Friday, June 19, 2009

Korah (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at June 2006.

Korah’s Sin

Korah, in both biblical and midrashic image, was the arch rival and antithesis of Moses; the demagogue who tried to incite the people to rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (which was really a charismatic instrument for the direct rule of God), so as to displace them in both their “kingly” and priestly roles. What was Korah’s offense according to the Zohar? Zohar III:176a-b:

“And Korah son of Yitzhar son of Kehath son of Levi took” (Num 16:1). Rabbi Abba began: “They are more pleasant than gold, than much fine gold; they are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycomb” (Ps 19:11). How exalted are the words of Torah! How precious they are! They are desired above, they are desired by all, as they are the Holy Name. Whoever engages in Torah engages in the Holy Name, and is saved from all things: he is saved in this world and is saved in the World to Come. Come and see: Whoever engages in Torah is united with the Tree of Life. And when he is united with that, he is united with all, as is written: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it” (Prov 3:18).

Rabbi Yitzhak began: Whoever engages in Torah is free from all things. He enjoys freedom from death, as he have said, for freedom rests upon it and is united therein. Were Israel crowned with Torah (or: to observe Torah), they would be saved from all things and would not be forgotten in Exile. And this is what is written, “’Inscribed upon the tablets’ (Exod 32:16). Do not read ‘inscribed’ (harut) but ‘freedom’ (herut)” (M. Avot 6.2). And this freedom is [found] in the Torah. Torah is thus the strength of the right hand, as is said “At His right hand a fiery law for them” (Deut 33:2), and the left is included within the right. But he who confounds right with left and left with right is as if he destroyed the world.

Like many weekly portions (I bracket here the question as to whether the parashah is a basic literary unit in the arrangement and editing of the Zohar), this week’s parshah of the Zohar begins by praising the Torah and celebrating the great merits of those who engage in Torah study (understood, primarily, those who study the secrets of Torah—the most sublime level of Torah); and, by implication, the harm caused by those who neglect the study of Torah. It is only in the final sentence if this introductory passage that Korah’s sin is alluded to.

The concept of Torah in Zohar is very sublime and elevated; it is almost an apotheosis of God. Indeed, it states here explicitly that the importance of Torah study derives from concept that it is “the Holy Name”—the manifestation / vessel / embodiment of God’s holiness and glory within this world, no less so than the Shekhinah. Other expressions of this attitude: the description in Vayakhel of the opening of the ark, and the reciting of the prayer Breikh Shmeih, as a high point of the prayer rite, as if the very appearance of the Torah scroll is a very special and pivotal moment. Or compare the passage we presented here two weeks ago (Beha’alotkha) about the foolishness of those who don’t understand the multi-leveled depth of Torah. Torah is not just the garment of the king, but his very body, his soul, and even “the soul of his soul.” Torah study is thus the portal to mystical experience, the “Tree of Life”; the source of all blessings:

Come and see: Aaron is right; Levi is left. Korah sought to exchange right with left. Hence he was punished; moreover, he had an evil tongue, and was punished for all. Rabbi Judah said: The left is always included in the right. Korah wished to switch about the ordering of above and below. For that reason he was lost to both above and below.

As noted earlier, Aaron (and the Aaronide priests) represent the forces of Hesed, of grace and loving-kindness (the “right” side of the Sefirotic tree), whereas the Levites correspond to stern judgment and limitation (”Left”). (Compare the passage we brought and analyzed in HY X: Shemini, in which there was a typology of kohanim=water and Levites=wine/fire/music.) Moe broadly, the idea here is that there is a certain order to the social universe, as there is to the cosmos (at least in this world; some suggest that in messianic times these differentiated will be lifted.

