Special People and How to Treat Them

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Korach

We live in a culture that resists/rejects specialness, where we want everyone to be special in their own way. But, to paraphrase Syndrome, when everyone is special, no one is. Korach, where he and his gang tried to deny the specialness of Aharon, is a parsha where we are reminded some people are different, and deserve to be treated preferentially, so we may all most benefit from their gifts.

Tenth of a Tenth is a Terumah

Towards the end of this parsha, 18;27, Hashem has Moshe tell the Levi’im to tithe the ma’aser they receive from Jewish farmers, to give a tenth of their tenth to the kohanim, the priests. Especially because it is a tenth, I might have thought this was a way for Levi’im to give ma’aser, perhaps to remind them the priests are the “Levi’im” to them, the same way they are Levi’im to the Jewish people.

R. Mecklenburg has three reasons to disagree. First, our verse calls this gift theLevi’im’sterumah, percentages aside; three verses earlier, Hashem called what Jews give Levi’im a terumah, again despite its being a tenth. While we call it terumat ma’aser, a terumah from a ma’aser, the Torah thinks it reasonable to call the original ma’aser a terumah.

Finally, Yerushalmi derives laws about terumah from our verse (such as if a Levi happens to have a farm s/he works). The farmer must set aside “real” terumah by estimation, without measuring out the approximately two percent, says Yerushalmi, based on our verse, ve-nechshav, your terumah shall be thought. While usually such inferences are relevant to the topic at hand as well as similar ones, Yerushalmi calls our case an exception, it only applies elsewhere.

It cannot mean what the Levi gives the kohen, because the verse says it must be a tenth, an amount we can only arrive at by measuring. Rather, it teaches us about terumah (which can be any amount; Chazal gave parameters based on the person’s generosity, 1½ to 2½ percent), to give it without calculation.

Levi’im Give Terumah From Their Share of the Land

R. Mecklenburg puts it together in a way I, as a Levi, appreciate greatly. He says Hashem is telling theLevi’imtheir share of the harvest is their share of the harvest. Had they been allowed to be ordinary Jews, they’d have had about a tenth of the Land, would have worked and reaped it, eventually given terumah from it to the kohen.

Instead, because Hashem assigned them other work, the regular Jews plow, plant, etc. for them, all the way to harvest and processing. What comes to them is what should have come to them. From there, they give terumah, like any other Jew [although a tenth rather than the two percent most Jews give; like many great insights, this one probably needs work, but this is not the venue].

Aside from explaining the issues above, the idea differentiates Levi’im from kohanim in a way that rings true to me. Levi’im are regular Jews but for having been assigned the service originally meant for the first-born. As they do those tasks, they are in many ways still part of the people.

Kohanim seem much more significantly other, have been set apart for a wholly different life, as representatives of God. To them goes a terumah, a first gift from all Jews’ harvests (including Levi’im), where the Levi’im are given what should have been their share of the harvest, had they only been left free to work the Land like their fellow Jews.

Kohanim and Levi’im Transmit the Externally Imposed Torah

Moving more to the kohanim, let’s see R. Hirsch on the aftermath of the Korach incident. Hashem finally “proved” Aharon’s chosen-ness by having his staff flower where the other leaders’ did not. Hashem then tells Moshe, 17;25, to place the staff next to the Luchot, the Tablets Moshe brought down from Sinai. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees similar functions for the two, physical proofs/reminders of significant faith claims, that God gave the Torah at Sinai, that Aharon and his sons serve because God chose them.

He then lumps the Levi’im with the kohanim (in contrast to HaKetav VeHaKabbalah), says both groups continued their role from the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, to buffer the Jewish people’s closeness to Torah, to remind us Torah was given, not written by certain human beings at a certain time, and is not, therefore, bound by time or space.

We need this reminder precisely because all Jews are meant to engage with it, regardless of profession or social standing. As knowledge and observance of Torah permeate the nation, whose own spirit will grow to be more Torah-like, we run the risk of people thinking they have the right to critique the Torah, to analyze its dictates and decide which are right or wrong, or limit them to a particular time or circumstance.

The Torah’s solution was distance, from the Temple at all times (where the Tablets were housed; we’ve seen before how R. Hirsch and others think it was those Tablets that made the Beit HaMikdash the place for Hashem’s Presence), and cautions even the greatest Torah scholar to be sure to be aware of the Torah’s independence of time and place, because of its direct Divine authorship.

Protecting the Torah from those who would approach it overhastily (a practice that started at Sinai), to ensure we all remember the Torah isn’t another book or essay, it is Divine Writ, outside of and/or above many of the ordinary rules we apply to texts.

What Irritated Moshe

Two weeks ago, the Torah testified to Moshe’s great humility, a characteristic that links to decreased sensitivity, letting insults slide more than most people. When Datan and Aviram reject Moshe’s summons in the midst of the Korach contretemps, though, Moshe snaps, the verse testifying their words angered/aggrieved/distressed/upset him, 16;15.

He asks Hashem not to turn towards their offering, because he, Moshe, has not taken anything from the people. Both statements are unclear. Rashi suggested Moshe was referring to the incense to be offered the next day (where the fire burns those who offer it), except Ramban pointed out that Datan and Aviram were not among those people!

Malbim suggests Ramban is incorrect, Datan and Aviram were slated to be in that group, and Moshe—in his humility—thought Hashem might indeed choose one of the people making the offering. (Malbim says Moshe would not have had them bring incense if it was certain none would be accepted; he seems to think Moshe would never have suggested a test doomed to failure, even if just to make his point.)

Not Datan and Aviram, Moshe was begging, particularly because of their false claims against him. Before we get to the claim itself, consider Malbim’s idea: for all he knew of Datan and Aviram’s many flaws, he could imagine Hashem would nonetheless find one of them worthy to be chosen. I’m not sure how that could be possible, given what we all know of Datan and Aviram [Malbim does not mention it, but tradition thought these two were the Jews Moshe had seen fighting, who then implied they might reveal his having killed the Egyptian taskmaster the day before], but Malbim at least means Moshe was aware of how little he understood of Hashem’s “thought processes,” how it could be that Hashem would find in them positive traits Moshe did not.

A reminder of how little we know about others. Even that guy we know is terrible.

Moshe Didn’t Use His Expense Account

In this case, Moshe thought he had good reason to blackball them. They had implied he, Moshe, benefitted from the Exodus personally, without fulfilling the promises he had made to the Jews. In pleading with Hashem, Moshe countered with the proof, he had not even expensed the donkey he could/should have used on his way back to Egypt from Midian, to save them. Here he was, working on their behalf, and he refused to incur charges he could then have asked them to repay.

It makes two important points. First, those using public funds should consider carefully how they use them. [I’ve seen this often in educational settings, where many institutions seem to me cavalier about their spending. It’s a long topic, not for here.]

Second, Moshe thinks their having gotten this one point wrong is enough to disqualify them. While he earlier thought Moshe worried that maybe Hashem would see goodness in these two and choose one to lead, he now thinks Moshe is sure their false accusation would derail their candidacy. The power/guilt of false accusations.

A week for the roles of special people, the role of the Levi’im, either as regular Jews given a job, or as extensions of the kohanim to be part of reminding us the Torah did not spring up from within us, and of Moshe (and Datan and Aviram), the kind of righteousness expected of leaders, including especially not making false accusations.

About Gidon Rothstein

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