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Shabbat Parashat Korach 5776

Parashat Hashavua: Post-Modernism in Ancient Times and Today

Harav Yosef Carmel

We will discuss those who Israelis call elitot (members of the “elite” class), who have been championing a spiritual trend in which the individual is at the center, and religious, ethnic, or national groups take a backseat. Personal rights overcome obligations to the public, and individuality is not just part of the mosaic of society but has the power of “for me the world was created.” For such people, irrefutable authority, whether political or spiritual, is foreign, which explains a lot of what we see.

In the past few parshiyot, different people have challenged Moshe’s leadership. Eldad and Meidad prophesied in the encampment without Moshe’s permission. Yehoshua wanted to take action against them (Bamidbar 11:28), but Moshe refused: “If only the entire nation of Hashem could be prophets, that Hashem would place His spirit upon them” (ibid. 29).

In our parasha, Korach openly opposed Moshe. He was an elitist, as Chazal said that he was a great scholar and one of the people who carried the Holy Ark (Bamidbar Rabba 18:3). The Torah also describes his 250 associates as part of the elite of society (kri’ei moed, anshei shem – Bamidbar 16:2; see Sanhedrin 110a). They all complained that since the entire congregation is holy, there is no excuse for Moshe and Aharon to exert such control. “Everyone has the ability to lead himself”! In this case, Moshe’s reacted very differently, setting a showdown intended to doom the losers to death. What happened to the tolerance of self-expression that Moshe displayed toward Eldad and Meidad?

We must distinguish between two scenarios. Judaism is fundamentally based on acceptance of authority that stems from the chain of tradition. This system gives a great advantage to the older and wiser. The young student’s subservience to his teacher ensures that the tradition will continue to be passed on. Within the realm of Halacha, the student who “never says anything he did not hear from his teacher” is praised, which makes it necessary for the student to be very attentive to his teacher.

Prophecy, in contrast, is an experience of the individual, not the group. In fact, “no two prophets prophesy in the same manner” (Sanhedrin 89a). One achieves prophecy after he follows the path of purity, bringing on sanctity, which brings on divine revelation. There is no need for a specific tradition in order to become a prophet, as prophecy relates to new situations, not set, old matters. (Admittedly, one of the common ways to become a prophet was to join a group of “sons of the prophets,” who were apparently led by an established prophet.) Therefore, the fact that Eldad and Meidad testified without Moshe’s permission was not a problem, as prophets speaking their mind with the divine word is part and parcel of the institution of prophecy. In contrast, Korach and his entourage spoke without and against Hashem’s instructions without respect for the established spiritual leadership.

Let us pray for the development of the individual and the success of each in finding his own style in serving Hashem, within the set framework of Torah and mitzvot. Elitists can maintain a measure of individualism if they are still dedicated to the path passed down for generations from our patriarchs and matriarchs. Then, people will be able to say things that “the ear has never heard” while, paradoxically, still only saying that which they received from their teachers.

 

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