express command that Moshe be His leader, as expressed at the giving of the Torah, when Hashem appeared and spoke to the entire Jewish people, so that they would believe in him (Moshe) as Hashem’s chosen leader (Exodus 19:9).

We are taught that the avot, the patriarchs kept the entire Torah. They understood their purpose in this world, and how to achieve it, through the steps that the Torah lays down for us. However, there are circumstances where we know that the avot did not keep the Torah. One famous example of this is Yaakov marrying sisters to produce the twelve tribes, the Jewish people. How was he allowed to do this, when it is not allowed in the Torah? There are several answers given. One of these is that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah in the same way that we do nowadays. As we understand, they were keeping it for the express purpose of ensuring that they achieve their purpose in life. As such, Yaakov knew that his purpose was to produce the Jewish people. To achieve this, he needed to marry the potential mothers of the Jewish people. The fact that they were sisters was simply too bad. As such, keeping the Torah to achieve a specific purpose is dissimilar to how we observe it today. Nowadays, even if we would know the purpose of the entire Torah, and in order to achieve that purpose we need to transgress it, we may not achieve the purpose. This changed at Sinai with the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people.

Korach had always lived in a world where the Torah was something that was a directive to rationally attain one’s purpose in this world. If the Torah stymied this ability, it would be ignored. Having received a prophecy that his family was greater than Moshe and Ahron, he understood that his purpose in life would not be achieved without usurping Moshe and Ahron. This, a short time before, was allowed, as the Torah had not yet been given. What he forgot was that after the Torah was given the rules had changed. 

The next Parsha read, is that of the red heifer. The entire idea of the red heifer is that some mitzvot cannot be understood. This does not just show that some mitzvot cannot be understood, but even the ones that can be understood, often contain elements that are not fully understood. The Torah is teaching is that we cannot fully understand any mitzva. As such, we must ensure that we do not go down the Korach path. We must not try to rationalise every mitzva and then only perform what we feel is rational. Yes, there is (almost) always a rational reason for each mitzva. However, that may not necessarily be the real reason for the mitzva. Korach teaches that observing Torah through rationalisation is dangerous. It is potentially the first step towards not observing the Torah. Obviously one should pursue rational approaches to understanding mitzvot. However, this should not be the only reason for performing the mitzvot.

The Israelites topography in the desert

In this week’s Parsha, Bamidbar, we read about the way the Israelites camped in the desert. There is great length taken to separate each tribe. I recall in Israel, someone who unfortunately wasn’t fully compus mentus trying to memorise where they camped. He was in a large room, and positioned himself in the correct place for each of the tribes, running from one side of the room to the other. In frustration as to how complicated he found it, he said, “why do they need to camp each tribe separately, why can’t they all join together like one happy family and save me the trouble of memorising this all!” That got me thinking. Why DID they have to camp separately? Why couldn’t they all camp together?

stock-illustration-54480392-happy-cartoon-chess-rookThe answer, I believe, is as follows. On a chess board, each piece has a different starting place. Each piece moves differently. Each piece has a different value. If one could place any piece anywhere on the board to start the game, it would be no good as a game. If any piece could move as and where you want, there would be no strategy to the game. If all pieces had the same value, a game-plan would not be possible. The whole game is based around the fact that there are different parts to each side. These parts need to work together, each in their own specified way, in order to create the great game of the mind that chess is.

Similarly, we are taught through the encampment of the Israelites in the desert, each and every Jew, each and every person, is on this world for a different reason. In Judaism, unity is embraced, not uniformity. We are not all expected to be clones. In fact, we are all expected to be different, yet at the same time working for one cause. If there’s a lesson to be taken from the complicated encampment of the Israelites in the desert, this is it. Know that you are unique as a human being. Know that you are in this world for a purpose. Know that you, and you alone can fulfil that purpose.

It is no coincidence that Bamidbar is always the Shabbat before Shavuot (in the diaspora). We are taught that the Israelites received the Torah due to the unity they displayed at Sinai. The Torah describes their coming to Sinai as ‘He camped there’, in the plural. The Talmud explains that every single Israelite, men women and children, all camped there dnawith the same end-goal, to receive the Torah. As such, they attained a unity that had never been attained before. They are described as one person, with one heart and body. In the body, there are many different parts. Each part functions in a very different way. The body cannot function correctly without all these parts. Each part is made from DNA strings, and the same raw material, yet they turn out so very different, each performing a very different part in the united product of a human being. We are the DNA. We may look, sound and seem identical, yet we are not. We need to work together, with all other Jews and people in this world, to create the united product, which we can only attain by each of us attaining our personal purpose within the greater goal of spreading light around the world.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach!