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The Hair Affair (Korach)

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.

FireBowl_XL_1Textually, 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 inaugurationKorach 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.

bald-headIn 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.

Shabbat shalom!

[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).



  1. Simon Italiaander says:

    Can’t wait to read

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Yael Unterman says:

    Brilliant piece, and you’ve addressed some questions I asked myself today, such as what is the verse from the Shimshon story doing in that gemara, surely no coincidence considering the hair theme. I still wonder about “he has set his sights on your hair” which sounds like she was claiming Moshe actually wanted the hair for some purpose.
    Also, I was thinking today how Datan and Aviram sound so much like Nadav and Avihu that one can’t help making some association between them in one’s mind, different as they are. This also fits with your line of thinking in some way, since they became Korach’s men, appendages of his that he now possesses, as in “vayikach” (You’ve tagged Datan and Aviram but I don’t see them mentioned in the piece)

    • Thank you very much, professor! The possibility that Moshe might have wanted Korach’s hair for some purpose hadn’t occurred to me; it’s intriguing, though. Would be interested to hear if you develop that any further.
      Offhand, what comes to mind is that long hair is often associated with royalty/royal aspirations. נזר, after all, means crown; in that vein, it is interesting also to consider the Avimelech parallels from Sefer Shmuel–wrote about it over at JBQ a little while ago if you’re interested: http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/jbq-past-issues/2016/444-october-december-2016/samson-absalom-pitfalls-nezirut/ So asking Korach to “cut his hair” may be a way of “trimming” his royal aspirations, as it were. Just thinking now: This may also afford insight into 2 Kin. 1:8 where Eliyahu is described to the king as a man of “long hair.” There is, after all, a way in which Eliyahu is directly challenging the king’s claim to power/authority; perhaps the long hair symbolizes that. Also interesting in this vein that Eliyahu’s protege, Elisha, is specifically described as a bald man, using precisely the same language as that of Korach’s name: קרח. And he takes unusual offence when people refer to him that way–but perhaps not *so* unusual if read as a slight of his authority rather than merely mocking his appearance…
      Re: Datan and Aviram: I was planning to do a footnote on the relationship between their names and that of Nadav and Avihu, but research into the etymology of Datan didn’t yield anything fruitful enough to complete the comparison. But I’ve left it as something to turn back to at some point in the future, iy”H; in the meantime, it is indeed quite fascinating to note how often people seem to get the two groups confused, just as you say. Perhaps the “confusion” is well founded…

      • Yael Unterman says:

        The whole hair thing is absolutely fascinating.
        I don’t think we need to delve into the etymology, I think we can say that on a literary level, Datan and Aviram echo Nadav and Avihu sufficiently that it gives one pause for thought and creates some kind of gezerah shava/hyperlink between them.
        p.s. I’m not a professor, but thanks for granting me professorship – for the duration of this conversation I’ll take it, but after that we’ll have to discuss terms and conditions of the post 🙂

      • Granted. (I’m davka in the camp that views phonetics as no less significant than etymology when it comes to mining the meaning of mikra. After all, the Torah’s primary mode of transmission was, for centuries, oral; moreover, if its intended audience is the “hamon am” no less than the talmidei chachamim–which it is–then we would expect it to make full use of its most accessible linguistic feature, i.e., its sound).

        Fair enough! 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    Alex – hair also appears in the midrash about On ben Pelet’s wife – “She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him, and laid him down inside the tent. The woman sat at the entrance to the tent and loosened her hair, as if she were bathing. Whoever came to call On saw her and went back.”
    The plot thickens (or maybe it’s just the conditioner?)!

