Friday, July 14, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinchas 5777–The Sons of Korach

Here’s a brand new musing. Lately, I’ve been revisiting a lot of older musings – not for lack of time, interest, or motivation, but simply because I feel it’s important for me to look over what I’ve written in the past to see how my views have been shaped and changed over time. and also to discover and add new insights to what I’ve written. Before I get to the new musing, because this is parasha that has inspired some interesting writing, let me tell you what I’ve written about in previous musings on parashat Pinchas.

1. So, if you think the story of Zelophechad’s daughters is illustrative of some feminist sympathies in the Torah, read this:

2. If you’d like to read about the regular Haftarah for Pinchas, which is only read in years when Pinchas is read on a date falling before the 17th of Tammuz (which last happened in 2014 and won’t happen again until the year 2035/5795) read this:

Only in those few and far between years when we read the regular Haftarah for Pinchas from Isaiah do we read of the “kol d’mamah daka",” the “still, small voice.” If that’s of interest to you, read this:

3. So, in most years, including this one, when Shabbat Pinchas falls after the 17th of Tammuz (the start of the three weeks before Tisha B’Av mourning the destruction of the Temple) we get three weeks of increasingly harsher haftarot of admonition. The first of these isn’t quite so harsh – read this:

4. If you’re really into figuring out the whole Pinchas thing, try this: or if you’re not a fan of all the apologetics for this story, try this:

5. Looking for a liberal twist on the story of Moshe passing on his mantle to Joshua, how about this:

6. A short but interesting thought about all those who came out of Egypt, wandered the desert, and never made it in to the promised land for their failure to embrace the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb

There are a few more, and they’re all listed, as usual, at the end of this musing. And now, for something completely different…

In this parasha, there’s another census, another genealogy. It is taken at G”d’s direct command to Moshe and Eleazar (taking his deceased father Aharon’s place.) The census starts, of course, with the clan of Reuven, the first born of Yaakov/Israel.  Enoch, a descendant of Reuven, has a son named Pallu, who has a son named Eliav, who has sons names Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. Sound familiar? So here, in the middle of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, the Torah stops to remind us that these were the same Dathan and Abiram who sided with Korach, and who died when swallowed up with the other followers of Korach. [Note, however, the cause of Korach’s own death where it is first told in Torah is vague and uncertain.]

Here, in parashat Pinchas, the Torah at least answers the question of whether Korach died – stating the he was swallowed up along with Dathan and Abiram. However, here Torah also clouds the issue by conflating the two incidents that befell Korach’s followers – the fire that consumed 250  with their offerings, and the later swallowing of (what is presumed to be the remainder of) Korach’s followers. Talmudic scholars have debated the question of how Korach died for millennia. Lest Torah waste the opportunity to make a point with stick over carrot, it reminds us that these deaths were meant to set an example for those who would question Moshe’s (or G”d’s) authority.

Then Torah says something really odd. In the midst of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, it says

וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ

The sons of Korach, however, did not die.

Let’s remember here that Korach and his family were of the clan of Levi, descendants of Kohath, and  they were of the priestly clan. They were not Reubenites. Kohath was the father of Yitzhar, the father of Korach,  and Amram, the father of Moses. So Moses and Korach were cousins.

Why, when G”d did not spare the lives of all of Korach’s followers (including women and children) did G”d spare the sons of Korach? Now the Kohatite clan (which included Korach’s sons) did become important in later Temple times as musicians/singers and Temple guards. So perhaps the Torah text was redacted to show some favor to them? But without the lines of Korach’s sons there would still have been plenty of Kohatite priests around!

Always eager to put a positive spin on things, some commentators suggest that the sons of Korach were repentant and spared as a result. (That seems about as unlikely as DJT Jr. being repentant after the eventual fall of his father..) Other commentators, of course, suggest the opposite – the Korach sons live on in the people in every generation who are troublemakers, seek divisions, and are challengers of authority.

Some 46 verses later in Torah, the census enumerates the Levitical clan census, including the Kohatites. Wouldn’t that have been a more likely place to note that the sons of Korach survived, since theye were of that lineage? Ah, but here the Levitical genealogy notes instead the deaths of my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons who died when they offered “alien fire.”

So the survival of Korach’s sons is linked to the report of the death of Korach’s prime co-conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, of the Reubenite clan. A dig at the surviving Kohatites when the text was redacted?

I have another theory, which, given who I am, will not surprise my friends. My take is that Korach’s sons survived not to insure there would be sowers of dissent in every generation. but so that there would always be people willing to challenge the status quo, to speak truth to power.

The critiques of Korach are exegetical supposition. It is NOT eminently clear, despite what some may claim, that Korach’s intent was purely selfish, seeking self-aggrandizement. That’s the whitewash we use to justify G”d’s arbitrary swatting away of this challenger and his followers. Perhaps G”d (or future redactors) even wondered if Korach had a point – that all the people were holy. If Moshe is the author of Torah (and that’s a big if, but if that’s your understanding, I won’t deny the possibility even though it’s not my understanding) then of course Korach is gonna be put down and criticized. The winners write the histories, right?

Of course, there’s a flaw in my theory right there. If, as I believe, the Torah was redacted and edited at different times to reflect particular agendas, then why wouldn’t the Kohatite priests have redacted the text to be a little more favorable to Korach? The reason might simply be that the Aharonite priests simply wielded more power than the Kohatites. Perhaps, all that the Kohatites could manage to slip past the Aharonites in a redaction was this little reference to the sons of Korach having not died with all the other. A little “mir zenen do,” we’re still here zotz from the Kohatites.

Maybe the mention of the sons of Korach not dying serves a totally different agenda. Perhaps it is G”d’s apology for acting in anger and destroying so many (including women and children.) At best, however, that’s a half-assed apology.

So maybe, as I suggested, we are told that the sons of Korach did not die to remind us that there will always be a place in society for those who challenge authority, questions norms, and ask the unpopular questions. Being one of those types of people, it’s an explanation I can certainly accept. However, I acknowledge my prejudice, as a gadfly, for such an interpretation. I’ll need to ask others to see if it makes as much sense to them as it does to me.

I can’t claim to be a descendant of Korach. I can’t be certain that Korach’s rebellion was built upon honest intent, or selfish intent.  For now, I’m going to assume that the question of Korach’s intent remains uncertain, The survival of Korach’s sons clearly illustrates that Korach had some merit. May all those who follow in the footsteps of Korach, challenging authority and speaking truth to power for righteous purpose merit a similar blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pinkhas 5775 - Why Is This Rebuke...yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 - Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

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