Friday, June 08, 2007

Korach's Bad Deal (Korach 5767)

Much has been written about Korach: it has even been suggested that even if a rabbi who only has one Drashah, it is likely to be on this Parashah!

The rabbis find the genealogy of Korach at the start of the Sedra to be superfluous to the narrative:

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, took and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eli’av and On, son of Pelet, sons of Re’uven. And they arose before Moshe and four-hundred men from Beney Yisrael, princes of the community, called to the assembly, men of fame. (BeMidbar 16:1-2)

The Gemara understands that these names are intended to convey aspects of Korach’s character rather than to tell us the name of his antecedents:

And Korach took. Said Reish Lakish - he took a bad purchase for himself. Korach - he made a bald patch in Yisroel. Son of Yitzhar - a son against whom the entire world boiled like the afternoon. Son of Kehat - a son who blunted the teeth of those who bore him. Son of Levi - a son for whom accompaniment was made in Gehinam. (Sanhedrin 109b)

Rashi comments:

A bad purchase - he started to argue. He made a bald patch in Yisrael - they were swallowed up. Boiled - he caused anger. Blunted the teeth of those who bore him - he disgraced his ancestors with his wicked deeds. Requested mercy for himself - so that he should not be counted with them. (Rashi ad loc.)

The assumption of this Gemara is that names are significant and that when they appear, especially when redundant to the narrative, they are to be seen as describing the attributes of the people involved. This is common, and also appears in a simpler guise where a Biblical figure is described as ‘the son of so-and-son’, when we already know his parentage. The sources often interpret this to mean that he acts like his father or looks like his father, rather than as a simple genealogy.

The particular text here needs some explanation:

  • ‘Korach’ comes from a root meaning ‘bald’.
  • ‘Yitzhar’ comes from a root meaning ‘shining’, read here as ‘boiling’.
  • ‘Kehat’ comes from a root meaning ‘blunting’, as in ‘blunt his teeth’ in reference to the wicked son of the Seder.
  • ‘Levi’ comes from a root meaning ‘accompany’, as in the word we use for a funeral – ‘levayah’, which actually means accompanying the deceased on his or her final journey.

It is well-known that the genealogy of Korach is not traced back as far as Levi, even though when the family is mentioned later in the Tenach, it is:

These are those who stood and their sons from the sons of the Kehatim - Haymon the singer, son of Yo’el, son of Shmuel Son of Tachat, son of Asir, so of E’yasaf, son of Korach. 23 Son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, son of Yisrael. (Divrey HaYamim I:6:18, 22-23)

We are to assume that the bad character traits of Korach could not be traced back as far as Yaakov. While there are numerous explanations of the discrepancy in the genealogies, we could suggest that the aggression of Levi so clearly demonstrated in the episode of Dina and her rescue from Shechem, was the root of the rebellion of Korach. Perhaps the feistiness itself was inherited from Yaakov, whereas the first misuse of the trait can only be traced to Levi. So while in the genealogy in Divrey HaYamim, Yaakov appears, the story of Korach only traces the villain to Levi.

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