“And Korah took” (Num 16:1). What is meant by “took”? He took bad advice for himself. Whoever pursues that which is not his, it escapes him; moreover, that which is his, he loses. Korah pursued that which was not his; he lost that which was his own, and did not benefit from the other. Korah entered into a dispute (mahloket). What is “dispute”? Division. Division of above and below. And one who seeks to upset the fixing [i.e., order] of the world is lost from all the worlds. Controversy is a dividing of peace. And one who “divides” peace causes a division in the Holy Name, for the Holy Name is called peace.

Korah sowed discord and dissension—but discord is here a cosmic concept: “discord above and below.” Elsewhere in Kabbalah we have the concept of “uprooting the plantings”—i.e., removing the sefirot, the building blocks of the cosmic structure and of the inner psychic structure of the human being, from their roots. The Zohar’s world-view is one which sees a certain order to the world, a certain balance among disparate forces and elements, so that one who upsets this delicate balance performs a seriously disruptive act. World is laid out, organized in a certain way, in which person has a certain destiny, a certain place. Moshe and Aharon were leaders of a certain type; Korah also came from a prestigious family of Levites—but he wanted more, and ended with less.

Come and see: The world only exists by virtue of peace. When the blessed Holy One created the world, it could not be sustained until He came and imbued it with peace. And what was that? Shabbat, which is the completion, the wholeness of above and below, and thus the world was sustained. And one who divides it is lost from the world. Zelophehad made a division [i.e., divisive act] against the Shabbat, for he gathered wood [on the Sabbath day]. [see Num 15:32 ff., read by the Midrash as referring to Zelophehad, whose daughters approached Moses about their inheritance in Num 27:1 ff.]

And what were those pieces of wood? They were the other trees [i.e., in contrast with the Tree of Life mentioned earlier], as we have said: these are the words (trees) of mundane matters, for the mundane cannot dwell with the holy [From now on in, words of secular matters are certainly forbidden on the Shabbat], for they cause division in the peace of the world.

Rabbi Yossi said: It is written “There is great peace for those that love your Torah…” (Ps 119:165). The Torah is peace, as is written, “and all of her paths are peace” (Prov 3:17). But Korah came in order to divide the peace, above and below. Hence, he was punished both above and below.

Our passage concludes with a celebration panegyric to the theme of peace, which is associated both with Torah and with Shabbat. There is one interesting new idea here: that Shabbat=peace was in some sense a necessary completion to the world—not only a commemoration of Creation, as stated in the Kiddush and in various prayers, but in some metaphysical sense an element needed to sustain the world per se.

Buber’s Good and Evil and the Rebellions of in the Desert

Two weeks ago, Friday 13th Sivan, marked the 44th Yahrzeit of Martin Buber, one of the most creative, original and significant Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Continuing a tradition I introduced here last year (see HY IX: Shelah lekha), in wake of my dear departed friend Moshe Klibanov, I wish to dedicate part of this week’s page to some thoughts based on Buber’s teaching.

In his book, Good and Evil, Buber develops an analysis of the nature of human evil. At this point in the Torah cycle, we have been reading a series of chapters describing the various pitfalls, trials and temptations undergone by the children of Israel during their years in the desert. I like to think of this section as a catalogue of the varieties of human sin, shortcoming, and failure. In what follows, I wish to apply some of Buber’s insights concerning the structure of good and evil to these chapters.

Buber distinguishes between two kinds of evil; he begins by stating that evil is not simply the polar opposite of good, its antithesis. It is differently structured: whereas in performing good, all of a person’s forces are integrated, focused towards the path he has chosen in life, the more usual variety of evil originates in what Buber calls the vortex, the whirlpool of temptation, which in turn is born of the imagination. It is rooted in the multiplicity of possibilities afforded by life, among which the person refuses to choose, flitting from one thing to another. (The Don Juan, who pursues and “conquers” many women, but never loves any single woman, is a paradigm of this malaise.) In short, evil is a lack of integration of the personality, allowing one to spend an entire life pursuing ephemeral temptations of one sort or another.

