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16.06.2015 09:52    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  korah  

The Israelites' Role in Korah's Rebellion:

Analysis of the Commentaries of Nahmanides and Rabbenu Hananel

Nahmanides (R. Moses b. Nahman, 1194-1270) completed his commentary on the Torah while still living in Spain. He immigrated to the land of Israel in 1267, where he lived out the last three years of his life, during which time he made revisions to his commentary, adding some 300 passages of assorted length. The passage which he added concerning Rachel's tomb (Genesis 35:16), is well-known and familiar to many.

Numerous other passages can be identified with the help of the lists of revisions sent to the Diaspora (Spain and Italy) by himself and by others in his name. These notes specified the precise passages to be added and where they were to be inserted in his commentary, so that anyone with an earlier version of Nahmanides' commentary could update it and write the additional passages into the margins.[1] Almost all the additions are included in the common printed editions of Nahmanides' commentary, including Chavel, although the reader will find no indication of that these passages were later revisions.

Below we discuss two of the added passages that deal with Korah's sin and the punishment given the community of Israel. The Torah tells of the decree to wipe out the people, a decree that was averted by Moses' and Aaron's prayers:

Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, "Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!" But they fell on their faces and said, "O G-d, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (Num. 16:19-22)

Nahmanides poses a question regarding this depiction, and offers two answers: first, the answer given by Rabbenu Hananel, which he rejects, and then his own view on the matter:

Stand back from this community – one must ask: If the Israelites had not sinned and rebelled against their leader, why such fury at them as to say: that I may annihilate them in an instant? And if they, too, had rebelled as had Korah and his community, how could Moses and Aaron have said: "When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (Num. 16:22)? Rabbenu Hananel wrote: From this community (Num. 16:21)—meaning Korah's followers and not the community of Israel; they said, "O G-d, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?"; immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, informed Moses that He did not wish to put an end to the entire community of Israel, rather only Korah's community, and therefore He spelled it out for him: as I said, stand back—"withdraw from...Korah, Dathan, and Abiram" (Num. 16:24), as I told you. He reminded them: "Withdraw from," so that perhaps when Korah and his followers see, they will turn back; thus far his [R. Hananel's] remarks. However, this is not correct, because one cannot properly speak of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who are but three people, saying: Stand back from this community, for the reason that they do not constitute a "community," nor were the Israelites among them, and Aaron was amongst them, along with those who offered the incense, when they came; moreover, for the reason that the words stand apart allude solely to Moses and Aaron, as with the use of the words "remove yourselves" (Num. 17:10); additionally, that I may annihilate them in an instant alludes to the plague that would in an instant wipe out a vast number of people. It is unthinkable that Moses would misunderstand the prophecy and err concerning it. Rather, the reason is that from the outset the people's hearts followed Moses and Aaron, and when Korah and his followers each took their incense pans and placed incense upon them and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, then Korah called to the entire community and told them that he is zealous for the honor of them all, and this found favor with them and they all gathered around to see whether perhaps it might be pleasing in the eyes of G-d and the worship restored to the firstborns. For this reason it says "Korah gathered the whole community against them" (Num. 16:19). So they deserved to be annihilated because they were challenging their leader, which was akin to challenging the Divine Presence, and were feeling superior to the prophecy of a prophet in their hearts, and so they deserved to die at the hand of Heaven; but Moses and Aaron argued in their defense that only Korah had actually committed a sin and that he had been the active force seducing them, so it was fitting that only he die, to show the multitude through his punishment. Such is the way of those who beg for mercy, to lighten the burden of sin on the people and place it on the single individual who was the cause, because he is culpable in any event; and thus David said: "I alone am guilty, I alone have done wrong; but these poor sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand fall upon me and my father's house!" (II Sam. 24:27), etc.

The additional text shows something surprising about the way this commentary came into being. In the first edition of the commentary, Nahmanides asked a question and suggested an answer; but at the time he was not acquainted with the work of Rabbenu Hananel. When he came to the land of Israel, he found that Rabbenu Hananel had given a different answer to the same question. Nahmanides found a wonderful way of revising his commentary without deleting anything and even without changing a single letter. He incorporated Rabbenu Hananel's words into his own commentary as the first response to the question he raised and then proceeded to show that this response presents a series of exegetical and philosophical problems. Then he went back to his original interpretation, presenting his own answer to the question.[2]

In Rabbenu Hananel's opinion, the decree of the Holy One, blessed be He, was not altered in the wake of the prayers by Moses and Aaron. Had the Israelites sinned at that point, the prayers of Moses and Aaron would have been to no avail, for what they said would not have been correct: it would not have been just one person who sinned, but rather the entire community. Moses and Aaron were mistaken in their understanding of what the Lord had said, and thought He wished to wipe out the entire Israelite community; but after they prayed, the Lord made it clear to them that from the outset His intention had been only to annihilate Korah and his followers, for only they had sinned.

Nahmanides challenges Rabbenu Hananel with numerous questions pertaining to language and exegesis, but his main opposition is theological. He claims that Rabbenu Hananel's interpretation is not tenable because "it is unthinkable that Moses would misunderstand the prophecy and err concerning it." Such is not the case in Nahmanides' own answer: Korah and his followers sinned in their actions, whereas the entire community sinned only in their thoughts. Such a sin is grave, as if challenging the Divine Presence, but one can argue in defense of the Israelites and place all the blame on Korah.

We note in addition that the interpretations of Rabbenu Hananel and Nahmanides can actually be incorporated together. Rabbenu Hananel notes an ambiguity in the statement of the Lord's decree, "Stand back from this community (Heb. `edah) that I may annihilate them in an instant!" Throughout the weekly reading the text speaks time and again of Korah's community (`edah) and of the Israelite community (`edah), so that in this statement it is hard to say unequivocally which community was intended.

Nahmanides notes the complex and ambiguous situation that makes it hard to define clearly who had sinned. Moses and Aaron maintained that only Korah and his community were culpable. Their argument in defense of the Israelites was accepted, and the Lord's decree, initially applying to the Israelite community, was restricted to Korah's community alone. But when the Israelites came the next day and complained to Moses and Aaron, "You two have brought death upon the Lord's people" (Num. 17:6), they revealed that they were identifying with the sinners, and Moses and Aaron's defense of them was refuted. Immediately the Lord's decree was reinstated: "Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant" (Num. 17:10), and this time the statement was linguistically unequivocal since Korah's community had already perished. Therefore the plague began and was only arrested by Aaron offering incense.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Prof. Yosef Ofer teaches in the Department of Bible.

[1] All the added passages in Nahmanides' commentary on the Torah are collected and discussed in Yosef Ofer and Yehonatan Yakobs, Tosafot Ramban le-Ferusho la-Torah she-Nikhtevu be-Eretz Yisrael.

[2] In the above translation of Nahmanides' commentary the added revisions are enclosed by angle quotation marks to identify the original commentary and the later revisions. Almost all the added text is included in common editions of Nahmanides' commentary, including Chavel, but no indication is given of the added passages.

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