A friend of mine once shared part of the process he used to interview prospective students at his high school. The boys were invited to a full day of interviews, tests and experiences. In the middle of the day, they broke for lunch. When they entered the dining room, the tables would be set with six seats each. On each table, a large platter was waiting, with rice and five pieces of schnitzel. The boys who took first were usually the ones he was less interested in.
Without discussing the ethical and practical implications of such a test, what I think this educator was attempting to ascertain was whether the boys were takers or sharers.
This week, we read parsha Korach, which tells of Korach’s famous rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. It does not end well for Korach, who is swallowed up in a Divine earthquake along with his followers. The parsha begins with an interesting statement, “Korach took” (Bamidbar 16:1). It never explains exactly what he took.
When the Torah does not finish a sentence, there is always a reason. We have encountered this phenomenon before; in Bereishit 4:8 we find that “Kayin said to Hevel his brother,” without ever learning what he said. In the past, I have suggested that the Torah is telling us that if two brothers reach a point where one kills the other and it does not matter what the argument was about, something is dreadfully wrong.
Perhaps the same is true here — what Korach took is not the issue. The Torah simply wants us to know that he was a taker.
Interestingly, towards the end of the parsha, the Torah discusses the matnot kehuna, gifts the Jewish people are obligated to give to the kohanim. The topic seems out of place — unless, of course, the Torah is teaching us that there are some things in life, like honor, power and influence, that one is not meant to take. They are gifts, meant to be received.
o why do people take? There are many different types of “taking” — taking risks, taking drugs — but we are speaking here of acquiring. Whether consciously or not, some people associate their self-worth with position, power, or the accumulation of material wealth. If I have more, I must be more.
Shoplifting is one of the most common crimes in America; a study on Pricegun.com suggests that there are 550,000 incidents in the U.S. every day. Over $13 billion is shoplifted in America every year, which amounts to over $35 million a day! In fact, there are estimated to be 27 million “regular” shoplifters in America today, which means that over one in ten Americans steals habitually. And while some steal for drugs, or simply to get by, statistics suggest a very high percentage of shoplifters are people who could easily afford to pay.
While there are many reasons such people steal, including a desire to be in control or to fill a void, one of the oft-cited reasons is that people feel they deserve it. In a study to determine why well-off guests steal from their hotel rooms, many interviewees felt that their rooms had been overpriced to cover the inevitable loss from theft, and they wanted to get their money’s worth. In other words: I deserve more!
This sentiment can often be intertwined with envy and jealousy. A person feels they deserve better, at least as much as their neighbor. Sometimes it leads to anger, which is usually about expectations — I expect something, and when I don’t get it, I get angry. A person takes when he or she feels deserving; there is a certain arrogance to it. All this is the story of Korach, who was jealous because the position he expected, and felt he deserved, had been given to someone else.
There is a second aspect to the story of Korach worth mentioning. The arrangement of the parshiot always contains a powerful message. One wonders why Korach, which seems to be about the dangers of arrogance, is followed immediately by Chukat, which seems to be about the incomprehensibility in life. Chukat begins with the parah adumah purification ceremony, which in Jewish tradition represents that which we cannot possibly understand. We read of the deaths of Aharon and Miriam. Death, of course, is the ultimate phenomenon that can never be fully comprehended.
So why does this naturally follow Korach’s rebellion?
There is a fascinating midrash about Korach, quoted in Rashi. Korach challenged Moshe’s leadership by asking two famous questions. First, if there is a mitzvah to have one thread of techelet on a set of white tzitzit, then certainly a garment entirely techelet should be exempt — yet it still requires the fringe! And similarly, if a house is full of Torah parchments, it should be exempt from the need for a mezuzah on the doorpost, yet it is not!
What is this debate about?
Perhaps Korach felt that to believe in something, he had to be able to understand it. He could not accept a Judaism that seemed illogical. Thus, the midrash paints a picture of Korach asking questions based entirely on logic. Logically, it makes no sense to put blue strings on an entirely blue garment. In his arrogance, Korach believed that everything had to make sense to him.
Putting aside the arrogance of assuming that we can understand everything in a world created by G-d, imagine a life where everything has to make sense. Imagine parenting, if everything you tell your child to do must first make sense to them. Imagine marriage, if you only listen to your spouse when it makes sense. How long would such a marriage last?
The message of Korach is the danger of allowing arrogance to seep into our lives. How much better a world we would have if we acquired the humility to know that there is so much we will never understand, and that that’s OK.
I don’t need to understand everything my wife or my children, or even my friends and colleagues, ask of me. I just need to know they do it from a place of love and caring. And if that is true of my fellow human beings, it is certainly true of our relationship with Hashem. If I know G-d loves me, I don’t need to understand it all, even if there is value in trying.
Perhaps that is why last week’s parsha, Shelach, ended with the mitzvah of tzitzit. The four sets of fringes, each with a string of deep sea blue, remind us that Hashem, represented by the fathomless sea and the unreachable heavens, is all around us, always there.
Korach reminds us to let go a little, and take comfort in knowing we are in bigger hands, and that in the end, it will somehow all work out.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.