A thought I've written up for Toronto Torah, on Parshat Korach:
After the collapse of Korach's rebellion, G-d presents Moshe with three instructions that counter elements of that misguided mutiny:
- First, the tribe of Levi is charged with protecting the Beit haMikdash from future incursions by those who are ineligible to enter. (Bamidar 18:1-7)
- Second, the nation is instructed to give special gifts to the Kohanim, explicitly recognizing that Korach was wrong for challenging their right to their positions. (ibid. 18:8-20, as understood by Rashi 18:8)
- Third, the nation is instructed to give a tenth of their produce – maaser rishon - to the Levites, enabling their service. (ibid. 18:21-32)
Within that last segment, though, an eight-verse passage describes the mitzvah of terumat maaser. When a Levite receives maaser rishon, he must separate one-tenth of that donation and give it to a Kohen; until he does so, he is prohibited from eating the maaser rishon he has received. How does terumat maaser respond to Korach's rebellion?
Three approaches are put forth by classic commentators; each stems from a different view of Korach's moment on the biblical stage. More broadly, each stems from a different perspective on the nature of human generosity:
1: Display Respect
One may read Korach's rebellion as a protest against the elevated position of the Kohanim; Korach, a Levite, wants the power of the Kohen for himself. Opposite this arrogance, the Divine command to give a gift mandates a display of respect. The requirement to give terumat maaser – a tithe paid by the Levite to the Kohen – reinforces the Kohen's dominance.
Taking this approach, Rabbeinu Bachya, in his 13th century Kad haKemach (Rashut 8), explained that just as the Jew's one-tenth gift to the Levite marks the Levite's leadership position, so "the Levite is obligated to give the Kohen a tenth from their tenth. Just as Israel is bound to the Levite, so the Levite is bound to the Kohen."
2: Recognize G-d
On a deeper level, Korach's rebellion may be read as a rejection of Divine control. The selection of Kohen and Levite comes at the Divine word, and so Korach is actually challenging G-d's architectural design for the Jewish people. Giving a gift on Divine command, on the other hand, demonstrates a recognition that G-d is the true owner of my property. The requirement to separate terumat maaser provides a constant reminder that there is an Authority above all, who establishes the rights and roles of every citizen.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb 304) put forth this position, writing of the terumah given by every Jew to the Kohen, as well as the terumat maaser contributed by the Levite, "You should not use that portion for personal purposes but dedicate it to G-d, declaring thereby that G-d is Lord of the earth and that only through Him have you any right to the earth and to the fruit it yields."
Similarly, Sefer haChinuch wrote (mitzvah 396), paraphrasing Kohelet 5:7, "Thus they will put into their hearts that there are higher-ups above them, and that higher than all of them is the exalted Guardian of all."
3: Take Honour from Giving
A third approach reads Korach's rebellion as a misunderstanding of Honour; Korach believes that holding an elevated position and receiving a gift is the height of human dignity. Thus Korach does not seek the right to serve as Kohanim do, but only to hold their position of authority. (Bamidbar 16:3) Giving a gift inverts Korach's initiative, displaying an understanding that there is great honour in giving. The requirement to give terumat maaser teaches the Levite the stature to be found in generosity.
Sefer haChinuch (ibid.) saw this as a clear benefit of terumat maaser; he wrote, "There is also merit and honour and stature for the Levites, lest their name be eliminated from the mitzvah of tithing when they receive their portion of produce. Lest the children [of the Jews] say to the children [of the Levites], 'You receive the produce, we receive the mitzvah,' there will now be a response: We have Torah, and we have flour [to give]." Of course, the Levites already give, with their service in the Beit haMikdash and in their role as teachers of Torah, but sharing material resources with others is a unique and honoured form of generosity. [For more on this from a secular perspective, see Tamara Brown, Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare and Caribbeans Creating Community, Chapter Four.]
Taken together, these approaches provide three lessons in generosity: Giving gift shows respect, giving a gift mandated by G-d demonstrates recognition of Divine authority, and giving a gift earns true honour. As explained by these commentators, Korach did not grasp these three points, but the mitzvah of terumat maaser ensured that his descendants, and all readers of the Torah, would absorb these lessons for themselves.