Parashat Korah 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

“The Torah of Adonai is perfect, reviving the soul,” reads the psalm (19:8). The word used here for perfection, temimah, implies completeness, but also simplicity, like a platonic ideal – something that exists in our minds but which can only be rendered in flawed representation here on earth. To change something that is perfect is to diminish it. Thus, the idea of perfection in revelation can lead one to a kind of fundamentalism that summarily rejects changes as thwarting, or at least diminishing, God’s will.

Yet, the Torah that is the Book of Numbers challenges this conception of perfection. In last week’s parashah, we learned that the Israelites did not know what to do with one who violated the Sabbath and needed Moses’s intervention to find out (Numbers 15:32-36). In the previous parashah, the Israelites challenged Moses over who was disqualified from offering the Pesach sacrifice (Numbers 9:6-13). Later in the book (Numbers 27:1-11) the daughters of Zelophehad will charge that the laws of inheritance are unjust. God will amend those laws in response to their plea. The book will end with God amending the marriage laws to compensate for the changes just made in the inheritance laws. Thus, Numbers shows us that even the divine law requires interpretation and revision when it meets the complications and exigencies of the human condition.

Our parashah presents a different kind of challenge to our conception of perfection. In Parashat Terumah (Exodus 27:1-8), God gave Moses explicit instructions as to the size, materials and constructions of the Copper Altar. In Parashat Vayak’hel (Exodus 38:1-7) we learn that Bezalel carried out those instructions exactly as given. In this week’s parashah, however, we learn that the firepans used by Korah and his followers are to be beaten into a plating to cover that divinely designed structure “as a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume to offer incense before the Lord.” (Numbers 17:5). Thus, even God’s very altar can be changed by the marks of unfolding human history.

Rather than an unchanging ideal, Numbers presents a picture of revelation that is constantly in flux. Unique situations and human infirmities require regular revisions of, and compensations to, God’s laws. Significant historical moments require new acts of celebration or remembrance. Far from being a fixed star in the firmament, this Torah is a permanent negotiation between God’s vision and human reality. Numbers is a testament to that negotiation.

And that is what makes the Torah perfect. For the Torah is not meant to be a platonic ideal, but a way of life for a striving but, ultimately, flawed humanity. By presenting its laws and its symbols as adapting to the exigencies that mark our existence, the Book of Numbers models a revelation that can live within and among us. Bound by the knowledge that we are but the latest link in a chain of tradition that stretches back to Sinai, we adapt that revelation with humility and caution. But we do so knowing that such adaptation is as crucial to our continuity as is our faith with our past.

The Torah’s perfection is not a platonic ideal. Rather, it is the perfection of something that can live among us eternally. That is what gives it the power to revive the soul.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT