In this week’s podcast, Alex Israel, director of the Pardes Summer Program, discusses Parashat Korach.
[Cross-posted from my blog, where you can find a parsha haiku every week]
Reading this week’s parsha with Rashi brought up an interesting point for me, one to do with how the early commentators read the text more than with the topic of this week’s parsha specifically (the haiku reflects the theme of the parsha). Rashi goes out of his way to defend Korach (see 16:7) and this is striking for a few reasons. First, because the text itself does not present a positive picture of him, as he is the ringleader of the rebellious group that challenges Moshe and Aharon, creating further strife in the camp shortly after the episode of the spies. Second, Rashi makes no similar effort to defend Datan and Aviram, the other named leaders of the rebellion. Finally, this is in stark contrast to other figures like Yishmael and Eisav, which Rashi purposefully depicts as worse than the text makes them out to be. So the question remains: what did Korach symbolize for Rashi that he felt the need to defend him beyond what the text seems to suggest?
For your own selfish purpose
Earthquakes to follow
in this week’s parsha, there is a fair amount of death. entire families are swallowed up by the earth. a raging fire consumes two hundred and fifty men. an infectious plague spreads wildly and kills fourteen thousand and seven hundred people. this is the price for challenging authority.
these deaths are all in retaliation for korah and his band’s rebellion against moshe and aharon, and of course, indirectly at God’s whole system of privilege in general. and shockingly, this high death toll comes after God’s desire to annihilate even larger numbers of people is curbed. the first time around, moshe holds God back, arguing, “When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (numbers 16:27). the second time around, aharon runs around mid-plague trying to atone for these rebellious people in order to save their lives.
and yet, the Torah specifically writes that just before the earth swallowed all of korah’s people and the households of his ringleaders, “their wives, their children, and their little ones” stood at the entrance of their tents and came out to watch (numbers 16:27). rashi points out that normally a beit din (jewish court) punishes only those of an age where two hairs have sprouted (sounds like adolescence) and the heavenly court, with an even more lenient policy, punishes only those twenty years and older. yet, here, in the case of korah, even the babies still breast-feeding from their mothers, are punished with their fathers.
i want to believe that the Torah shifts focus to the innocent children standing by in order to grapple with the unfairness that these lives will too soon be lost. there is something discomforting in just letting them get swallowed up with the rest of them without at least acknowledging the injustice of it all.
eyes wide with wonder,
watching as they back away
earth opens its mouth.
grappling with natural disasters, loss of life, and systems of punishment,