Monday, June 15, 2009

Parashat Korach - The Entire Congregation is Holy

by Elli Sacks
A chassidic text study

Korach's Radical Egalitarian Values

There has been a tremendous renewed interest in the Mei ha-Shiloah over the past few decades, both in yeshivish and non-yeshivish settings, and this upsurge in popularity is undoubtedly due to Shlomo Carlebach's role in disseminating the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe to vast and varied audiences around the world. According to Betzalel Philip Edwards author of Living Waters, a fascinating translation of the Mei ha-Shiloah published by Jason Aronson, whenever Reb Shlomo was traveling "in his suitcase there was always a copy of the Mei Hashiloach. You could say that wherever he went, he took with him the light and profundity of the Isbitzer Rebbe, giving it to thirsty souls. I once heard him say, “you can not understand the Chumash (five books of Moses) without the Mei Hashiloach.”

However, mention the Mei ha-Shiloah in more academic circles and you will invariably get raised eyebrows for an altogether different reason -- the identification of the work with the doctrine of determinism. Though others before the Ishbitzer have proposed similar ideas, the Mei ha-Shiloah is often cited as the principle Jewish work advancing the idea that free will is illusory and that every action on this earth, even terrible sin, is the fulfillment of the Will of God. To quote Hitzei Yehonatan (see link below): "At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). " For the Ishbitzer, even the choice of whether to fear Heaven or not is also an illusion, and one that is intentionally imposed upon us by God.

It is specifically here in Parashat Korach that the Mei Ha-Shiloah most fully develops his thoughts on free will and determinism. Others with far more knowledge and expertise than myself have devoted considerable time and energy to analyzing these particular teachings (you can read two takes on the subject at the following links: Chapter 5 in Prof. Alan Brill's "Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin and R. Jonathan Chipman's post on Korah in Hitzei Yehonatan), so I feel no obligation to address the topic myself. However, I do want to point out that those looking for scriptural support for a deterministic view of the world can find it readily in the Torah in the book of Genesis. There, Joseph makes a strong case for determinism in his dramatic speech to his brothers when he finally reveals his true identity to them (Genesis 45:4-8):

"Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for it was God who sent me before you to preserve life. The famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years remaining in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt."

Free Will vs. Determinism: discuss amongst yourselves...


So, having sidestepped the philosophical question, I would like to examine a different teaching from the Mei Ha-Shiloah that speaks of Korach's democratic aspirations, an egalitarian vision of the End of Days (taken from the end of Masekeht Ta'anit) where all the righteous stand equally close before the Holy One Blessed Be He... Perhaps it is the vitality of this vision that prompted R. Zadok Ha-Cohen of Lublin, author of the Pri Tzadik, to refer to Korach in affectionately glowing terms as "Our Holy Grandfather." Without further adieu, the text... Mei ha-Shiloah (Korah; 1995 ed. B’nai Berak, Vol. I, p. 155.):

“The entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord.” (Num 16:3). Here Korach makes the claim that there is no hierarchy in Israel where one individual ought to be set higher than his fellow man, for God is in the midst of the entire congregation. That is to say that Hashem dwells within everyone equally, as it is written in the midrash (Talmud Bavli, Ta'anit, 31a) "In the future, the Holy One Blessed Be He will make a dance for all the righteous." "Dance" refers to a circle, in which no one is closer [to the center] than his fellow man. And Korach claimed that this vision was already realized at the time!?!

Commentary: -- Two weeks ago, in Parashat Be-ha'alotekha, we read about the story of Eldad and Meidad. As you will recall (Numbers: Chapter 11) the 70 elders of Israel had traveled from the Israelite camp to the Tent of Meeting where the Spirit of the LORD descended upon them, endowing them with the power of prophecy. At the same time, the Spirit of the LORD descended upon two additional men -- Eldad and Meidad -- who had remained within the Israelite encampment, and who also began to speak the word of God. Moshe's second-in-command, Yehoshua Bin Nun, feared that this "extra-territorial" prophesying represented a threat to the hierarchical power structure within Israelite society and asked Moshe to forbid them from doing so. But Moshe's reaction towards Eldad and Meidad is not only not hostile, it seems downright giddy. "Would that all of Hashem's people were prophets, and that Hashem had put His Spirit upon them!"

Does not the voice of Moshe in Be-ha'alotekha sound similar to Korach's voice in our parasha? Perhaps Moshe was echoing a sentiment that was popular in the Israelite camp. After all, hadn't the entire congregation achieved the level of prophecy at Sinai, when God spoke directly to each and every person present? If only the Children of Israel could have maintained that level of intimacy, that level of connection, there would have been no need for priests or elders or for political leadership. Moshe could have retired to the quiet of the Beit Midrash, learning Torah all day instead of constantly dealing with the enfuriating complaints of the maddening crowd.

