Friday, June 22, 2007

Shelah Lekha - Korah (Rashi)

Korah and Charisma

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York City, where I have been privileged to teach during this month.

Traditionally, Korah's revolt is interpreted as a conflict revolving around issues of religious power and authority. What qualifies a person to be a leader, and who or what determines whether his leadership is to be seen as legitimate or otherwise? Rashi, in his opening comment, simply refers us to Midrash Tanhuma:

Num 16:1. "Then Korah took…" Rashi: This chapter is well expounded in the midrash of Rabbi Tanhuma.

The midrashim mentioned there, which describe the objections raised by Korah to Moses' leadership, suggest several different facets of this rebellion, and of his approach generally.

At the outset (and here I quote the plain meaning of the biblical text) he challenges Moshe and Aaron with a democratic argument: '"For all the congregation are holy and God is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the people of God" [Num 16:3]. Korah cultivated a populist, pseudo-democratic, egalitarian style. Perhaps he spoke in high-minded terms of universal love and caring; perhaps he pretended to be everyone's "friend." Indeed, one of the midrashim portrays him as the defender of the poor and downtrodden, denouncing Moses for impoverishing a helpless widow with the numerous rules of tithes and priestly gifts, so that by the time she had discharged all of her religious duties there was nothing left to live on. Yet, we are told, Korah was himself extremely wealthy and enjoyed the good things of life.

A second midrash, which develops the proximity of this parasha to that of tzitzit, depicts Korah appearing in the camp with 250 of his followers, all wearing pure blue tallitot (but without the requisite tzitzit), as if to say "If one blue thread in the tallit is sufficient, surely an all-blue tallit is even better!” What does this signify? Some suggest that this may have again been a demonstration of populism, of equality: all Israelites are "royalty," the deep blue known as tekehelet being a symbol of aristocracy.

But there may be another meaning here. The azure of the tzitzit, according to another midrash, carries deep theological associations. "The blue reminds one of the sea, the sea of the firmament, and the firmament of the Throne of Glory." The single thread of tekhelet serves as a subtle hint of this symbolism. Perhaps the 250 men addressed in all-blue tallitot were suggesting that they were already on the highest level of consciousness, as if to say, "We can jump directly to the highest spirituality, wearing the garments of holiness of the sublime. We are all mystical adepts; we don't need the slow, arduous, indirect path of Torah and mitzvoth to ascend to the Divine."

But in so doing, they forget an important insight. The Talmud contrasts the "short but long path"—i.e., "shortcuts" that ultimately go nowhere—to the "long but short path"—the long, careful, life-long journey that ultimately leads to "the mountain of the Lord." It seems to me that this lesson is applicable to some of today's popular mystical schools.

But there is something else as well. In a third midrash, Korah posited a case in which a house is filled with sacred texts, but is lacking the requisite mezuzah, with its two brief sections from the Torah, posted at its entrance. Such a house has not fulfilled its halakhic requirement—a situation which Korah ridicules as yet another example of the absurdity of Moses' Torah. Yet in truth such a house might be described as one that celebrates learning, scholarship, erudition—but a learning that is shapeless, without clear direction. The mezuzah, as it were, contextualizes the Torah; by presenting in succinct language the ikkarei ha-emunah, the essential principles of the faith, it provides a framework within which to read and understand all the myriad ideas and stories and laws of this vast literature, thereby transforming what would otherwise be mere pedantry or scholasticism, or the activity of a small intellectual elite, into a living faith act. Without guiding principles as an Archimedean point, one can get lost as one attempts to "swim" in the "sea of Talmud," in the broad sense of Jewish study.

We live in an age of great yearning for religious truth. The secular gods of the last century (as long since observed by Daniel Bell in his The End of Ideology)—socialism, liberalism, science, universal secular humanism, nationalism—are all dead. True, liberal capitalism is regnant in our world, but not as a value system, rather as a reality to which all must adjust themselves. Hence many people seek something else beyond their mundane everyday concerns in the old truths of tradition.

At times this yearning is filled by charismatic leaders. There is, however, often a grave danger in the overwrought emotionalism found in religious life based on such charisma. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as William Butler Yeats put it in The Second Coming. Moreover, a person who displays warmth, intensity, and passion can win over the crowds—but at times such people may prove to be unscrupulous, manipulative, and unethical, wreaking great harm in the lives of the individuals who follow him—as shown by sad experience of recent years. Indeed, I can easily imagine Korah of old as being similar in spirit to some of these latter-day "spiritual teachers." May the Korah story (and our latter-day Korah story, in which many wise men failed to see the danger before their eyes, perhaps because they could not imagine the depths of cynicism of which humans are capable) serve as a warning of the dangers of bad leadership, and the need for great care and vigilance in choosing whom to follow. (More on this below)

Shelah Lekha: "You Send Spies"

This past week's parqshah tells the story of the spies. It opens with what appears to be an explicit Divine command to send forth spies—yet Rashi expresses grave reservations:

Numbers 14:1. "Send you forth people, that they might spy out the land." Rashi: "Send you..." According to your own understanding, [but] I do not command you to do so (Sotah 34a): if you wish, send them. For Israel came to him [Moses] and said "Let us send people before us," as is said, "And all of you draw near" (Deut 1:22}, and Moses took counsel with the Shekhinah and said: I told them that it is good, as is said, "I will lift you up from the poverty / oppression of Egypt." By your life, I gave them a place to err in the matter of the spies, so that they might not inherit it.

The basic question here is twofold: first, that Rashi's implied criticism of the very act of sending the spies seems to contradict the plain meaning of the verse, in which it seems to have been commanded by God Himself (perhaps like the use of the word לך in Gen 12 and 22); and, second, what was wrong with doing so anyway? Moreover, in the recounting of this incident in Deuteronomy 1, not only did both Moses and the Almighty approve of idea, but the report they brought back was good; it seems clear that it was only the people who remained behind who were discouraged and took it in a bad way. Here, too, the turning point, on the peshat level, only comes about in 13:28 where, after the spies give a good report, they add that: "However, the people who dwell in the land are ferocious, the cities are large and well-fortified, and we saw giants there too," concluding with the evaluation that they would be unable to conquer the land, and that they saw themselves as no more than grasshoppers (31-33). Needless to say, the people were profoundly discouraged by such a report (14:1ff.).

Why, then, does Rashi blame Moshe from the outset for sending them? To begin with, he is of course quoting an aggadic motif, found in the Talmudic account of this event in Sotah 34a—but that only pushes the question back one historical level. Why then?

The answer I give myself is that Rashi, and the aggadah on which he builds, believe that, ideally, an individual, and a community, ought to have total faith in God's protection, His providence, in the idea that he would not send them to a place that was bad, dangerous, where they would be repulsed in battle or suffer deprivation once they lived there.

Indeed, Ramban asks this question at some length in his comment on this verse. After all, sending out spies is not necessarily a sign of distrust or lack of confidence. Indeed, it's a routine, normal procedure to send people to spy out the land to gather information and to give the invading troops some advance notion of the lay of the land, the location of critical cities, deployment of forces such as they are, etc. Joshua sent spies to investigate Jericho (this Shabbat's haftarah!), he engaged in various kinds of tactics in the battle of Ai, etc. – so why is it identified with discouragement?

A partial answer , at least, is that there are two types or modes of faith within Judaism—historically, and today as well. One view is to be religious means not to have total trust in God, to believe that God will always arrange things, and even to anticipate and expect miraculous outcome even from the most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations. Thus, there are some religious people who will never say "so-and-so only has a few months to live" even when clearly suffering from a terminal illness, because it's somehow seen as sacrilege to not to expect a "miraculous” cure even at the last moment; or there are the innumerable stories Shlomo Carlebach always used to tell about the proverbial "poor shlepper" who always found the Hasidic equivalent of a pot of gold through the intercession of a rebbe. If you keep a miniature book of Tehillim or Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh in your pocket will protect you from danger. I even once heard a pious woman who blessed a bride who was marrying later in life, clearly after her child-bearing days were over, that she should have children (tzadikkim ve-tzidkanniyot, no less!)—since the key of childbirth is, after all, in God's hands. In brief, a picture of God as irrupting into the natural order of life, working constant miracles. No problem is insurmountable if your faith is strong enough. An almost naïve belief in Divine Providence intervening on behalf of those He loves.

The second view is one that says that "the world follows its path." God created the laws of nature, of physics and biology, and even, to a lesser extent, those of social and psychological behavior. Ones expectations from life and from the world must be based upon sober, realistic knowledge of reality. A reasonable person, whether religious or secular, must make decisions in real-life based on the maximum possible information about reality, considerations, etc. Indeed, having too many miracles are not good, because they introduce an element of chaos into the world—and surely, that was not what God the Creator wants. He created death, He gave gives man free-will, He created the laws of nature with all its unpleasant aspects, too, like the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions resulting from the unstable surface if our planet, with its hot molten center, or ferocious wild animals who may occasionally attack human beings, etc. One must take all this into account; only when one reaches real despair because of this is it seen as negative religiously. This is the view of Rambam, who downplays hashgahah peratit, individual Providence, to limited, exceptional cases. This view was articulated in often caustic ways by Yeshayahu Leibowitz; but it was also implicit in the main thrust of Rav Soloveitchik's thought, (for example, in those sections of Halakhic Man where he counterpoises the sober, worldly-oriented approach of halakhic thinking to that of various mystical schools). But it is also eloquently articulated in an unreconstructed, seemingly "old-fashioned" Orthodox leader such as the Hazon Ish, in his little book on Emunah u-Bitahon, in which he takes pains to explain that trust in God doesn’t mean thinking that He will bring about magical, deus ex machina solutions to our difficulties in life, but that whatever does in fact happen in somehow God's will ad is ultimately for the best, reflecting as it does His Will. We remain with the question: was Rashi so simplistic and naïve in HIS view? Or is his approach at times best understood as that of the anthologist, who perhaps uncritically copies and summarizes material gathered from Hazal?


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