  4. E Kupferberg says:

    Wow! Incredible pshat.
    I think the reoccurrence of Ketoret really drives home your idea. The choice of Ketoret as the offering of those desirous of purely transcendent worship may embody precisely this otherworldly desire. Ketoret is the least material of all the offerings and is primarily insubstantial vapor, symbolic of glorified asceticism. The Ketoret offered by Nadav and Avihu and Korach’s assembly took this one step further: They hoped the smoke rising from the Ketoret would mingle with the Cloud of Glory symbolizing Hashem’s presence (Ex. 16:10, 24:15-16, 40:34 et al), achieving communion with God and lifting them out of a spurned earthy reality.
    Nadav and Avihu bring their Ketoret immediately upon the arrival of the Cloud of Glory (Lev. 9:23-10:2), and it is the fire emanating from the cloud, the manifestation of God’s presence in the cloud (Ex. 24:16) that lashes out and consumes them. Korach didn’t learn the lesson. He proclaims at the onset: ובתוכם השם! Total and radical spirituality should be normative; there should be no divisions between the realms of man and God. Moshe tries to impart this to Korach: You want to shed materiality, fine – ושימו עליהן קטרת לפני השם – bring the spirit offering in front of Hashem and see what happens if you try to ascend from a corporeal existence. What happens? The Cloud of Glory appears (Num. 16:19) and God’s fire leaps out and consumes them (16:35). Achieving full communion with God is impossible while simultaneously confined to this world (Ex. 33:17-20).
    Only on Yom Kippurim – the holiest day of the year – by the Kohain Gadol alone, and after a prolonged process does God allow such a Ketoret offering; Hashem’s presence is symbolized by the same cloud (Lev. 16:2), with which the Kohain lets the smoke of the Ketoret intermingle (16:13), and only in this manner can such an offering be brought without causing death to the bearer (16:2,3,13).

  5. EWZS says:

    Fantastic essay, Alex. Some of the intertextual links are just amazing, and the development of the theme around transcendence and how it connects with Nazir is just great. And great comments thread, including the really interesting point by E. Kupferberg (hey E. great to see you on this site!)

    Your post stimulated a ton of ideas and discussions over shabbat, some of which are inchoate:

    One point is that there is a very strong theme in Nadav/Avihu and in Korach that has to do with Moshe’s use of discretion to essentially act in G-d’s name without explicit instruction from Hashem, a right that Moshe has but Aharon and his sons pointedly do not. There is a lot to say about this theme, but the key thing is that it is most salient in the two very episodes you are linking here: yom hashmini and korach. In particular, in both stories Moshe is confronted with a very challenging, high-stakes situation that goes beyond anything that G-d has prepared him for. In the first case, G-d only said anything about a seven day investiture ceremony. But nothing happened, and the whole people are watching: everything is on the line. What to do? In the second case too, Moshe springs into action in response to the challenge from the rebels. In both cases, Moshe’s actions are intended to bring about supernatural manifestations of G-d’s presence. And in both stories, Aharon is completely passive in the face of threats to himself or his loved ones.

    But what does this have to do with hair? I was musing with my son Jack about this over Shabbat, and it seems that the answer is: potentially a lot. In particular, it’s interesting to think that hair confronts human beings with major questions about how they will signal their similarity to and difference from others. Given the fact that hair is always growing and it is visible, one essentially can’t avoid such questions. Moreover, given that everyone’s hair grows in different ways and it is generally difficult to dictate precisely how people should wear their hair, there is often a lot of room for discretion, and even potentially for rebellion. Accordingly, hair styles are a major question in revolutionary situations (see e.g., here). And so perhaps Korach is taking advantage of this discretion to exhibit himself in a way starkly different from the typical Hebrew/Israelite, and thereby challenge the norms that Moshe is establishing with his discretion.

    My son Jack also noted that baldness symbolizes Egyptian culture. Accordingly, when Yosef is pulled out of the jail and brought before pharaoh, they shave him. It’s also interesting to note also that the story of Korach is the only one in the series of complaining/rebellion stories from Kivrot HaTaava through Mei Meriva where there is no mention of how they shouldn’t have left Egypt or that it would be better to return to Egypt. But perhaps then Korach’s look was a sly way of voicing the same complaint. I’m not yet sure how this connects with the earlier ideas, but perhaps it suggests that Korach was arguing that Moshe was taking things too far in creating a system that threw out all of the good parts of Egyptian culture.

