Recently, I saw Eytan Fox’ movie, Walk On Water, released in 2005. This Israeli film tells the story of an Israeli Mossad agent’s encounter with a gay German peacenik. The outcome of this encounter is a profound broadening of horizons. Eyal’s experience expands his generic and cavalier macho identity into a broader personality that encompasses his own parents’ Holocaust experience and an awareness of other communities’ persecution narratives that are parallel to his own. In other words, Eyal begins as a one-dimensonal character taken out of context. His journey is a search for context, wherein he finds new life and meaning. Without context, Eyal’s being is shallow and destructive.
The episode in this week’s parsha is also a story about the necessity of context, and the consequences of out-of-context reading and behavior. Korach, a scion of a Levitical house assigned to the care and maintenance of the Tabernacle – a privileged role in the community – incites a division in Israel. He and his followers challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership. “You have taken greatness. Isn’t the whole congregation holy, and doesn’t God dwell among them? Why have you raised yourselves above the community of Israel?” (BaMidbar, 16:3)
Korach’s claims seem reasonable on the surface, and they are meant to derail Moses and Aaron’s authority through the biblical equivalent of quoting chapter and verse. But where, in Korach’s claim, is the meaning of holiness? Put another way, where is the rest of the Torah?
The answer may be that Korach is not concerned with the rest of the Torah at all. That is, Korach is not concerned with the context of his claims. Moses provides this context when he reminds Korach of his already privileged position in the community. “Has He not taken you and all of your brothers, the sons of Levi, with you. Yet you want the priesthood too? So, you and all of your congregation are rebelling against God.” (BaMidbar, 16:10-11) Korach’s claims are vanity and focused solely on getting ahead. They might be taken from Torah, but they are not Torah.
Korach reads narrowly in order to justify big actions for his own personal benefit, when Torah itself can be seen to advocate the opposite. Although Jewish commentary is often based on close-readings of individual verses, the teachings of Torah are meant to be read widely and interact with each other in a larger context. Rabbinic expositions on singular biblical statements seldom rely on a vacuum; proof-texts illuminate individual verses by applying greater and diverse contexts. When we engage this interaction in study, as the Rabbis do, we experience a process of discovering informed thinking and action that addresses implications and outcomes. We read widely to arrive at narrow conclusions with far-ranging positive consequences. In terms of our parsha, is being holy a slogan, or an informed state-of-living the inspires positive outcomes for ourselves and the people around us?
Korach, in many ways, is a parsha for our time. We like to quote chapter and verse in ways that imply self-contained teachings in a teaspoon. It is easy to forget that, even though words are worlds, the words we choose occur in the context of other words that can influence each other positively or negatively. Reading out-of-context can be dangerous. Korach’s is an extreme but sadly familiar case. His words corrode the integrity of the community. In the end, they consume him and everybody close to him. Part of the community is permanently lost to us.
This tendency to read out-of-context, and the consequences that come with it, have not gone away. In fact, whether because of increased awareness of the human condition brought about by the rise of the internet, or because we are actually doing it more, out-of-context reading and its disastrous consequences appear everywhere.
Close-reading is part of contextual reading, and its practice is a wonderful part of the Torah experience. This is how we mine the text and learn how to appreciate it in new ways, and it is in the context of close-reading that greater Torah contexts are illuminated. In turn, these contexts shine a light back on the individual verses themselves. The difference between close-reading and reading out-of-context starts when we devalue the whole and elevate individual and particularistic readings in a vacuum, as Korach does. This takes away from the Torah. Insights without substance or context are dangerous and self-destructive. They may even be a form of idolatry.
We must learn to balance the individual and particularistic readings with the global. This is one of the secrets of the human condition, and is part of the choice of life.