Thursday, June 29, 2006

Korach's Name (Korach 5766)

The Sedrah begins with a brief introduction to episode of Korach and his followers. Note the way in which Korach is named:

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav and On, son of Pelet, sons of Reuven. And they arose before Moshe and two hundered and fifty men from Beney Yisrael, princes of the community, called to the assembly, men of fame. They congregated over Moshe and Aharon and said to them - it is too much for you, for all of the community are holy and God is amidst them - so why do you lord it over the community of God? (BeMidbar 16:1-3)

The genealogy of Korach is unnecessary – we already know all this information from previous verses. The Talmud, recognising that the names are not needed for the narrative, assumes that rather than telling us from whom Korach was descended, they tell us about his character. However, why supply a four stage genealogy? Why not trace Korach’s ancestry still further, perhaps to Yaakov, or even beyond:

So let it also consider, ‘son of Yaakov’…. Said Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak - Yaakov requested mercy for himself, as the verse says, ‘Let my soul not come into their secret and with their gathering, let my honour not be unified.’ ‘Let my soul not come into their secret’ - these are the spies. ‘And with their gathering, let my honour not be unified’ - this is the gathering of Korach. (Sanhedrin 109b)

The reference is to the vision that Yaakov had on his deathbed, as recorded at the end of BeReishit. When speaking of the tribe of Levi, he saw that a descendant of his (Korach) would start a rebellion. He prayed that his name not be associated with the rebel; hence the genealogy of Korach stops at Levi, just short of Yaakov.

But how did this help Yaakov? Every child knows that Levi’s father was Yaakov; his absence from Korach ancestry hardly excludes his association from the rebellion. We already know that Korach’s great-great grandfather was Yaakov. The Maharal considers this question:

If you will ask - is it not a disgrace that such wicked descendants should emerge from the righteous one - for even though it is not written explicitly, do we not know that Korach was descended from Yaakov? We see that a righteous man may certainly spawn a wicked one - for there is some impurity in the righteous which manifests itself in the wicked one. There is no righteous man without some impurity, from which emerges the wicked one. But Yaakov prayed that he should have no portion in the wicked one, meaning that…. the impurity of that wicked one should not be rooted in Yaakov, rather in Levi. Therefore, it does not write, ‘ben Yaakov’, for Yaakov had no part in their dispute.... (Gur Aryeh BeMidbar 16:1)

The Maharal understands Yaakov’s prayer in a new way. Yaakov was concerned when he visualised Korach that he (Yaakov) might be responsible in some way for the rebel’s behaviour. Yaakov thought that Korach’s rebellion might be a manifestation of some flaw in himself, magnified through the generations into a full-scale attack on Moshe’s leadership. When God (as it were) consented to record Korach’s ancestry just to Levi, Yaakov was assured that the defect did not find its root in him, but could only be traced as far as Levi.

There is, however, a niggling difficulty. Assuming that Levi was the ‘root’ of the Korach problem, since Levi was Yaakov’s son he was therefore somewhat responsible for him. As such, the purpose of only tracing Korach’s family to Levi is unclear. The Shem MiShmuel suggests that while indeed the trait exhibited by Korach was traceable to Yaakov, its negative manifestation came from Levi. The pure trait of steadfastness in the face of adversity came from Yaakov, but was first misused by Levi (in the episode with Dina); this misuse reached its nadir with Korach, who stood brazenly in defiance of Moshe and his people. While in principle, steadfastness is a neutral trait, it may be used for good of bad. Yaakov was assured that while the essential trait came from him, any misuse started further down the line.

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