The Whole Garment

Korah is the villain of this week’s Torah reading, the leader of a foiled rebellion against Moses and Aaron. “Look, all of us are holy,” Korah said to them. By this he meant that he and his family were, like Moses and Aaron, all members of the sacred tribe of Levi. As such, Korah argued, they all ought to have an equal claim on the priesthood—so there was no reason for Aaron and his descendants to be the only kohanim (priests) serving in Israel’s sanctuary.

 

An ancient midrash connected Korah’s attempted rebellion to what immediately preceded the Torah’s account of it: the law of tassels (see last week’s comment). Midrashists sometimes asked what the connection was between two apparently unrelated items that appear one after the other in the Torah. This hermeneutical practice was called doreshin semukhin, “interpreting adjacent things.”

 

In the case of Korah, interpreters asked whether the law of tassels might have had something to do with his attempted rebellion. After all, putting tassels dyed the color tekhelet on the four corners of a garment would certainly be expensive, and Korah was a rabble-rouser eager to recruit followers to his cause. An early, perhaps pre-rabbinic midrashic text called the Book of Biblical Antiquities (originally written in Hebrew, it survives only in Latin translation) thus reports that after Moses had promulgated the law of tassels, Korah exclaimed, “Why is an unbearable law imposed upon us?”

 

A later version of this midrash goes into greater detail. According to this account, Korah immediately asked Moses, “Does a garment that has already been dyed completely tekhelet still need the tekhelet-colored thread on its four corner-tassels?” “Yes,” replied Moses. “And a room that is full of Torah scrolls—does it still need a mezuzah on the doorway?” “Yes,” Moses again answered.

 

It’s clear that Korah was trying to impugn Moses’ authority by showing the laws he was transmitting to be illogical. After all, if seeing a single thread of the color tekhelet served to remind people of the tekhelet-colored accoutrements of the tabernacle (mishkan) and the priestly garments—and thereby would lead them to remember God’s holiness and to seek to be holy themselves—then surely that connection could be made far more strikingly by a garment that was entirely tekehelet-colored! Why would it still need the special tassel? And if the mezuzah was intended to remind people of the Torah’s commandments, wouldn’t that act of reminding be far more striking if one were entering a room full of Torah scrolls? Would such a room still need the mezuzah at its entrance?

 

But there was a hidden message in these two questions. What was on Korah’s mind was the special status of Aaron and his descendants. “We’re all Levites,” Korah had said, and in that sense they were all equal threads in an all-tekhelet garment. If so, why single out one particular thread—Aaron and his descendants—from all the others? Similarly, if all Levites were comparable to room full of Torah scrolls, all of them containing the words of God, why should a special little parchment be singled out and put at the room’s entrance?

 

Perhaps this is why Korah’s rebellion was viewed by the Rabbis as so insidious. He was a clever politician intent only on his own gain, but he succeeded in masking his intentions and persuading other people that he was actually their representative in opposing an elite.

 

Shabbat shalom!

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