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The Covenant of Kings

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most basic and essential rules of interpretation is understanding that the Torah is written in language humans can read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, and not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam utilizes this theme prominently, famously suggesting that the Torah co-opted animal sacrifices only because they were culturally familiar methods of worship in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag similarly recognized the value of understanding the ancient world of the Torah to give us enhanced context and understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

Apart from animal sacrifices, another ancient practice that would be culturally familiar was the notion of the covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with treaties or covenants. These treaties were drafted between equals and sometimes between a superior and a subordinate state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenants has striking parallels to the suzerain-vassal treaties. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of suzerain-vassal treaties are identifying the treaty-maker, the superior; a historical introduction, such as prior beneficial acts the superior has done for the subordinate; the stipulations, typically the demand for loyalty; a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was proclaimed in public along with a ceremonial meal, and the treaty was stored at a holy site. There would be a periodic public reading to remind the subordinate citizens of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of covenants and other treaties extant in the Ancient Near East isn’t merely interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the head of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

In sharp contrast with that background, the Torah’s rendition of a covenant is striking not in its similarity but also in its difference.

God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even seek a covenant with the Jewish People; the party God treats with is no less than every single individual, which is explosive because it’s shocking enough that a God would care about humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals doesn’t just illustrate the dignity of every single person; it also bestows a second facet to our identity. By elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually, because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem,” with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

Salty

< 1 minute
Straightforward

After Korach’s failed coup, Hashem reiterated the prominence that Ahron and his descendants would have. They would always be at the service of the Jewish people, guiding religious practice:

כל תרומת הקדשים אשר ירימו בני־ישראל ה נתתי לך ולבניך ולבנתיך אתך לחק־עולם ברית מלח עולם הוא לפני ה לך ולזרעך אתך – All the gifts that the Jewish people set aside for Hashem, I give to you, to your sons and daughters, as a due for all time. It shall be an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem and for you and your descendants as well. (18:19)

The covenant of salt is an expression of trust and friendship. Calling the covenant after salt calls to mind how the covenant is eternal.

But if it’s eternal, what does salt add to the expression?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the comparison is literal as well.

The property of salt is not just that it never spoils, but that it enhances and draws out the properties of what it interacts with.

Ahron was the paragon of public service. What he did for others was he brought people together, and brought out what was best in them. Life in service of others is what made him so special.

The comparison to salt evokes a contrast to Korach, who was only in it for himself, not for others.

The mark of greatness is being there for others even when it’s a thankless task.

Failure is not Fatal

3 minute read
Straightforward

Dissatisfied with his middle management role in the tribe of Levi, Korach attempted a coup.

The story unfolds and wraps up with an epilogue that the remaining leaders conducted a public disputation by planting their walking sticks into the ground. Nothing happened to theirs; but Ahron’s instantly blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Ahron’s divine election, that God supported Moshe and Ahron’s leadership and not Korach’s insurrection.

The Torah concludes the story by telling us how Ahron’s staff became a sacred relic stored in the Mishkan, a powerful symbol of what took place. It’s blindingly obvious why the legacy of Ahron’s miraculous staff is recorded. It was a long-dead walking stick, and yet it touched the ground and burst into life; it was an object of the highest cultural, historical, and religious significance, giving closure and finality to the story.

But the Torah also has words to say about the vanquished individuals, that they stepped forward to collect their inert walking sticks and went home.

Why does the Torah bother to tell us for posterity that each person took their walking sticks back?

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that in the same way that Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, these walking sticks were a symbol of defeat – but they took them home just the same. These ordinary and inert walking sticks, with no magical properties, symbolized that these men had reached for greatness but failed. In telling us that each man stepped forward to reclaim his staff, the Torah is telling us that they took ownership of their failed attempt, and in doing so, there is a future after failure.

Their defeat was a reality check, but by owning their failure, they could once again resume their place in the hierarchy they had attempted to overthrow. The man who learns from failure has not truly failed.

It’s part of a broader theme in the Torah; failure features prominently throughout, from the very first stories of humans in the Garden of Eden, through the very last stories of Moshe not able to finish his great mission of settling the Land of Israel.

The Torah doesn’t shy away from human failure; it leans into it, and perhaps we should reappraise failure in that light.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backward. But because of that, no matter how you look at it, our experiences always have a two-fold significance.

First, there is the initial experience of something; the excitement of meeting someone new, the strangeness of an unfamiliar event, or the pain that follows failure.

But then afterward, there’s the meaning that those experiences take on as we reshape and retell them into the story of our lives as they continue to unfold, which has the power to change how we perceive them. Most honest, successful people tell the story of how their failures became stepping stones to more meaningful victories down the road, giving the story of their failure a triumphant ending after all.

You can’t learn if you don’t try, you can’t try if you are afraid to fail, and you can’t be good at something if you have not failed multiple times. Learning to manage failure is one of the most important skills you can and must cultivate. If you are someone who never fails, you probably aren’t trying enough.

The final word in the story isn’t the magical staff; the final word affirms for posterity that these men could recover from failure, that there was a life and future beyond their mistakes.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be a better teacher than success; success only confirms the lessons you expect. But failure teaches you unexpected lessons in ways you can’t foresee.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.

Solid Ground

2 minute read
Straightforward

At one point in the wilderness, people went to Moshe, and lamented that they were impure at the time the Korban Pesach was offered, and wanted inclusion in the mitzvah. Their feedback was legitimate, and the law of Pesach Sheni was revealed.

Yet Korach too sought more inclusion – that everyone ought to have access to the holy service, not just the Kohanim. His demise was swift.

What is the difference between what they wanted if their complaint was essentially the same?

