By Shlomo Riskin
“What’s in a name?”, wryly asked the great English playwright William Shakespeare, denying any connection between the appellation and the essence. By contrast, “one’s name defines one’s persona”(k’shmo ken hu- as is his name, so is he), declared the Talmudic sages, insisting that externals – and most certainly the term to which one is expected to answer and by which one is identified to the outside world – must influence one’s internal state of being. The biblical names certainly contained profound symbolic significance, with Moshe meaning “he takes out”, or “he liberates” and Yehoshua – one scout in the minority of two who was in favor of conquering Israel – meaning “God will save”. From this perspective, it is productive to explore the meaning of the name Korach, an uncommon name.
Moreover, a great deal seems to be made of the name Korach, both in the more esoteric Kabbalistic interpretations as well as in the more accessible midrashic commentaries. Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Holy Lion, who taught a path-breaking commentary to the sacred Zohar in 16th century Safed) cited the verse from the Psalms (92:13), “The righteous blossom as the palm tree” (zadik katamar yifrah), noting that the last letter of these three words spell the name KRH (Korach) and insisting that the Biblical tamar (palm tree) is the antithesis – and repair (tikkun) – of Korach. What is the significance of such last-letter acronym word-play on the name Korach? No less strange is the midrashic name-play in its interpretation of the ambiguous Biblical phrase lo titgodedu v’lvo tasimu korhah (Deut. 14:1), taking the words to mean either “you shall not scratch (your skin) and make yourself bald” (in excessive mourning over the dead), or alternatively “you shall not create divisiveness or make an argument (which is not for the sake of heaven but rather for egoistic motivations) as did Korach.” What does the name Korach actually mean and what does it symbolize?
The Hebrew word karah means bald – there is a charming midrash about the frustrations of a man who had two wives, one older and one younger, with the older removing the black hairs from his head and the younger removing the white hairs, so that he was left completely bald (kareah) from this one and from that one – as well as ice (in modern Hebrew, a karhon is an ice pop). Both words have one idea in common: neither provides fertile soil for growth and development; hair does not grow on a bald head, and grass or flowers do not emanate from ground covered with ice (witness the devastation of plant life during the Ice-Age).
Rabbi Isaac Luria joined Korach to Tamar because the biblical heroine had been twice married without her womb bearing fruit; in order for her to merit progeny in Israel and to develop Jewish destiny, she had to take matters in her own hands and become impregnated (fertilized, seeded) by Judah. As in every case of yibum, individuals must sacrifice themselves to a certain degree in order to be linked to Jewish eternity. The midrash understands that an argument which is based on egoistic motivations will not allow for compromise and will never bear the fruit of resolution; such a dispute can only lead to devastation and destruction (karhah).
An analysis of Korach’s argument will quickly demonstrate the symbolic significance of his name. At first glance he seems to be a populist, arguing in favor of the exalted qualities of every single Israelite who stood at Sinai: “The entire congregation are all holy and God is in their midst; why do you (Moses and Aaron) lift yourselves up above the community of God?” (Num. 16:3). But when we remember that the Almighty never describes the Israelites as a holy nation as they are, by right and by privilege without striving and even suffering to achieve holiness, we begin to realize that Korach is more demagogue than democrat, more flatterer than educator. “You shall become holy,” commands and demands our Torah (Lev.19:2); Moses and Aaron worked for and achieved their holiness not by right but by righteousness! Holiness is the result of a process, a growth, a development; it is not a gift bestowed automatically.
Indeed, the antithesis of the hairless bald head and the grass-less icy-ground is the palm tree, the Tamar, which – with proper nurture – will produce dates; so, teaches the Psalmist, will the righteous individual develop, just as the palm tree flourishes as a result of painstaking care and development – Korach is impatient; he wishes to usurp Aaron’s (and perhaps Moses’) place – without the concomitant effort which must be expended before one can be worthy of leadership. He is punished by being swallowed up by the earth – perhaps in order to teach him that before a seed develops into a fruit-bearing tree, it must first rot beneath the ground as a necessary part of the process of growth and fructification and our portion vindicates Aaron as the true leader chosen by the Divine; the staff of Aaron, the very antithesis of arid Korach, brings forth flowers, develops blossoms, and bears almonds. True leadership can only emerge after a long and arduous process of selfless and sustained nurture and hard work.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.