    Finally, one wonders about the connection to Esav/Yaakov. Esav is the first person in the Torah who is identified in terms of his hair—both its unusual color and its unusual volume—he was hairy even when (as a baby) he should have been hairless/bald. And of course, Yaakov is the איש חלק who uses a goat’s hair to mimic his brother’s. Meanwhile, just as Esav and Yaakov were struggling over the rights to the bechora, this is essentially what Korach and Moshe are struggling over. Possibly, Korach is claiming to be Yaakov? Alternatively, perhaps Korach is the latest in a line of creatures who were distinctively smooth/naked—from the serpent though Yaakov through Yosef to Korach—but in fact were wily/sly. (Hmm.. perhaps they were all contending over the bechora in some sense?)

    Thanks again for the great essay and for stimulating these thoughts

    • So glad you enjoyed the piece and had occasion to discuss it with family too!
      Interesting observation about hair as a locus of personal discretion.
      The Esav suggestion is especially intriguing. Along those lines it is fascinating that the bechora episode plays itself out against a backdrop of death: There is Esav’s infamous comment (and Chazal’s read of that comment as a decidedly ideological statement): “Behold I am about to die, of what use to me is the birthright?”; and the fact that he sells it for a bowl of lentils–a meal associated with mourning, which Chazal understood as being prepared in tribute to Avraham’s recent death. On the tail end, meanwhile, Yitzchak’s impending death also plays a major role in all of this, of course. So we have the major theme we are looking for; the question is whether there are enough pieces here, and whether they fit together the way we would want/expect them to. If it is in fact possible to relate these meta-conflicts to each other and develop an integrated interpretation of such apparently disparate sections of the Torah, that would of course be extremely exciting…
      The Esav connection intrigues me as well because of a separate issue I’ve been pondering in connection with all this: the Yom Kippur service. As has been widely noted, it’s not a coincidence that this service is introduced “after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu;” that it takes place in the Kodesh Kodashim, precisely where those kohanim lost their lives; that ketoret is offered there too; and that, generally, Yom Kippur is a day of abstinence from the material–food, drink, etc. The piece I would add to this is that the central avodah of this day involves the selection and sacrifice of the seir: the “hairy goat.” It is a service explicitly aimed at discouraging the common cultic practice of “sacrificing to the seirim.” So, in broad terms, developing the correct religious attitude to “se’ar”–as symbolized by “seir,” the “hair” creature–is at the center of this holiest day–a day that is also clearly about counterbalancing the impulse of Nadav/Avihu. The fact that Esav is commonly referred to as “Seir,” then, is an intriguing coda in light of your comments.
      Finally I’ll just add that Esav’s other name, Edom (“red one”), is also interesting in light of the famous verse testifying to the natural association of “redness” with “wine”–אל תרא יין כי יתאדם–which acquires significant normative import in halakhic literature, and offers yet another connection to the Nazir/Nadav and Avihu.
      (On the topic of Mishlei pesukim: תנו שכר לאובד ויין למרי נפש offers another connection between wine and death that is valuable to add to the Nazir/Nadav Avihu analysis; missed on it the first time around).
      Anyways–lots to ponder!

  6. EWZS says:

    p.s. the link in paragraph 4 “(see e.g., here)” was supposed to be to this: http://bit.ly/2sf3CW2

  7. EWZS says:

    Great stuff, Alex. I very much like the impending death theme [I think key to the story is that Yitzchak is the sole heir of the family business and is terrified it will die with him; and ironically, it turns out he has many years to live], which obviously permeates Korach too given that these people are all going to die in the next 38 years.

    I would note also that the legal material that is placed between the eighth day and the yom kippur (Tazria-Mezora)– is all about skin and hair and the kohen’s role in managing it when it gets out of control. It seems much less out of place given your analysis (note too that the odd idea that tsaraat can be in a house might link up with the odd prominence of Datan & Aviram’s “houses” in the account of the earth swallowing them up (Num 16:32).

    P.S. I think the hair/smoothness connection between Korach-Yosef-Yaakov-Nachash complements this terrific piece of yours: https://whatspshat.org/2015/11/10/the-fruit-of-eden-and-the-fragrance-of-esav-toldot/

    • Thanks for all this, Ezra! Here, in the spirit of “hair imagery,” are a couple of other loose ends to be woven into our analysis…

      Korach’s children: Apparently, Korach’s children didn’t share their father’s ideology; they didn’t join in Korach’s rebellion, and, as a result, didn’t die along with Korach’s faction (see Num. 26:11, from this week’s parshah, along with commentaries ad. loc.) How interesting, then, that psalm 49, in its first verse, lists “the sons of Korach” as its composers—psalm 49, of course, being a prolonged meditation on the meaning of death, and serving as that chapter of tehillim traditionally recited in a Jewish house of mourning! It could not be more fitting: Who better to formulate a liturgical alternative to the self-destructive mourning practices prevalent throughout so much of the ancient world than the sons of a man named after those very practices—sons who kept themselves among the living precisely through their rejection of those practices?

      Interestingly, these same sons are also listed as the authors of psalm 42, whose most famous verse reads: “My soul thirsts for God, for the God of life; when will I come and appear before God?” Like their father, then, Korach’s children show themselves sensitive to the limits of material life, and yearn for elevated spiritual existence; yet where Korach, as we have seen, fixates upon death, his sons worship the “God of life.” And notice the drinking imagery, too, by the way: Others who “thirst for God”—think Nadav and Avihu—resort to alcohol to “find” Him; but the sons of Korach quench this “thirst” only through communion with the “God of life.

      Pharaoh and the Egyptians: If certain elements among bnei Yisrael found religious appeal in the sanctity of death, this may be largely attributable to the natural human desire for material transcendence. Yet it is also likely that their preoccupation with other-worldly spirituality was the product of a larger culture clash. After all, it should not be forgotten that few (if any) civilizations over the course of human history ever placed death at the center of their theology—or their economy, or their politics, for that matter—as prominently as those people in whose midst bnei Yisrael spent centuries enslaved: namely, the ancient Egyptians. Everywhere one turned in Egypt, one found symbols of death worship… Think pyramids, mummies—and yes, even the Nile: inasmuch as the Nile was viewed as a god, the ancient Egyptians are said to have considered drowning in the Nile to be a particular effective way of reaching the afterlife (tragic to think about in connection with beginning of sefer Shemot: was this the belief that allowed Egyptians to justify to themselves the drowning of Jewish boys?)

      Also fascinating is the role reserved for alcohol in Egyptian culture. One of the highlights of the ancient Egyptian religious calendar was a holiday called “The Festival of Drunkenness,” held annually in their temples in honor of the goddess Sekhmet (who, by the way, was associated with the death of mankind); and, in general, historians tell us that “‘holy intoxication’ was encouraged, possibly as a link to the world of the gods, an alternative state of being.” So significant was alcohol to the ancient Egyptians, in fact, that they apparently devoted a government office exclusively to its administration; thus, it was none less than the sar ha-mashkim himself—Egypt’s “Minister of Drink,” as it were—whose dream Yosef interpreted in Egyptian prison, and who ultimately orchestrated Yosef’s release and subsequent rise to power. (Indeed, as the Torah tells it, Egypt’s national fate has been tied to abuse of alcohol from the nation’s very inception. That is because Egypt’s progenitor, Cham, assaulted his father Noach while the latter lay in a drunken stupor, and was cursed as a result. Noach, it seems, was the first to turn to alcohol as an escape from the confines of material life—seeing material life destroyed all around him following the flood, he sought ways to numb his consciousness entirely. Yet whereas Sheim, the progenitor of Israel, nursed his father back to consciousness, Cham, from whom Egypt would emerge, seized the opportunity to castrate Noach (per Chazal)—that is, sought to render the rebuilding of material life altogether impossible! So the fault lines were established quite early, perhaps…)

      But back to Yosef and the Egyptians: While it is certainly interesting that the latter’s rise to power comes about at the hands of the “Minister of Drink,” what is even more telling is the role played by Yosef’s hair in this “rise to power:” as you astutely observed, the Egyptians, before permitting Yosef to assume a senior post, insisted upon shaving his hair. And indeed, hair, like alcohol, held a special place in Egyptian culture; its treatment and styling was quite deliberate. Most men, for instance—especially priests—were clean shaven. Boys, meanwhile, often kept a single lock off to the side—the young Ramses II being one notable example—which might, incidentally, be interesting to think about in conjunction with the mitzvah of “peios,” recorded in Lev. 19: 27: “You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard” (a mitzvah which may have been aimed at discouraging excessive mourning; notice the next verse: “You shall not make cuts in your flesh for any soul [of the dead]…”; see also Kiddushin 1:7, which connects the mitzvah of peios with that of contracting corpse impurity). The ancient Egyptians, at any rate, certainly connected hair with death: those who could afford it were careful to be buried with their finest wigs, believing that this would leave them best prepared to be received by the gods in the afterlife.  And of course, with all of this in mind, we can’t help but recognize a new layer of meaning in the title taken by kings of Egypt: Pharaoh, i.e. פרעה—a word that, at least in Hebrew, naturally evokes the term פרע, which refers to “unshorn hair,” and appears both in the context of Nadav and Avihu (in that case, explicitly as a sign of mourning), and also in the context of the nazir, among other contexts. One further wonders whether this term, פרע, connoting hair that is left wild, might be related to the term פרא, as in the phrase פרא אדם, “wild man,” which the Torah uses with reference to Ishmael. Ishmael, it will be recalled, was born to an Egyptian woman; and he was the foil of Yitzchak, whose near-sacrifice atop Mount Moriah stands as Judaism’s eternal reminder that God is not to be worshipped through death, but rather through life… (Esav, meanwhile—whose connection to all this we discussed in previous comments—stands at the opposite extreme to these Egyptians, it seems: while the Egyptians place too much emphasis on the afterlife, Esav denies it outright).

      Gan Eden: Not yet sold on this part, but the more we amass evidence suggesting that the hair/alcohol/death theme runs throughout the Torah, the more receptive I’d be. Some potential pieces to add: (a) the medrash claiming that it was the fruit of the vine that Adam ate from in gan Eden; (b) the medrash that Adam and Chava, prior to eating from this tree, were covered in fingernails (like hair, also dead matter), which fell off following their sin; (c) this analysis from a couple years back, which purports to demonstrate that Hashem actually wanted Adam and Chava to eat from the Tree of Life in gan Eden, and that their failure was in part due to their inability to sufficiently recognize the supreme value of life; (d) the fact that, at the end of the Torah, Moshe repeats the charge to “choose life”—a charge which brings us all the way back to the gan Eden episode, if you accept that reading, and implies that the imperative of choosing life over any alternative thematically bookends everything in between.

      Parah Adumah Notice that Parshas Korach is followed immediately by the halachos of Parah Adumah i.e. the ritual used to overcome the impurity of death. Fits perfectly: on the heels of Korach, representing the death cult of korchah, the Torah offers a more healthy way to ritualize the processing of loss. (Note as well the claim made in the obscure Medrash Peliah to the effect that Korach’s rebellion was triggered by the institution of Parah Adumah! “מה ראה לחלוק על משה, פרה אדומה ראה”).

      Anyways—that’s all for now. Have a great Shabbos!

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