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30 Sivan 5784 - July 6, 2024

Parshat Korach

Rabbi's Reflections

-Common Sense and Torah Sense-

Voltaire once quipped, “Common sense is not so common.” Indeed, many of the social, political and economic issues we grapple with today are often spoken of as being complex, problematic and deeply profound – too big for the average person to comprehend. In truth, however, if one were to apply a bit of common sense, many of these conundrums would be resolved. Yes, sadly, “Common sense is not so common.” That being said, what role does common sense play in the halakhic system? Surely, there is a place for it. While many great poskim use a kind of common-sense approach to humanize halakhic quandaries, the truth is that common sense alone cannot be used to determine a halakhic position. Why? The Torah has its own logic. Yet, for those who do not understand, appreciate or accept that the Torah works in its own way, apart from human thinking, an inevitable conflict will occur: common sense versus Divine sense, and this is exactly what happened to Korach.

According to our parsha, Korach, Moshe’s first cousin, was distressed and angry that he was not the leader of the Jewish people. Thus, in order to snatch the mantle of leadership from Moshe, he launched an all-out rebellion against the Man of God, claiming, “The entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst! So, why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Bamidbar 16:3). Korach sought to undermine Moshe’s authority by claiming that he was merely making up laws for the people to follow in order to assert control over them. How would Korach prove this? Why, with common sense, of course. According to the Midrash, Korach held a public debate with Moshe. Korach began by launching the following accusation: “You say ‘and they shall place with the tzitzit of each corner techeilet, a thread of blue.’ Does a garment made completely of techeilet exempt the mitzvah of techeilet in the tzitzit?” Moshe replied, “It still requires techeilet in the tzitzit.” Korach retorted, “How is it that a garment made completely of techeilet is not exempt from the mitzvah of techeilet in the tzitzit, and yet four strings exempt it?” He then hurled a second accusation: “Does a house that is full of Torah scrolls require a mezuzah?” Moshe replied, “It requires a mezuzah.” Korach sneered, “The entire Torah consists of two hundred and seventy-five parshiyot! How can you possibly say that a house filled with Torah scrolls does not exempt the house from a mezuzah, which only has two parshiyot?!” Korach then addressed the crowd: “You see! These things were not commanded to you! You made them up on your own!” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2). Korach’s presentation made a lot of sense to the masses. “Yes,” they said, “We are all holy! The Lord is in our midst! Moshe is making all these nonsensical laws up just to control us!” However, once the final show-down occurred, and Korach and his entourage were swallowed up by the ground, the people realized how wrong they were, and they realized that the root of their error was that they thought they knew better than God – applying their own logic to God’s laws – that their common sense was superior to Divine sense. As Rav Soloveitchik notes, “Common sense can only spread confusion and havoc when applied to the halakha, as it does with all specialized disciplines. When people talk of a meaningful halakha, of unfreezing the halakha or of an empirical halakha, they are basically proposing Korach’s approach. Lacking a knowledge of halakhic methodology, which can only be achieved through extensive study, they instead apply common-sense reasoning which is replete with platitudes and clichés” (Chumash Mesoret HaRav, Korach, p 139). 

The Torah and the halakhic system have their own internal logic. While human empathy, sensitivities and situations should always be accounted for in the halakhic process, we must understand that sometimes, as Jews, we are commanded to do things and to think in ways that do not appear logical, sensical or obvious to others. And we do them simply because they are the commandments issued by a Higher Power Who gives them to us every day, freely, as an expression of love. Only when we realize that every commandment given by God is an opportunity for us to draw closer to Him, based on His own logic, can we truly internalize the reality that indeed, “The entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst!” (Bamidbar 16:3). 

Shabbat Shalom!

-Rabbi Dan

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