This week’s Torah reading appears to recount a very specific event during the 40 years our ancestors lived in the desert. Yet we know that the Torah is only interested in conveying universal ideas for all mankind to live by. Since only “big ticket” items are presented to us in the Torah, it prods us to examine each recorded episode very carefully.
The major event of this week’s portion is the rebellion of Korach and his followers. While the rebellion took the outward appearance of a political battle for authority, the true underlying motivation at first remains concealed. Korach is from the tribe of Levi making him a first cousin to Moshe and Aaron. When it comes time for another appointment, rather than choosing their next oldest relative, Korach, Moshe selects their youngest cousin, Eliezaphan son of Uziel. Korach is passed over. Apparently, he is not fit for leadership. This decision, however, is not Moshe’s; rather, it comes directly from Hashem.
Herein lies the rub. The rebellion of Korach stems from his failure to truly embrace a corollary of fundamental principle of Judaism. The source for Korach’s assault on Moshe and Aaron is perhaps something we struggle with at times as well. Analyzing this important point and understanding this tragic episode is so important for us living today. At the heart of the matter is the failure to recognize the unique prophetic level of Moshe and his selection by God as the exclusive recipient of the Oral Law. This Oral Law, in fact, preceded the transmission of the Written Law or Torah scroll.
The Oral Law has its own unique methodology. Moshe gladly and freely taught the Oral Law to anyone in the nation who wanted to learn. The Torah records other occasions where in debate of interpretation and application of Oral Law, Moshe either says he is wrong or he doesn’t know. Moshe was a totally honest investigator never ascribing to himself that he had all the answers. He was, however, the only person directly vested by God with all the facts of the Oral Law system as well as the process by which further laws could be derived.
It was this process that bothered Korach. He was under the opinion that extensions of the Oral Law and practical derivations could be arrived at by a combination of common sense and a democratic vote of the people. He failed to accept or internalize the understanding that this Oral Law system, given by God, works the way the physical universe does and is understood in a similar way. Anyone who puts forth the time and effort can make progress in the method of scientific investigation. This investigation follows certain rules of analysis. They are not democratic. The outcome or interpretation of the facts, the concepts that explain the phenomena, may lead to unexpected results and innovations. We are guided in our understanding of the physical world only by reason not by common sense or majority vote of the people.
The system of Judaism, having the same Creator as the physical universe, is therefore based on the same Divine knowledge. What passes for authentic Jewish practice must come from a deep and sophisticated analysis of the phenomena that comprise the Oral Law. In this analysis there can be no preconceived ideas or feelings what the outcome is to be. The analysis must drive and produce the outcome
Modern examples of the proper process of interpretation of the Oral Law can be found in Iggrot Moshe, the published halachic rulings by HaRav, HaGaon, Reb Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory. Many of his conclusions may come as a surprise. A completely false and erroneous example of Oral Law analysis, on the other hand, is presented in the book Jews God and History, by Max I. Dimont. It is clear to any student of the Oral Law that Dimont has no understanding of the Oral Law process.
Moshe begs both Korach and his misguided followers to reconsider what they are claiming. He gives them overnight to reflect on their approach. Perhaps they will realize that their underlying issue is not with him but in their emotional desire to manipulate God’s reality to make it come out the way they want. Just as no one can be successful living against the physical reality no matter how strong the desire, so too no one can be successful creating unfounded extensions of God’s Oral Law.
What does Moshe tell Korach? כי לא מלבי, that it (the Oral Law) is not from my heart. Moshe did not make up the system of Oral Law. It emanates from the same source that reveals that Korach is not to be appointed to this leadership role. Hashem, who truly knows the inner workings of each person, rejected Korach as a fitting leader. As the Torah proceeds to show, Korach’s religious motivation was not to carry out the Will of God. Rather it was to aggrandize himself and the desires of his band of followers.
Each of us must look deep into our personalities and see what is motivating us in our religious pursuit. Does it stem from some personal egoistic desire, from some societal influence now in vogue or from a true understanding of God’s Oral Law?
May Hashem grant each of us the opportunity to learn His Oral Law system and thus strengthen our commitment to His commands. May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, the Jewish people and peace loving people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan