The day that bnei Yisrael (“the Children of Israel”) inaugurated the mishkan (“sanctuary”) which they had built in the wilderness ought to have been a day of national celebration. It was, until Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two eldest sons, decided to enter the mishkan on their own, and offer a “strange fire, which had not been commanded” (Lev. 10:1). Upon doing so, the two kohanim (“priests”) were immediately consumed by a divine fire, leaving the entire nation shocked and grieving. It was one of the most jarring, most calumnious events recorded in the entire Torah. We can only imagine how it must have impacted those who witnessed it; surely, the trauma of this tragedy lingered with bnei Yisrael throughout their forty years in the desert.
Textually, this manifests itself in several ways. Most obvious are the recurring, explicit references throughout the Torah to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, all of which evidence how raw the pain of their deaths remained (e.g. Lev. 16:1; Num. 3:4; Num. 66:60). Yet there are other, subtler ways in which their deaths remained atop the nation’s collective consciousness. Several weeks ago, for instance, we demonstrated that the ascetic strictures associated with the institution of nezirut—no alcohol, haircuts, or contact with the dead—each directly evoke the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. On this basis, we suggested that nezirut might in fact be best understood as a response to these deaths: that is, the practice of nezirut may have served, at least in part, to caution any would-be zealots among bnei Yisrael against removing themselves entirely from material life—as Nadav and Avihu did—in their pernicious pursuit of other-worldly spiritual ecstasy.
Not all, however, would have been wise enough to heed this warning. Indeed, it is in this vein, it seems, that we ought to read this week’s Parshah: Korach. The bulk of our Parshah concerns itself with a rebellion which Korach and a group of his followers stage against Moshe and Aharon. Many fine interpretations of this incident have been advanced; yet we probably miss the full measure of its meaning unless we recognize that it, too, draws upon the memory of Nadav and Avihu in some sense. Consider:
- Both Korach and Nadav and Avihu were relatives of Aharon and Moshe. Korach was the cousin of Aharon and Moshe (see Num. 16:1); Nadav and Avihu were Aharon’s sons (Lev. 10:1).
- Both challenged the authority of Aharon and the notion that he alone should serve as kohen gadol. Korach claimed that “the entire assembly is holy” (Num. 16:3), “complained against Aharon” (ibid. 11) by questioning why he and Moshe “exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem” (ibid. 3), and ultimately “sought the priesthood” for himself (ibid. 10) Nadav and Avihu usurped Aharon’s role by entering into a section of the mishkan reserved for him alone (see Lev. 16:1-3ff); indeed, some commentators posit that they did so because “they did not suffice with serving [under] their father…; they sought to demonstrate that they too were priests of Hashem, [of the same standing] as Aharon” (Shadal to Lev. 10:1).
- In both cases, Aharon is conspicuously silent: he does not speak once to Korach and his faction (see Num. 16:1-17:28, and esp. Num. 16:11), just as he is “silent” after Nadav and Avihu offer their strange fires and are consumed by them (Lev. 10:3).
- In both cases, Moshe, speaking in the name of Hashem, emphasizes that one’s “closeness” to Hashem is related to one’s “sanctity.” To Korach, Moshe states: “In the morning, Hashem will make known the one who is His own, and who is the sanctified one [הקדוש], who He shall draw close [והקריב] to Him” (Num. 16:5). This is similar to what Moshe states to Aharon following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: “Of this did Hashem speak, saying, “through those who come close to Me [בקרבי] will I be sanctified [אקדש]” (Lev. 10:3).
- The ritual which Moshe calls upon Korach to perform if he wishes to prove that his priestly bona fides reach those of Aharon’s is identical to the ritual which Nadav and Avihu performed on the day of the mishkan’s inauguration. Korach and his faction are to “take” [קחו] “fire-pans” [מחתות], “give fire upon them” [תנו בהן אש] and “place incense upon them” [ושימו עליהן קטרת] “before Hashem” [לפני ה’] (Num. 16:6-7). Nadav and Avihu likewise “took” [ויקחו] “fire pans” [מחתות], “gave fire upon them” [ויתנו בהן אש], “placed incense upon them” [וישימו עליה קטרת] and offered them “before Hashem” [לפני ה’] (Lev. 10:1).
- Prior to the offering of Korach’s faction, “the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire assembly” [וירא כבוד ה’ אל כל העדה] (Num. 16:19). Prior to the offering of Nadav and Avihu, “the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire nation” [וירא כבוד ה’ אל כל העם] (Lev. 9:23). Both events occur outside the “tent of meeting” (ibid; ibid).
- Korach’s followers are consumed by fire upon offering their frankincense: “and a fire came forth [ואש יצאה] from Hashem [מאת ה’] and consumed [ותאכל] the two hundred and fifty men who had offered the frankincense” (Num. 16:35). Nadav and Avihu meet precisely the same fate: “and a fire came forth [ותצא אש] from before Hashem [מלפני ה’] and consumed [ותאכל] them and they died there before Hashem” (Lev. 10:2).
- In both cases, Hashem commands other kohanim to clean up the remains of their relatives from the mishkan: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Say to Elazar the son of Aharon the priest that she should pick up the fire-pins from amid the fire, and he should throw away the flame… and of the fire-pans of these sinners against their souls they make hammered out sheets for the altar…” (Num. 17:1-3); “Moshe summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aharon’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Approach, carry your brothers out of the sanctuary, to the outside of the camp”” (Lev. 10:2).
- Hashem commands Aharon’s son Elazar to “throw away the fires” of Korach’s faction using the Hebrew expression “האש זרה” (Num. 17:2). This, of course, calls to mind the “אש זרה,” i.e. the “strange fire,” which Hashem had earlier rejected when it was offered by Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:1).
- The actions of both Korach’s faction and Nadav and Avihu threaten to implicate the entire nation: in the case of Korach, Moshe and Aharon pleaded with Hashem not to “grow incensed with the entire assembly” [ועל כל העדה תקצף] (Num. 16:22); in the case of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe provided their survivors with specific instructions to prevent the possibility that “He will grow incensed at the entire assembly” [ועל כל העדה יקצף] (Lev. 10:6).
- Following both the deaths of Korach and his faction, and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe instructs Aharon to perform a sacred ritual aimed at gaining atonement [וכפר עליהם/וכפר בעדך ובעד העם] for bnei Yisrael (Num. 17:11; 10:7). In both incidents, Aharon is also told that his family will be responsible for “bearing the punishment of the sanctuary” [תשאו את עון המקדש] / “bearing the punishment of the assembly” [לשאת את עון העדה] (Lev. 10:17).
- At the end of Korach’s rebellion, Hashem underscores the unique status of Aharon’s family by reminding them of the special sacrificial portions which bnei Yisrael must reserve for them: “This shall be yours what is raised-up [תרומת] for their gifts from all the wavings [תנופת] of the children of Israel; I have given them to you, and to your sons and to your daughters with you [לך ולבניך ולבנותיך אתך], as an eternal portion …[לחק עולם] (Num. 18:11). These are the same details which Hashem highlights following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: “They are to bring the thigh of the raising-up [התרומה] and the breast of the waving [התנופה] upon the fire-offering fats to wave as a wave-service before Hashem; and it shall be for you and for yours sons with you [לך ובניך אתך] an eternal decree [לחק עולם] (Lev. 10:15).
The parallels connecting Korach to Nadav and Avihu are so plentiful and pervasive that they would well warrant study in their own right. Yet given that we have already spotted significant parallels pointing from the incident of Nadav and Avihu towards a different section of the Torah—namely, the laws of nezirut—it seems that it is from within this broader textual context which we must examine the relationship between Korach and Nadav/Avihu as well.
Analyzed in these terms, we might say that Korach’s rebellion constitutes little more than an alternative stage of development in the religious evolution that brings us from Nadav and Avihu to the nazir. Nadav and Avihu yearn for a spiritual existence that devalues material life, and ultimately leads them to court death. The normative response to this religious impulse is nezirut: a series of ritual measures that discourage escape from material life, by training the aspiring ascetic to limit his or her engagement with various modes of death—literal (corpse), cerebral (inebriation) and embodied (hair). Yet Korach’s faction reacts quite differently to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu; in their eyes, Nadav and Avihu are not maladjusts, but martyrs, whose cause ought not to be abandoned, but indeed, adopted en masse. “The entire congregation,” insists Korach, can and should “elevate itself” to the heights of “holiness” attained by the kohen gadol (Num. 16:3). All of us should enter the “holy of holies;” all of us should practice the rites associated with the high priesthood; all of us, in other words, should follow the lead of Nadav and Avihu—and that is precisely what Korach and his faction proceed to do.
In this sense, then, is not only the priesthood which these rebels reject, but also the related institution of nezirut. Put otherwise: where Nadav and Avihu are the ante-nazirs, as it were, Korach and his faction are the anti-nazirs. That, in fact, may explain in part the meaning behind their leader’s cryptic name: “Korach”—literally, “the bald-one.”[i] The most salient feature of the nazir is his long hair; Korach’s defining characteristic, by contrast, is the complete absence of hair. Indeed, the name “Korach” [קרח] implies not merely lack of hair, but an actual attack of one’s hair, per the ancient practice of korchah [קרחה], i.e. mutilating oneself with “bald-gashes,” which the Torah expressly condemns: “You shall neither cut yourself nor gash bald-gashes [יקרחו קרחה] between your eyes for the dead” (Deut. 14:1). It can be no coincidence, in light of all we have said thus far, that Korach’s name evokes a form of extreme mourning. Nor can it be a coincidence that it is this precisely this form of mourning which Hashem prohibits the kohanim from turning to following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: “And Hashem said to Moshe, speak to the priests, the sons of Aharon, and say to them… they shall not gash bald gashes [לא יקרחו קרחה] on their heads, nor shall they shave the edge of their beard, nor shall they make cuts in their flesh” (Lev. 21:1-5).[ii] Nezirut, enacted following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu—and patterned upon the rites of mourning mandated of their relatives—prohibits the cutting of hair in order to curtail that form of misguided spirituality, succumbed to by Nadav and Avihu, which threatens to descend into the cultic death-worship of “korchah.” Korach is nominally associated with that death-worship, because he valorizes the conduct of Nadav and Avihu, and opposes nezirut for this reason.
So Moshe and Aharon are left the task of rebuffing of Korach—of arguing that, yes, “the entire congregation is holy,” but that each of us is also human, and that a society whose members all strive exclusively for sublime spirituality while seeking to deny the realities of material life is neither ideal nor sustainable. In this respect, the peculiar designation with which Moshe and Aharon refer to Hashem at the height of their conflict with Korach is most pointed indeed: “the God who is God of spirit for all flesh [א-ל א-להי הרוחת לכל בשר]” (Num. 16:22). Against Korach, Moshe and Aharon proclaim, quite emphatically, that Hashem has no interest in those sorts of spirituality which declare profane the material life which He regards as holy.
Nor could the “sign” that Moshe settles upon to demonstrate the error of Korach’s religious approach have been more carefully chosen: “If Hashem creates a [unique] creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive into the grave, you will know that these men have [falsely] provoked Hashem” (Num. 16:30). Korach’s fate is to descend to the earth, and to do so alive; the man who railed against the limits of earthly existence is, in the end, consumed by the earth itself, and trapped within it for all eternity—trapped in the confines of the material life he so stubbornly sought to transcend, and which he now never shall.[iii]
Shortly thereafter, Aharon formally draws Korach’s rebellion to its close by resuming the divine service at the most symbolic of locales: “and he stood between the living and the dead, and the plague ceased” (Num. 17:13). As the chief officiant in God’s sanctuary, Aharon is not a minister of the next-world—though his sons and his cousin may have tried to fill that post themselves. Aharon is a minister of this world, squarely stationed “between the living and the dead,” and staunchly committed to preventing any of his coreligionists from traversing that nexus before their time.
“Life and death have I placed before you,” Moshe declares as he reaches the end of his own life, “and you should choose life” (Deut. 30:19). The temptation, over the course of history, to do otherwise—both attitudinally and, unfortunately, in our times, literally as well—has proven far too real for far too many people of faith. Yet our task, as adherents of the Torah, is to sanctify life: to find holiness within the parameters of this world—the world in which He sought fit for us to serve Him—and to do so in a way that honors that holiness.
[i] See, however, Sanhedrin 110a, which imagines the following dialogue taking place between Korach and his wife prior to Korach’s rebellion:
And furthermore, he shears your hair, and waves you (see Num. 8:5-11) as excrement; he has set his sights on your hair! He said to her: But didn’t he also do so [i.e. shave his hair like the rest of the Levites?] She said to him: Since it is all for Moshe’s own prominence, he reasoned: “Let me die with the Philistines” (Jud. 16:30).
In this Gemara, Korach’s wife complains of the humiliation to which Moshe had subjected her husband by shaving him when consecrating the levi’im for service in the mishkan (see Num. 8:5-11). She further argues that the only reason Moshe shaved himself along with the rest of the levi’im was because he had to do so in order to achieve his goal of humiliating Korach—much like Shimshon, later in Tanach, killed hundreds of enemies by collapsing a building upon himself, which cost Shimshon his own life as well (Jud. 16:30). This Gemara is interesting for us for at least two reasons: (1) It implies an alternative etymology for the meaning of Korach’s name; though the “hairlessness” with which his name is associated most directly refers to the bald gashes traditionally cut in homage to the dead, it may also be connected with the act of shaving to which Korach had been subjected and which may have played a role in precipitating his rebellion. (2) It suggests that Korach and his wife consciously associated Moshe with history’s most famous nazir—Shimshon—by placing that nazir’s dying words in Moshe’s mouth. Though this is of course an anachronism (Shimshon lived long after Korach), the notion that Korach rebelled against Moshe after conflating him with Tanach’s prototypical nazir is fascinating to consider in light of our argument that Korach’s rebellion could be read, in part, as a rebellion against nezirut. It is also telling that later biblical tradition would record Shmuel—Tanach’s second-most-famous nazir—among Korach’s descendants (see I Chron. 6:7-13), and that the Haftarah which Chazal chose for Parshat Korach features this same Shmuel defending himself against claims similar to those Korach raised in objection to Moshe (see Num. 16:15 vs. I Sam. 12:3). Ironically, yet another medrash Chazal argues that it is precisely because Korach foresaw that this Shmuel would emerge among his descendants that he was inspired to rebel (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:8).
[ii] Note that there are two separate mourning practices associated with the hair: one involves its excessive growth (see Lev. 10:6), whereas the other, which we are focusing upon now, involves its excessive cutting—i.e. to the extent that cuts all the way through the scalp. We have suggested in several places that the reason that these death rituals revolve around the hair may be that the hair is the most tangible symbol of death on the human body—hair being composed of dead cells. If, meanwhile, the laws of nezirut are intended to prevent fixation with death, as we have been asserting, then perhaps we should understand the nazir’s complex hair ritual as attempting to fall somewhere in between these two extremes: for the duration of his nezirut, he may not remove any hair, which precludes his recourse to the extreme of “excessive cutting;” and, at the end of his nezirut, he must remove his hair, which precludes his recourse to the extreme of “excessive growing.”
[iii] Also noteworthy are Moshe’s instructions to bnei Yisrael prior to Korach’s death: “He spoke to the congregation saying, “Turn immediately away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins”” (Num. 16:22). This command to stay far removed from the dead, and specifically from the tents of the dead, calls to mind the general law regarding the ritual impurity of death transmitted in a tent: “This is the law: if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days” (Num. 19:14; incidentally, it can be no coincidence that the procedure for combating the impurity of death is that which immediately follows Parshat Korach). This command, of course, is most relevant to the nazir, who is prohibited from contracting the ritual impurity of death (Num. 6:6-7). The same is true for the survivors of Nadav and Avihu, who are, in fact, specifically warned to remain in a different tent—the “tent of meeting”—for this very reason (see Lev. 10:6-7; Lev. 21:11-12).