Thursday, June 6, 2013

Korach, Tzaraat, and Life Without a Mission

A thought on Parshat Korach and tzaraat, from this week's Toronto Torah:

After Korach's rebellion is put down, Aharon instructs his son, Elazar, to create a memorial for the incinerated followers of this misguided revolt. As the Torah describes it, the purpose is "so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aharon, will draw near to bring incense before G-d, and there shall not be like Korach and his group, as G-d spoke, via the hand of Moshe, to him." (Bamidbar17:5)

The Sages were troubled by the references to G-d speaking and the hand of Moshe; these difficulties led the Talmud to state:
Rav said: One who perpetuates division violates a prohibition, as it is written, "And there shall not be like Korach and his group."
Rav Ashi said: Such a person deserves tzaraat. Here it says, "Via the hand of Moshe," and Shemot 4:6 says, "And G-d said to him, 'Bring your hand into your bosom [and he brought his hand into his bosom, and he withdrew it, and behold, it displayed tzaraat, like snow].'"

According to Rambam (Sefer haMitzvot, Shoresh 8 and Lo Taaseh 45), the Talmud is not saying that the biblical declaration, "there shall not be like Korach and his group," is intended as a formal prohibition against strife. Rather, it is a warning that those who challenge the validity of the authorized kohanim, as Korach did, will experience the tzaraat which Moshe experienced when he refused his Divine mission. (Shemot 3-4) Moshe rejected his own status as the Divine agent, and Korach rejected Aharon's status as the Divine agent. One who rejects the Divine agent, as Korach and Moshe did, will suffer tzaraat. Rambam also notes an additional incident of tzaraat, which supports this warning; see Divrei haYamim II 26, in which Uziahu, King of Yehudah sought to usurp the role of the kohanim and was punished with tzaraat.

We might add to the list of those who experienced tzaraat for rebellion against G-d's authorized agents: Miriam and Aharon. Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe's unique status and closeness to G-d – granted that he was not a kohen, but he was still the agent of G-d – and they experienced tzaraat. (Bamidbar 12, Shabbat 97a)

These associations between Moshe, Korach, Uziahu and Miriam do identify stories with common denominators, but why is tzaraat an appropriate punishment for rebellion against authorized kohanim?

It may be contended that the Divine charge to the kohen is an extension of that first mission given to mankind in the Garden of Eden, with the words, "And G-d commanded the man." (Bereishit 2:16) As Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained (The Emergence of Ethical Man, pg. 5), "G-d takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will." From that point on, the meaning in Man's life lies in freely channelling his spirit into that which is Divinely declared to be right. This is the goal and purpose of human life.

Tzaraat, on the other hand, is a shadow of death; it is dying without dying, the body's vigour replaced by the snowy pallor associated with a corpse. The individual who experiences tzaraat is separated from the society of Man, cast out of the camp and condemned to declare, "Impure! Impure!" to warn off human traffic. (Vayikra 13:45-46) This individual is removed from the society of G-d, too, banned from entry into holy places or contact with sanctified property. (ibid. 13:46; Bamidbar 5:2) This individual acts as a mourner, his clothing torn and his hair unshaven, bereft and grieving. (Vayikra 13:45)

Perhaps tzaraat, this form of living death and bereavement, is an ideal consequence for a person who rejects the authorized representative of G-d – for rejection of G-d's ability to appoint someone as His agent is also rejection of that first, "And G-d commanded the man," and that purpose for which we live. Such a person is doomed to a meaningless, mission-less, pallid life, a living death, a perpetual mourner set apart from the community of Man and the community of G-d. [Perhaps this is also why Korach does not actually suffer tzaraat. Korach does not rebel against G-d's ability to select His agents; rather, he insists that G-d never selected Aharon at all.]

We might think that we would not have made Korach's mistake, but we often fall into the trap of rejecting our own selection, living lives of self-satisfaction instead of mission-satisfaction. This begins as we structure our lives – our homes, our careers, our hobbies - in the way we find most appealing. The self-centred approach can come to dominate our identities to the point that the mission is gone, and what remains is a pallid, corpse-like, tzaraat-marked existence. The imperative, "there shall not be like Korach and his group," demands more of us – to embrace the Divine command, to embrace our status as its agents, and so to embark upon lives of mission and purpose.


  1. I am completely flummoxed. Chazal don't seem to indicate that tzaraat comes due to denial of God's appointed agent. There are many such instances in tanach which do not result in tzaraat. Furthermore how is a m'tzorah like a dead person? Because a splotch of his skin is white? The disease is intended as an indication of a spiritual malady not a physical one.

    In fact the point made in brackets seems paramount. Why do Chazal say someone who emulates Korach receives tzaraat if Korach himself never did?!

  2. Anonymous 9:54 AM-
    1. re: "Chazal don't seem" - Chazal offer many causes.

    2. re: "There are many..." - Which other instances in Tanach are you thinking of?

    3. re: "Furthermore..." - Not the splotch, no - see the paragraph above that begins "Tzaraat, indeed"

    4. re: "In fact..." - Yes, that question troubles me. The line in brackets is my answer. What would you say?

  3. Rabbi,

    1. Yes, but that's not one of them!

    2. Any time anyone failed to listen to a navi for starters

    3. That's the paragraph I'm disagreeing with. Tzaraas may (or may not) be associated with grieving for a dead person, but it is certainly not associated with death. A person with tzaraas may be the perfect specimen of health. This is not hodgkins disease.

    4. Having not seen the chazal inside myself I would say that the operative word is 'deserves'. Anyone who slanders (as Korach did) deserves tzaraas. That punishment might not be meted out if, as in this case, there is a better punishment. This may be why Moshe asked God to provide a unique punishment.

  4. Anonymous-

    I received a comment from you in my email, but it doesn't appear here. Please re-post.