There is a concept that all negative characteristics have a positive application – for example, it is permitted to be jealous of a tzaddik or great scholar. Such jealousy can foster aspirations, that if realised, transform a person. This operates on the stepping-stone principle that מתוך שלו לשמה, בה לשמה – misdirected thought can nonetheless develop into legitimate action and intent.

However, there is a caveat to this rule. Not all misguided actions are reparable in the long term – one type of action will never become legitimate – argument. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:17 says כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקים.
איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו – Any argument for the sake of Heaven, will endure in the end. One that is not for sake of Heaven, will not endure. What is the paradigm of an argument for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shamai. What is the paradigm of an argument not the sake of Heaven? Korach and his congregation.

Is it simply that an argument in Torah will endure, and that politics will not?

R’ Yaakov Minkus explains that there is more to it than that. Adding the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was not a problem – the Torah was not closed canon yet. Korach however, was looking to cause issues and rifts.

Hillel and Shamai were looking to build halachos, and build a system to live by. From one’s point of view, we understand the other better. We need both to build and consolidate. A losing argument is included in the Gemara because it is a valid view that aids in understanding the issue.

Not so with Korach. His arguments were not constructive at all. His claims and goals were literally baseless and without foundation – note how the ground on which he stood collapsed beneath him – he was not fighting for anything real. The same is certainly not true of the Pesach Sheni crowd – therein lies the difference.

The Mishna says as much too. The paradigm of an argument not for the sake of heaven is “Korach and his congregation.”. If the parallel to Hillel And Shamai were correct, it ought to have said “Korach and Moshe”. Korach wasn’t really fighting anyone at all – it was just about causing a stir and breaking down the system that existed.

This is what Rashi and the Targum mean – ויקח קרח – “And Korach took” – What did he take? Himself, to one side.

It was never about Moshe. It was about causing a stir. The Pesach Sheni people wanted to be close to God – the parallel to Korach’s falls away swiftly.

Inauguration

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the topic of Kodshim – the section of Torah that addresses Beis HaMikdash protocol, sacrifices, priesthood and the like – there is a procedure for designating utensils and tools for service. This made them Hekdesh – separate, and not for personal use or benefit. Historically, the procedure was done with שמן המשחה – anointing oil. It is said that the flask of oil that Moshe first used never ran dry, and the same oil was used to coronate kings of Israel.

Before the Second Temple, however, this oil was lost, along with numerous other artefacts. The Gemara in Menachos queries how they brought new utensils into service if they hadn’t been properly designated by the oil, and concludes that their use as holy items intrinsically made them holy – “avodoson mechanchosom”.

This was necessitated by circumstance. But perhaps there is a source in the Torah.

Ahron, Korach and his followers, all men of great stature, were instructed to take brand new pans, put on the same incense recipe, and God would display preference. Ahron’s was accepted, and Korach and the lead revolutionaries fell into the earth, while the remaining revolutionaries were consumed by a fire. The pans used for the test fell to the ground. Korach’s property went down into the void with him, but the pans of the great men, who had righteous intentions, remained. Their memory was not destroyed, because they truly wanted all Jews to have equal access to the holiness of the service.

God recognised this:

אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ. אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ – Say to Elazar son of Ahron that he should pick up the pans from the burned area and throw the fire away, because they have become sanctified. The pans of these who sinned at the cost of their lives; they shall make them into flattened plates as an overlay for the altar (17:3)

Their use had sanctified them, excluding the possibility of anyone using them privately ever again. They were Hekdesh – personal benefit was prohibited, and they necessarily had to become part of the Mishkan as a result.

But all things considered, they didn’t really become part of the service – they weren’t used in a capacity of pans. Is the cover for the altar part of the service? Is this a Torah proof of the concept that using an item inaugurates it?

Probably not. But there is one pan which has been overlooked – Ahron’s. Korach, Dasan and Aviram’s plunged into the depths of the earth, and the 250 men’s became a cover for the altar, but what of Ahron’s?

Ahron’s was fine where it was and did not need instruction. It was in the Ohel Moed, right where it belonged – in the Mishkan – and became a part and parcel of the service. Conclusive.

Time To Shine

2 minute read
Straightforward

After the story of Korach, all the pans that were used for the incense test were smelted into a cover for the Mizbeach, with an accompanying warning:

וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ – Do not be like Korach and his congregation.

Rashi understands that this served as a reminder to avoid spurious argument. The Yereim classifies such argument as a sin God, but not to mankind.

But argument is observably detrimental to relationships; why does argument and strife come under the category of sins against Heaven – בין אדם למקום?

Perhaps it stems from not understanding people’s role and specialities.

The Chinuch notes that a Levi who performs the service of a Kohen is subject to the death penalty. Not because of a higher sanctity – because the inverse is also true; a a Kohen who performs the service of a Levi is also punishable by death.

Moreover, abandoning a designated role is also punishable by death. If a duty is as simple as guarding the gates, and the Levi leaves his post to for the singing which is he is allowed to do as a Levi, he is also subject to the death penalty for not doing what was required of him.

Perhaps this explains what the warning is. Everyone is put on this world for a particular reason and function. Everyone has their own abilities and potential that does not infringe on any one else’s – nor anyone else on yours. Missing this is a fundamental mistake and underrates yourself and your abilities.

A Korach claim that everyone is homogenous and ultimately the same, treads all over the speciality of individuals. Like a Kohen who doesn’t appreciate that his work is specific to him, and feels that he can also serve as a Levi, there is a fatal flaw in their understanding of God’s providence, and arguably a certain degree of heresy and apikorsus – perhaps the reason this is punishable by death!

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.