So why is it that Moses was so offended by Korach's challenge? Why wasn't he wooed by the vision Korach proffered from the conclusion to Masekhet Ta'anit:
"Ulla Biraah said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: In the future the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make a dance of all the righteous people, and he will sit among them, in the middle of the circle, in the Garden of Eden; and each and every one will point with his finger toward Him, as it says: He shall say on that day, "Behold! This is our God; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to Whom we hoped; let us exult and be glad in His salvation."

The answer according to the Ishbitzer is that Korach was essentially correct in his claim, but, as so often is the case in life, his problem was one of timing. Korach expresses the true egalitarian ideal that will be realized in the End of Days when the righteous will dance around the Holy One in a circle, and everyone will commune in equal proximity to Hashem who will then truly be "in their midst." Nevertheless, it was patently clear to Moshe that this was NOT that time and that no matter the legitimacy of his ideals, Korach was jumping the gun. Furthermore, there was a fatal inconsistency in Korach's argument which the Ishbitzer points out in expounding upon a verse from Proverbs...

But regarding Korach's claim, King Solomon said (Proverbs 20:26) "The wise King scatters ('mezareh') the wicked, and turns the wheel ('ofen') over them."

The Mei ha-Shiloah now plays with the verse, reinterpreting the words "mezareh" and "ofen", changing their contextual meaning in order to point out the fault in Korach's claim...

That is to say, God had already placed the wreath ('zer') and the crown (of the Levites) upon them, and thus had already elevated their status. And in regards to this, Hashem "turns their own character traits ('ofen') against them. " God asked them, "Why is it that when I granted you this lofty status you didn't complain immediately, saying 'There is no hierarchy in Israel and no individual should be set higher than his fellow man.'?"

In this ironic twist, the King of Kings is ready to concede to Korach on the content of his argument, but not on the timing of it. And it is Korach's own defining character trait, his ambition, that is his ultimate undoing. The fact that Korach hadn't complained when Hashem originally elevated the Levites over the rest of the congregation (after the sin of the Golden Calf) undermines his claim that the ultimate vision had already been realized. And so, Korach's charge is refuted and rejected.


We have now reached the end of this teaching and discerned its plain meaning, but as is so often the case with the Mei ha-Shiloah, this is not where the learning ends... this is where it begins. We are left to consider the tension between the teleological vision of a more equal Judaism and the hierarchical constructs that define Judaism today. Is there a way that our egalitarian aspirations can help inform our religious practice? Is there a way possible to bridge the two without, as in the case of Korach, jumping the gun? Can this teaching help us in our Avodat Hashem and in developing our own spiritual lives?

One last question before we leave off. Regarding the verse from Proverbs 20:26 brought above -- an obscure verse that is rarely quoted in rabbinic literature -- why did the Ishbitzer choose to hang his discourse on Korach specifically on this unremarkable verse?

The answer is to be found in Numbers, Chapter 17 which is the conclusion of the Korach episode: "And the LORD spoke to Moshe, saying: 'Speak to Elazar the son of Aharon the Kohen, and have him lift up the fire-pans from the inferno, while you
scatter ('z'reh') the fire yonder. For they were sanctified, the fire-pans of these sinners [who paid] with their lives, and make them into hammered sheets to overlay the altar, for they were offered before the LORD and became holy."

The linguistic connection between Proverbs 20:26 and Numbers 17:2 becomes suddenly apparent -- both verses make prominent use of the uncommon verb z.r.h. -- to scatter. But now we see how the Ishbitzer's reading of the second verse informs his reading of the first. The wise King of Proverb scatters the fire of Korach not for its wickedness, but precisely because it has become sanctified. That fire, scattered upon the earth, will smolder until the End of Days, when it will once again blaze as bright as the vision Korach has offered us. A vision that is ultimately and utterly holy.

Shabbat shalom,


Check out Ishbitz / Modi'in posts and other great divrei Torah at Torah Place


  1. Awesome! I had already read the Wikipedia articles "Yehuda Ashlag" and "Anarchism and Orthodox Judaism", and written my own blog post here, when my friend Michael Berg showed me this post of yours. Nifty!

  2. It seems to me that a quotation of Pirqei Avot, about Korah's argument being not for the sake of heaven, fits with the whole scattering thing.

    Also, I would note that not only did we not maintain the level of Sinai, but we specifically asked God to not speak to us anymore, and to set up Moshe as His intermediary. The result was that when Moshe disappeared, we were terrified by the loss of our intermediary, and built a calf (cf. the Kuzari, that the sin was not replacing God, but replacing Moshe). So asking for an intermediary, a religious hierarchy, led to idolatry.