Buber illustrates this idea in his exegesis of three biblical stories: the eating of the fruit of the tree in the Garden on Eden; Kain’s murder of his brother Abel; and the generation of the Flood. The motto of the latter is found in God’s final verdict, after the flood, that “the imaginations of man’s heart are evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). In a chapter entitled “Imagination and Impulse,” Buber discusses the role of the imagination, of the possible, in leading the generation of the Flood astray. “Imagery… is play with possibility… Like the deed of the first humans, [it] does not proceed from a decision; the place of the real, perceived fruit has been taken by a possible, devised, fabricated one which, however, can be made… into a real one. This imagery of the possible, is called evil.” (Good and Evil, p. 91)

This concept bears more than a little similarity to that alluded by Levinas in his concept of ”the temptation of temptation”—that is, that the temptation of various bodily sins—e.g., those involving sexuality, gluttony, the pursuit of “highs” of various sorts through drink or drugs—lies not so much in the actual pleasure afforded, but in the imagination of and fascination with the possibilities these afford. As Levinas puts it, modern man wants the availability of the thing desired more than the thing itself.

But there is a more radical form of evil, which Buber describes in light of certain ancient Iranian myths of the Avesta (but which is also present in the Bible), in which the person’s energies are focused and integrated—but upon the choice of evil, upon transforming him/herself to the level of a substitute God, making himself into the center and aim of all things, what Buber calls “the lie against being.” (Thus Pharaoh, who said “I am my Nile, and I made it”; Ezek 29:3.)

Returning now to the sequence of Torah readings: Immediately following the two verses in Numbers 9 marked off by inverted nuns—what some commentators see as the beginning of a new book, the would-have-been entry into the Land, which was quickly squashed by the people’s complaints and rebellions—we read of the Israelites’ voracious desire for flesh, their being fed up with the bland manna (“heavenly bread) which, while it satisfied their need for sustenance, did not have the sharp, pungent flavors of the food they remembered from Egypt. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks and onions and garlic” (Num 11:5). The essence of the temptation here is their “remembrance of things past,” and the giving over of oneself wholly to its temptation (doubtless enhanced in memory).

At the end of the parashah, we have Aaron and Miriam gossiping about their brother Moses. Once again, the essence of gossip lies in imagining the life of the other person in comparison to oneself.

In Parashat Shelah Lekha, the people are disheartened when the spies return from the Land of Israel, bringing a report of the frightening and awesome stature of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The people are frightened and want to return to Egypt; but then, at almost the next moment, undergo a 180–degree turnabout and, with bravado, want to storm the mountain and go up right way.

What is fear? Ultimately, it is a product of the imagination; like temptation, which draws its power from imagined pleasure, here the imagination is turned in a negative direction, to the imagination of all those things which might go wrong—as in all the jokes about the proverbially anxious Jewish mother.

In the final portion of this series, Korah, many of the people fall prey to the demagogue of Korah, who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, ridicules them, and proposes an alternative model. The demagogue builds an imaginary world, built upon the resentments and frustrations of the masses; his appeal, once again, is based upon the imagination, the hypothetical, better alternative world he creates with his craftily woven words—not upon anything real.

But the demagogue’s evil is of a different kind . He is not merely caught in the vortex of imagination, but sees himself as the center, and his own desire for fame, glory and power as the only objects of any importance in life. His challenge to Moses is based entirely upon ego, without any true framework of values or fear of God (as opposed to his artificial arguments which use human sympathy, ethical feeling or common-sense) within which leadership functions.

As an “anti-Moses,” Korah’s end was also diametrically opposed to that of Moses. Whereas Moses climbed the mountain, where he encountered God—a place, symbolically, midway between Heaven and Earth, between the human and the transcendent, the finite and the infinite—Korah was swallowed up and descended to the bowels of the earth, a place as far as possible from the mountain of God, the epitome, or rather nadir, of fixation upon the mortal, earthly self alone.


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