Korach: Intensity Matters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Shalom Alecheim! Last night I saw the new Superman movie, and during
one scene where our hero uses his “heat vision” to burn a hole in the
crust of the Earth, my filmgoing companion whispered in my ear: “like
Korach!” She was right, of course- can it be a coincidence that the
movie was released during the week of the Torah portion Korach, who
was swallowed up in a huge hole after a dramatic challenge to Moshe
and his authority?

Well, OK, it probably is in fact a coincidence, but it’s true that
we’re reading Korach this week, and it’s also true that after the
story of the rebellion and narrowly averted civil war, the Torah
clarifies in greater detail the duties, rights and privileges of the
Levites and Kohahim [priests.] To review: the tribe of Levi does not
have an inheritance in the Land of Israel, but instead is dedicated to
religious service in the Mishkan, and later, in the Mikdash, or
Temple. The descendants of Aharon are the priests- they are one family
within the tribe of Levites, but most Levites are not priests.

The Levites and Kohanim live by the tithes of produce and set-aside
portions of animal offerings that the rest of the nation brings to the
Sanctuary; clarifying these rights and duties is the major point of
chapter 18 in our portion. However, one detail that is not very clear
is an unusual description of the covenant between God and the
descendants of Aharon, a covenant which is dependent on the gifts and
offerings brought by the rest of the Israelites:

“All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I
give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as
a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before
the Lord for you and for your offspring as well.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 18:19)

So, nu, what’s a covenant of salt, and what does that have to do with
the priests living on their share of the “sacred gifts” of the Israelites?

Rashi explains this in a very straightforward way: just as salt
preserves things, so this covenant will be everlasting- as if it were
preserved in salt, so to speak. Hirsch has a different take; he says
that since the priests are given these portions as compensation for
their life of service and dedication to God and Torah, consciousness
of their special role and status must permeate the Jewish people like
salt permeates food. (I’m paraphrasing here.) As I understand Hirsch’s
idea, the priests represent the possibility of Torah and holiness in
the midst of the Israelite nation; what they stand for should not just
remain in the Mishkan, but should be “salted” throughout the life of
the community, in all relationships and daily affairs.

In other words, the “covenant of salt” is a three-way deal: God lets
the priests have a portion of the offerings, they dedicate their lives
to holy service, and the entire people are uplifted by these exemplars
of Torah. Salt is thus a metaphor for how something that is small
physically can have a big impact on the “flavor,” or character, of the
greater whole. After all, the priests weren’t even a whole tribe- they
were only a small portion of one tribe out of twelve- but they had a
huge impact on the spiritual life of the nation, just as a pinch of
salt has a huge impact on the taste of one’s food.

It’s a beautiful and empowering image, and as true today as it was
then. Any person reading this might become the “salt” who changes
their community for the better- sheer numbers are not required, just
intensity of purpose and commitment. A bit of salt changes a whole pot
of food; a few dedicated people can change a whole community, lifting
up its spirituality and compassion and holy values. Salt is a humble
image, but the Torah makes of it a grand encouragement to live life
with bold ideals and an expansive moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the summary and many further commentaries are in the
first link, and the text of the Torah portion and haftarah in the second.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/korah_index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/korah.shtml

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