Sunday, June 17, 2018

Parashat Korah: Synthesis

A Message for Parashat Korah 2018
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Although it is clear that the uprising of Korah and his assembly was driven by their quest for pride and power, the specific ideologies that underlay their attack appear to be disjointed. In their initial encounter with Moshe, they charged him:

“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is God, and why should you raise yourselves up over God’s assembly?” (Bemidbar 16:3)
This mission sought equality in the spiritual realm. They reasoned that since the entire assembly is holy, every individual should possess equal access to the sanctified realm of the Mishkan and its service. Several verses later in the narrative, however, Datan and Aviram angrily shouted at Moshe:
“Is it too little that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to put us to death in the wilderness…What’s more, to a land flowing with milk and honey you have not brought us, nor given us an estate of fields and vineyards…” (13-14)
Their angry diatribe bore no mention of holiness or spirituality. Instead, it was solely focused on their deficient state of material pleasures. They accused Moshe of forcefully removing them from a land that was rich in “milk and honey” as he guided them to the barren lands of the midbar and Israel.

Basing himself on various statements of the Hakhamim, Nessiv suggested that Korah’s rebellion was led by two separate factions.[1] The first consisted of “two hundred fifty men of Israel, community chieftains, people called up to meeting, men of renown” (2). This group of dignified men hoped for a greater role in the formal procedures of the Mishkan. They argued that “they are all holy, and in their midst is God,” and therefore demanded equal access to a life of pure sanctity. Their punishment, in turn, came by a “sanctified” means. Moshe instructed them to bring forth fire-pans of incense and to stand by Ohel Mo’ed. God performed the rest:
And a fire had gone out from God, and consumed the two hundred fifty men bringing forward the incense. (16:35)
Datan and Aviram, in contrast, fought with an opposite agenda. They sought a return to the materialistic lifestyle that they remembered from Egypt. And their punishment, as well, matched their mission:
The ground that was under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households…and all the possessions. (16:32)
Their death came not from a “God-sent fire,” but rather from the source of materialism itself – the ground. It didn’t take place at Ohel Mo’ed, but rather at their homes. And it claimed more than just their lives, swallowing up all of their material possessions as well.

These separate groups of opposite-minded individuals banded around Korah in rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. They were drawn together by a unified contempt of any “synthesis” between sanctity and materialism. The groups chose, instead, a life of extremity. Whereas the two hundred and fifty men wanted absolute sanctity, Datan and Aviram wanted absolute materialism.

R. Yisshak Hutner z”l once distinguished between a “double life” and a “broad life.” He was responding to a student who worried that pursuing a secular career was inconsistent with the life of a God-fearing Jew. R. Hutner explained that while a person who rents a room in a home as a resident while concurrently renting a room at a hotel to live there as a visitor is in fact engaging in a “double life,” a person who rents a two-room apartment lives a “broad life.” He described the scene of a doctor who prayed for his patient before performing the operation. And R. Hutner incredulously asked his student, “Tell me the truth…is the doctor who recites a chapter of Tehilim for the well-being of his ill patient living a double life?”[2]

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l cited, in this context, the Mishnah’s dictum, “And all your acts should be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12), and HaRambam’s eloquent elaboration:
The result is that if one pursues this course during his entire lifetime, that he serves God constantly, even while he is conducting a commercial transaction, and even while copulating, inasmuch as his thought throughout is that he care for his needs so that he shall be physically sound in order to serve God.[3]
R. Lichtenstein wrote about the ideal life of “integrated diversity,” wherein “an analogous relation obtains between the pure study and teaching of Torah and advancing yishuvo shel olam.”[4] Indeed, R. Lichtenstein’s student, R. Michael Rosensweig remembered his mentor as embodying this ideal: “Rav Lichtenstein eschewed compartmentalization. His approach was seamlessly holistic.”[5] And his son, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, similarly wrote: “The dialectic of my father’s world is best described as a forward movement that harmonizes conflicting ideals by blending them into an integrated whole.”[6]

The various characters in Korah’s rebellion could not fathom a life of synthesis and integration. They claimed that any merging of the physical and spiritual in their lives would create an inconsistent “double life.” Aharon’s subsequent actions corrected this mistaken mindset. As the people of Am Yisrael were rapidly dying from a God-sent plague, he ran through the camp while clutching a fire-pan and incense (17:12). The fire-pan and incense represented absolute holiness. They were generally only used by a kohen in the Mishkan. And Am Yisrael’s camp at that time, the scene of mass of carnage, displayed the opposite reality of “this-worldliness.” Aharon’s life-restoring actions drew these contrasting realities together, as he effectively taught the lesson of synthesis.

Aharon’s actions taught Am Yisrael the lesson that Korah and his assembly could not possibly fathom. He caused them to realize that although certain aspects of our lives may seem “spiritual” and others “material,” they don’t necessarily contrast one another. He taught that when seen through the proper perspective, a diverse and multifaceted life need not exist as a “double life,” but rather as a “broad life.”

[1] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, HaAmek Davar to Bemidbar 16:1. See, as well, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein’s Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 133-41.
[2] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Igerot UKetavim (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), pg. 184-5.
[3] Hilkhot De’ot 3:3.
[4] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Varieties of Jewish Experience (Jersey City, NJ, 2011), pg. 269-80.
[5] A Life Steady and Whole: Recollections and Appreciations of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l (Brooklyn, NY, 2018), ed. Elka Weber and Joel B. Wolowelsky, pg. 178.
[6] Ibid., pg. 56.