D’var Torah Korach, July 5th, 2019
This week’s parsha or Torah portion is called Korach, which is the name of a Levite who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Together with his two sons and 250 other community leaders, he challenged Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “You’ve gone too far. Why do you raise yourselves up above us?” By way of response, the Torah tells us that Moses fell on his face. Let me repeat that: He fell on his face.
Falling on your face is not exactly a commonplace activity nowadays, at least not in the western world, so we are left with the question of, what exactly was meant by Moses taking up this posture? The Torah provides no further explanation, and as it turns out, no one is quite sure about what that action was supposed to convey. Consequently, the sages speculated on the meaning of the gesture. Back in the Middle Ages, the 10th century rabbi known as the Saadia Gaon gave it a mystical interpretation, suggesting that it was a means of achieving divine guidance on how to respond to the rebels, that it was a way of making himself open to receiving a divine vision. The 11th century rabbi known as Rashi suggested that Moses did it in a desperate attempt to stave off divine vengeance and obtain God’s forgiveness for yet another incident in which his people lost faith and engaged in rebellion against God’s will. More recently, the 19th century Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin believed that he did it “to remind others of when they themselves had fallen on their faces amidst an experience of profound awe.” In effect he was saying to the rebels what the Hebrew above our ark says, da lifnei mi attah omed, know before whom you stand.
We can’t be entirely sure of what falling on your face means because most of what we call body language is not like a language at all. There is no dictionary where you can look up the meanings of body movements such as leaning in or out, crossing legs or arms, lifting eyebrows or showing teeth. Even nodding your head does not mean yes in every culture. And words may have dictionary definitions, but there still is a great deal of ambiguity left when we use them. When we’re talking with someone, we’re not always certain about what someone else means. In all honesty, we’re not always certain of what we ourselves mean when we say things. And sometimes when we are certain, we’re wrong.
The problem is magnified by the distance in time. Some of you may have heard about what happened to Naomi Wolf, the progressive, feminist author, journalist, and activist, just this past May. She was being interviewed on BBC radio about her latest book, entitled Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, which was about same-sex relationships. She mentioned that in her research she found that in Victorian England there were “several dozen executions” of men accused of being homosexuals, a statistic that her interviewer told her was incorrect. Wolf’s mistake was due to her misunderstanding of the British legal term, “death recorded”. As the interviewer, Matthew Sweet, explained, when this was entered into the record regarding an individual’s criminal case,
It doesn’t mean that he was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.
And he concluded, “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.” Embarrassed, Wolf thanked Sweet for calling her attention to the mistake, and said she would correct the relevant parts of her book.
The problems are magnified the further back in time we go. If and when you hear one of Shakespeare’s plays performed, how much of that 16th and 17th century English can you really understand? Go back to the 14th and 15th century and the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is in many ways alien to us. The Old English of Beowulf is all but unintelligible to most of us.
Our ancestors had the same problem with the Torah. Here was our founding document, our Law, our constitution, but how should it be interpreted. What does it say and what does it mean? In that other great ancient literate culture centered in the Greek city of Athens, Socrates criticized the written word, arguing that it is inferior to dialogue because you cannot ask it questions, or at least you won’t get any answers from a document. Put another way, a written work is a dead thing, in contrast to the spoken word that is voiced through the breath of life. This understanding is central to Jewish ritual, as we place great emphasis on saying our prayers, on chanting and singing. Unlike the reading tests given in schools, with their multiple choice answers requiring number 2 pencils, our reading test is the b’nai mitzvah ceremony in which the words are uttered for everyone in the congregation to hear, with all of us participating in the call and response of the prayers.
Unless you have the author present with you in the same room, you cannot ask questions of a written text, which means that some interpretation is required. The Torah has very limited punctuation, and the Hebrew aleph-bet has no vowels, which increases ambiguity and amplifies the need for interpretation. And again, there is the passage of time, so that in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the latest books of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, relating the events upon the return from Babylonian exile, we are told that the people could no longer understand the Torah, and needed it to be interpreted to them. After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era, Hebrew as a mother tongue went into decline, and was gone by the 4th century. It survived as a learned language, one that was preserved through texts, just as Jewish identity, Jewish culture and Jewish religion, was preserved through texts, through learning, through teachers and students, through discussion, debate, disputation, and through prayer and ritual. Hebrew was also known as a dead language one of many, but the only one that has ever been successfully revived and resurrected.
Returning to the problem of meaning, when it comes to communication in general, there is always some uncertainty. If we understood each other completely, we would probably not have any need to communicate in the first place. Complete understanding is an ability we reserve for the divine, not for human beings, who are always prone to error. At the same time, we have to have some understanding of each other, or else communication would be impossible. We share the same kinds of bodies, the same basic DNA molecules, the same kinds of physical structures, nervous systems, sensory organs, and brains. And we share similar experiences, subject to the human condition. In other words, all human beings have something in common, and that is what makes communication between us possible. We share a measure of common ground, and through our communication with one another we share our individual thoughts and feelings and memories, and in that way can increase what we have in common, enlarge our common ground.
Common ground is a kind of context, and some kind of context is always necessary for making sense out of our experiences, for making meaning. The words I am saying to you now, in this context, would mean something different if we were in a bar having a drink, on a beach laying out in the sun, or waiting for a show to begin on Broadway, or just outside the synagogue on Broad Avenue. Context is essential.
So, when the Torah says that Moses fell on his face, we can understand the gesture as one akin to bowing down, and more extreme than a mere bow. We may have seen a similar posture of lying prostrate in other religious traditions if not our own, and in social interactions in other cultures, and understand that it is a sign of respect, and submission. We can also relate it to the nonverbal communication of other animals, where displays of dominance and submission establish hierarchy. It follows that, rather than responding to Korach’s challenge with a display of power, say by asserting his status as leader, Moses displays humility, reverence, and contrition. But to whom? Certainly not to Korach and his followers.
On Purim we tell the story of how Mordecai would not bow down before Haman, and we would certainly expect the same from Moses. And the parsha fills in more of the context by telling us what Moses then said to these people, which was the following:
Come morning, God will make known who God is, and who is holy. You have gone too far, sons of Levi. Is it not enough that God has set you apart from the community of Israel by having you perform the duties of God’s Dwelling Place. Will you seek the priesthood too? Truly you rebel against God.
What is going on here is essentially a civil war within among the Levites. Korach and his followers are rebels challenging the existing leadership structure that consists of Moses and his brother Aaron, and the House of Aaron as the cohens, cohenim or priesthood. They are the ancestors or forerunners of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, in charge of the rituals required by the Law, by the Torah. And more than that, they are in charge of the Torah itself, the written text, what they understand to be the word of God. They are its keepers, in the sense of preserving both the second set of stone tablets and fragments of the first, and preserving other sacred scrolls, and also its keepers in the sense that we speak of keeping the Sabbath, observing the commandments, carrying them out, which requires interpreting them. What is a priest, after all? Not a prophet, or shaman. Priests only come into existence after writing is invented, and they are set apart from the common folk by virtue of the fact that they learn how to read and write, and with that ability are able to decipher and interpret sacred texts. It is no accident that the name of one of the first writing systems, hieroglyphics, means priestly writing. The prefix, hier, means priestly, sacred, and also is the root in the word hierarchy. The original meaning was sacred ruler, a hierarch, and was used to refer to the different orders of angels and heavenly beings, which was first worked out by the great sage Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam.
In the absence of writing, religious experience is pretty much common to all members of society, with some deference to singular individuals who were considered holy men and women. With writing and the introduction of sacred texts, an entirely new class of men, and they were almost always men, was introduced, a vocation known as the priesthood, who were raised all other members of their society, with the possible exception of royalty. In the story of the Exodus, Moses and Aaron are in conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, the God-King, who was supported by his own priests. At Sinai, the Israelites are established as a holy people. In Exodus, God tells Moses to tell the people that if we keep the covenant, “you shall be unto me a nation of priests and a holy nation”. And yet, within that nation of priests, the tribe of Moses and Aaron are set apart as priestly. And within the tribe of Levi, the House of Aaron is set apart as priests.
There is a fascinating play with hierarchy in the parsha. First Korach asks of Moses and Aaron, “Why do you raise yourselves up above us?” Then Moses fall on his face, bringing himself down to the ground, perhaps in contrast to the claim that he is raising himself up. And later, Moses predicts that the ground will open up and swallow the rebels, their families, and their houses and property, and that is exactly what God does. Rather than being raised up, they descend to Sheol, the underworld realm of the dead.
There are many ways to interpret this story. To relate it to current events, you might say that Korach and his followers were populists. And they were nationalists, looking to make the tribe of Levi great again. They had no respect for the rule of law, no respect for the division of power and authority. The parsha tells us that after the exchange between Korach and Moses, Moses sent for two of Korach’s followers, wanting to speak to them, and they refused to come. Again, we can see the parallel in current events, in the refusal to come before Congress and testify to the American public. Moses tries to speak with the rebels, tries to warn them against angering God, but over and over again they will not listen and will not learn.
Respect for legitimate authority is necessary, or society falls apart. And yet, as we are celebrating the anniversary of American independence, and the Revolutionary War, we also have a soft spot in our hearts for righteous rebellion. As Jews who continually recall the liberation from slavery, we also recognize the need to challenge authority and fight for justice. The rule of law is based on the principle of equality, that we are all equal before the law, just as we are all equal when we know before whom we stand. And to be equal means that we do not raise ourselves above others, and neither are we lowered down or swallowed up.
There was a time when most people did not know how to read and write, and the few that were literate were needed to read the sacred texts, not just to read for themselves, but to read aloud to the people, as we do with the Torah. And they were needed to explain the meaning of the text, to interpret the writing, and carry out the laws and commandments. But as literacy spread, the priests lost their monopoly over interpretation of the Torah, and this can be seen in the books of the prophets, in the beginnings of synagogue life during the Babylonian captivity, in the emergence of the Pharisees during the Second Temple period, in the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Second Temple, and for that matter, in the rise of Reform Judaism.
Korach and his followers challenged authority for its own sake. They wanted to bring Moses and Aaron down in order to elevate themselves, and not to build a better society, one in which everyone would be raised up together. In contemporary Jewish life, we resemble those rebels when we dismiss Jewish learning and tradition and spirituality out of hand, for our own sake, or because it is too inconvenient or too difficult to work into our busy lives or stimulating lifestyles. We can become a nation of priests, but to do so we have to embrace Jewish learning and tradition and spirituality, Jewish life, embrace it as a way of life that is open to discussion and debate as a community, and open to interpretation as knowledgeable, well informed individuals. If you don’t make that effort, it is easy to find yourself just stumbling through life, and find yourself, eventually, falling on your face.