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Torah Law Is Not A Free For All

A premise of Torah analysis is that events recorded in the Chumash are not just historical accounts in the lives of our ancestors. Rather they contain important messages and lessons applicable to all current and future generations of Jews. People are people and so there is the innate potential for the mistakes made by the first generation of Jews to repeat themselves in the future. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach, records for us the tragic event of the rebellion against Moshe led by his cousin, Korach. Understanding his error has great implications for us living today.

Korach’s issue had been festering within him for some time. He was now not selected for a leadership position by Moshe. He was superseded by the appointment of their younger cousin, Elizaphan son of Uzziel, to be in charge of the Kohathite family. Korach attributed Moshe’s appointments to nepotism and a desire to consolidate his power. First, Moshe was the political and legal authority. Without the title king, Moshe had all the power of the future kings of Israel. Second, Moshe appointed his brother Aaron to be High Priest and Aaron’s sons and their descendants to comprise the priestly family. This appointment appeared to give Moshe very close control over the Kohanim whose responsibility revolved around control over the spiritual center of Judaism, the Temple as well as to be the educators of the nation. Now Elizaphan was chosen over Korach to lead the prominent Kohathite tribe of Levites.

Korach’s rebellion attracted and appealed to thousands of people. His position statement is summed up in the Torah when it states, “It is too much for you (Moshe). For the entire assembly, all of them, are holy. Hashem is among them. Why do you (Moshe and Aaron) exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem?” (Bamidbar 16:3) According to our Rabbis, Korach and his followers challenged Moshe’s halachic, legal, authority. His challenge made recourse and appealed to the democratic instinct that runs within a human being.

Korach posed halachic questions to Moshe. Does a blue garment still require a blue thread attached to the white tzitzit and does a house filled with Torah scrolls still require mezuzot on its doors? The questions in themselves are fine, but when Moshe explained the answers, in both cases in the affirmative, Korach and his followers laughed. The Talmud tells us their reaction. “If a small parchment of two paragraphs placed on a door is enough to remind a person of God, certainly a house with a complete Torah should fulfill the requirement. If one blue thread on a garment is enough to remind us of the Creator of the universe, by reflecting the blue sky, certainly a completely blue garment should suffice?” (Menachot, 43b).

While it is true that the entire nation of Israel stood together at the base of Mt. Sinai and heard the Aseret Ha’dibrot, the 10 Statements, only Moshe was authorized to ascend the mount to receive the Oral Law, Torah She’bal Peh, that accompanies the Written Law. The Written Law on its own is unintelligible. For example, it says, “You shall live in a Succah for seven days.” (Vayikra 23:42) Yet nowhere in the written text does it tell us what a Succah is, who exactly must live in this Succah, or which seven days we must live in it, what is considered living, is the living only in the daytime or are nights included as well in the command. It was Moshe who was entrusted by God to receive the facts of the Oral Law directly from Him. These facts cannot be disputed. What we are, however, allowed to do is after study and proper training in the method of Torah analysis, formulate concepts that explains the given facts and cases. Here, Moshe had no special power. The Torah records where either Moshe didn’t know or as in his dispute with Aaron, was wrong.

Korach and his cohorts, as do many today, want to bypass the study and training of Torah law analysis. Rather they seek to implement the Torah solely in line with their own feelings and dictates of the society in which they live. The Korach of old and the Korachs of today, who espouse his philosophy and approach to Judaism, continue to dispute the authenticity of the very facts of the Oral Law. They ignore the proper process by which appropriate actions in Judaism are determined. Thus we see in our own time harmful and destructive reforms and changes to normative Judaism. That is why after Moshe begs and pleads with Korach and his followers to reconsider their stance, God meets out such a harsh punishment on them.

One who studies and masters the system of Torah analysis finds, in fact, a very dynamic system of Jewish law. Based on the facts of the Oral Law, for example, Rebbe Yosi Ha’Galilee held that chicken is not meat and can be used with dairy as is the law with fish. Today’s Torah world is filled with modern day response to perplexing issues on organ transplant and regeneration via DNA, end of life issues in light of medical advances, use of electric timers on Shabbat and Yom Tov, owning stock in non-kosher companies, etc. You may be surprised at the various opinions, all legitimate, if the decision is arrived at by accepting the given facts of the Oral Law and applying the proper method of analysis to those facts in order to reach at the conclusion.

We must never forget that it is only “Torat Moshe,” meaning the Written and Oral Laws together with the proper method of analysis were first vouched safe by God only with Moshe. Any rejection of that premise, leads to Korachism, a serious flaw and one we must be on guard for in every generation. Yes the entire nation is holy but that holiness creates the obligation to keep loyal to our values and legal processes even if they run contrary to what we personally want or what the current society has deemed appropriate.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan