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To Know You Is To Love You

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The story of Korach surely ranks as one of the stranger incidents reported in Chumash. To give ourselves some background on the topic we propose to explore in this year's essay, let us recap some of the salient points of the Korach story as presented in detail in our essay of two years ago "Follow the Leader" []


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No one doubted that God sanctioned all of Moses' appointments. All of Israel had stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and witnessed Moses' appointment as the official intermediary between God and the Jewish people, and what is more, the people had requested this appointment and endorsed it as set forth in Devarim 5. At the same time, it wasn't clear whether the idea of the appointment of Aaron as the high-priest and/or of Elzafan ben Uziel as the head of the Levites originated in the mind of God or with Moses. It was felt that in endorsing these appointments, God merely rubber stamped Moses' requests and/or anticipated his desires. After all, as long as Moses' appointees were competent, there was no reason for God to override his selections, and no one suggested that Moses' appointees were unfit. Indeed the rabbis inform us that Aaron was an especially beloved personage.

At the same time, the fact that these appointments were accepted by God did not indicate that they were the only ones possible. There were many other Jews in the congregation who were fully qualified to fill Aaron's position: "for the entire assembly - all of them - are holy and God is among them" (Bamidbar 16:3); had Moses nominated other suitable candidates, God would also have endorsed his decisions.


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The protest against Moses' selections was made on democratic grounds. When he used the power of his position as the prophetic leader to make his own appointments to fill spiritual jobs, he was overstepping the bounds of his mandate. His job was to teach Torah and act as the go-between with God. No one had authorized him to make the final selection for positions for which there were many potential candidates available; it was the people's right to nominate their own candidates. Moses' province was prophecy; he had no mandate to control the communal aspects of Jewish life.


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We are familiar with this phenomenon down to the present day. Rabbinic authority is resented by some. The rabbis are acknowledged Halacha experts and no one who accepts Halacha as binding questions their competence to render authoritative Halacha decisions. It is when the rabbis involve themselves in secular areas of life, in decisions involving the formation of government coalitions, in the exercise of political power to impose their sense of order [Sabbath observance, civil marriage and divorce] on Jews who do not accept Halacha as binding, in dispensing advice regarding medical matters etc. that the consensus regarding Rabbinic authority breaks down.

To comprehend the Torah attitude towards rabbinic authority we must study the concept of Kavod HaTorah, or respect for Torah. The centrality of Torah knowledge has been discussed frequently in these essays, most recently in Parshat Naso. The proper orientation to the importance of Torah knowledge is the essence of traditional Judaism; this orientation is behind the Torah attitude towards rabbinic authority and it therefore merits more extensive discussion.


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God is infinite and we human beings are finite. God is not alive in the same way that we are, He doesn't think in the same sort of parameters, He is above time and space. We cannot find God as He is or figure Him out by exercising our human powers of observation and deduction. Philosophy can only lead us as far as Aristotle got - to the discovery of God as a first cause, an irrelevant piece of knowledge. For even if God exists, if we have no knowledge of what He is like or what He expects from us human beings, our knowledge regarding the fact of His existence is a useless bit of trivia.

If we project our own characteristics onto God and sort of invent His attributes and desires, we reverse the idea of man being cast in God's image and fall into the fallacy of worshipping ourselves.


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Judaism teaches that the only way to learn about God is through revelation. God has to communicate with us and tell us about Himself; His thoughts, aspirations and expectations, His motivations. It is primarily for this reason that God gave us the Torah; any knowledge of God that we possess comes to us through the study of God's Torah. The fact that God is unknowable except through the revelations of Torah has enormous implications.

The third positive commandment is the commandment to love God. What does this specifically entail? It enjoins us to study and think about His commandments, His statements and His works until we reach the level of comprehension about Him where we consciously enjoy our knowledge of Him. This is the type of love that we are commanded to feel.

The Sifri teaches: it is written "You shall love YHVH your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources" (Devarim 6:5). How do I know how to go about actually fulfilling this commandment? That is why this verse is followed by "And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise." (Ibid. 5) It is by studying the Torah that you will learn to know the Creator. (Maimonedes, the Book of the Mitzvot)

The Mitzvah to love God, clearly concerned with building relationship rather than acquiring knowledge, nevertheless mandates the study of Torah as the method of its fulfillment. It is impossible to form a relationship with an unknown. God is not a fellow human being with whom I can sit in a room and converse or get to know empathetically. God is infinite whereas I am finite and we share no common experience. Empathy is out of the question. Any relationship that I succeed in establishing with Him has to come about through the vehicle of study and knowledge.


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The definition of the role played by the Torah scholar is the next step. "But you who cling to YHVH your God are alive today." (Devarim 4:4) How is it possible to cling to God? Isn't it written, "For YHVH your God is a consuming fire" (Ibid. 24)? The answer: whoever marries his daughter to a Torah scholar, whoever establishes a business for a Torah scholar and whoever supports a Torah scholar is considered to be clinging to God; similarly it is written; "to love YHVH your God, to listen to His voice, to cleave to Him" (Devarim 30:20) - How is it possible to cleave to God? Etc. (Ketubot 111b) It is clear that the idea of clinging to God or loving Him translates itself in the real world as forming a relationship with my fellow human being, the Torah scholar.

But how does the Torah scholar himself cling to God? Isn't God a consuming fire for him as well? The answer is obvious: the Torah scholar is a repository of Torah knowledge. The presence of God in the world is in this knowledge that the mind of the scholar contains; he doesn't have the problem of clinging to God, for he and God are one. It is the person who is not learned who is faced with the problem of forming a relationship with God. His mind contains no personal treasury of Torah knowledge. Since he cannot establish his relationship with God within his own being, he must connect with God as a separate personality and this he cannot do because God is a consuming fire.


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The implications of this thought are immense. Because it is impossible to connect to God except through the medium of Torah knowledge, Judaism teaches that the presence of God can be manifest in the world only to the extent that there are Torah scholars who are treasuries of Torah knowledge walking around among us. Knowledge of God is in the Torah, which is not in books or in libraries, but in the hearts and minds of Torah scholars. They are the embodiment of the connection we have with God.

Rabbi Chaim Of Volozhin explains that this is true even when the scholars are not as worked out as we would like them to be - they are proud instead of humble and earthy instead of holy. Nevertheless there is no substitute for them. God cannot be seen and felt except in so far as He is known; and He is known only insofar as the knowledge of His Torah lives in the minds and hearts of men.


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The knowledge of Torah is fundamentally different than other sorts of knowledge. Other forms of knowledge are to be regarded as means to an end. By helping us understand the hidden potential locked up in various parts of reality, knowledge gives us the power to improve our lives by harvesting the benefits of the reality whose potentials knowledge uncovers. The possessor of such knowledge cannot exceed the importance of the things about which he knows. The benefits released by his knowledge are locked in reality rather than in the knowledge itself. As such, as all human beings are intelligent, no possessor of knowledge is irreplaceable. If we lose any particular scholar, someone else will ultimately unlock the secrets of reality that are presently in his exclusive possession.

But where does reality itself originate? In the created universe, as presented by Jewish thought, all reality originates in Divine energy. The world is made of "God stuff." Divine energy is supplied by God as an act of His will. Objects have inertia, but 'will' is a product of consciousness. In a creation model of reality, God has to continuously will the universe into existence in order for there to be any continuous reality, as we recite in our daily prayers:

In His Goodness, He renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.


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The Divine energy of renewal is merely another way of relating to God's Presence. Divine energy, God's Presence, and God's will are all different facets of the same common reality. The conclusion: the continuance of reality is dependent on the maintenance of the Divine Presence among us. But the Divine Presence is in the world only in the hearts and minds of the people who study and know Torah.

Thus Torah knowledge is not about things. Torah knowledge is itself the living expression of our relationship with God. As the Talmud stated, we can only connect with God through the personage of the Torah scholar.

Let us see if we can bring this down to earth a little. The Torah describes creation as a set of speeches. It is important to note that these are not ordinary speeches but are composed of the words of Torah. The reality of creation is entirely dependent on the continuance of these speeches. But words in a book have no life. Nor are the words of Torah to be found in the heavens. "It is not in heaven" (Devarim 32:12). Once the Torah was given to Israel at Mt. Sinai, it lives only in the hearts and the minds of the Jewish people who study it. The creation words live in the minds of the Torah scholars. Theirs is the life force that presently energizes the creation speeches and gives them the ability to continuously renew the universe.


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On the deepest level, the issues raised in Korach address fundamental ideas of justice and fairness. All human beings were created in God's image. Divine Providence sent us all into this world, and we are told that we are all equally precious in the eyes of the Creator. Why then, does God Himself favor some human beings over others? Why shouldn't He allow everyone who is capable to attain the pinnacles of spiritual experience? Why should the High priesthood be awarded to Aaron as his exclusive province when there are many others who are also capable of carrying out the tasks involved with competence?


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In light of what we have learned in this essay, we must realize that this question rests on a fallacy. God is no longer in control of His own creation words. Having given the Torah to Israel, He Himself is now in the hands of the rabbinic scholars. He can only actualize the universe that is contained in the creation words as they are understood by the scholars who have studied them and who supply them with their life force on the basis of their own human perceptions. In the opinion of Korach and his congregation, there are many people who are competent. This may even be objectively true, but it is beside the point.

There is no reality apart from the way Moses perceives it. Because in the world following Sinai, the creation words live primarily in Moses' mind, the reality that is fashioned by them necessarily conforms to his perceptions. His people get the spiritual jobs because he has confidence in them. In a world where his perceptions are required to supply the underpinnings of reality, Moses' perceptions cannot be ignored.

Let us illustrate the point with a well known story about the sage Rebbe Chanina ben Dosa:

One Friday afternoon Rebbe Chanina perceived that his daughter was sad. He asked her, 'Why are you sad, my daughter?' She answered, 'I mistakenly used the vinegar jar instead of the oil jar to fill the candelabra of the Shabbat candles.' He said to her, 'Why does that upset you, my daughter? The one who told the oil to produce light, will simply instruct the vinegar to produce light.' We were taught that the candles burned through the entire day until they even brought the Havdalah light from them at the end of Shabbat. (Ta'anit 25a)

The creation words as they live in the mind of Rebbe Chanina have a versatility they do not possess in the original version as God uttered them at the time of creation. Rebbe Chanina's reality takes its shape from the creation words as they express themselves in his mind according to his understanding.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that you have a small business and you decide to hire John instead of Jack. Are you sympathetic to Jack's claim that he is as competent as John and that you are therefore acting unjustly in favoring John over himself? Of course not! After all it is your business, and you therefore have every right to hire whoever you want. In your own world, the only objective standard is your own desires. Justice and fairness morally compel you to honor your obligations to the people you know and for whose welfare you are most responsible no matter how deserving others may be objectively.


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Rabbinic leaders are held responsible for seeing to it that the creation words in their minds expand to produce a reality that supports Torah. This is the responsibility with which they were entrusted, and this is what they will be held accountable for. If they see a way to make the world a more comfortable place for Torah, it is their moral duty to actualize the steps to bring this about.

They are perfectly aware of the fact that other people may not share their beliefs and take a different view of the world. If there were a reality out there independent of their knowledge, the elementary rules of proper conduct would compel them to treat such opinions with the tolerance and respect they undoubtedly deserve by all ordinary standards. But such standards assume a reality that is independent of any of us.

This is not the case according to Jewish thought. All reality is based on the creation words in the heads of those who study Torah. Their universal responsibility demands they expand this reality by increasing the number of minds in which the Torah is a living presence.


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Doesn't this amount to tyranny? The Torah itself is the answer to this objection. Whoever lives by its teachings and standards will be compelled to overlook his own selfish self-interests and treat all mankind with complete compassion.

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