Replacing the Kohen

Rabbi Eliezer Barany

Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, the LORD will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. (Sefer Bamidbar 16:5)

In this week’s Parshah the leadership of Moshe is challenged by Korach. He claims that the entire people of Israel are holy and therefore the priests are not needed to worship Hashem. Each person has the opportunity, and ability, to do so! Moshe directs Korach to provide an incense offering to show who actually relays the word of God. In pushing Korach off to the next day, Moshe says that they should wait until the morning to offer this sacrifice. Rashi explains that this was meant to push him off so Korach and his followers would reconsider their decision. However, he also quotes a midrash that picks up on the language of morning as opposed to perhaps saying tomorrow. He quotes:

A Midrashic explanation of the word morning is the following: Moses said to him (Korah): “The Holy One, blessed be He, has assigned bounds in His world; can you, perhaps, change the morning into evening? Just as little, will you be able to make this of no effect, — as indeed it states, (Genesis 1:5) “and it was evening and it was morning…” (Genesis 1:4) “and God separated [light from darkness]”; and in the same sense it states, (I Chronicles 23:13) “and Aaron was separated that he should be sanctified” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 5). (Commentary of Rashi on Sefer Bamidbar 16:5)

Rashi quotes a midrash that explains the usage of the term morning. Just as day and night were physically separated, so too Aharon and his descendants were separated from the rest of klal yisrael. The midrash teaches us that we shouldn’t delude ourselves to think that changing the kehunah would be any different or possible than trying to change the laws of nature. As such, Korach has no ground to stand on.

The problem with this midrash is that it is patently false. We constantly beseech God to alter decisions he has made. While perhaps one might think alternatives exist in our fortune and God’s involvement, one may believe that the service of God is unchanging. However, according to the Sforno, the tabernacle was only given due to the sin of the golden calf. And even more importantly, the kohanim were not even originally going to run the Temple! 

I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. (Sefer Bamidbar 3:12)

The Torah explains that originally the first born males were going to work in the Temple, but they were replaced with the Levites after the sin of the golden calf. The midrash explains that you can’t change the selection of the Levites who were chosen to serve in the Temple. But God did just that! How is this response a refutation of Korach’s approach?

And one who cries out over the past, it is a vain prayer. For example, one whose wife was pregnant and he says: May it be God’s will that my wife will give birth to a male child, it is a vain prayer. Or one who was walking on the path home and he heard the sound of a scream in the city, and he says: May it be God’s will that this scream will not be from my house, it is a vain prayer. (Mesechet Berachot Perek 9 Mishnah 3)

The Mishnah explains that one who prays to change the past has uttered a useless request. Their tefillah is meaningless. The Rambam explains that one cannot pray for something which has been decreed, rather, one needs to pray for the future. I believe that this is the response of Moshe given by the midrash. The people who left Egypt did not need the mishkan, according to the Sforno. The people who left Egypt and then worshipped the golden calf needed the mishkan. Due to something they did, it was impossible to now serve God in a manner without the mishkan/Temple. 

Now, a people who built and worshipped the golden calf could not be the ones to work in the Temple. The Levites became the emblematic tribe of service of Hashem. Since this event already happened, even if the plan had been that the first-borns were to serve, the non-Levites were now marred with the stain of idolatry. This is similar to a Kohen who previously worshiped a foreign deity. Even if they do Teshuvah, they are unable to work in the Temple anymore. That person is now associated with idolatry. 

From this point onward, the Kohanim were already separated. This has already happened. Now, if a person wants to serve in the Temple, it is impossible. There is one tribe associated with the service. This cannot change. So much so, that if a person wants to advance in their Avodat Hashem, if someone needs to bring a sacrifice as a part of Teshuvah, they are physically unable to connect to God without the aid of the Kohen. 

A person shouldn’t delude themselves to think that night is day, or that one could offer a sacrifice without a Kohen and a Temple and think they are clinging to the Divine. It is physically impossible. It is not two different approaches in life, it is reality vs. delusion. That is what the midrash is teaching us. 

We cannot decide how we want to connect to God. There is a reality that exists, and one who ignores that is as disillusioned as one who thinks day is night. So while in the past the first-borns may have merited service in the temple, we, living in a post golden-calf world, associate the tribe of Levi as being distanced from this event. We would see the first born serving in the temple and by definition think of the golden calf. The service in the Temple is separated from the golden calf. The two are qualitatively dissimilar. This tribe has a separate identity. To deny that is to deny reality. 

Korach wanted to deny this reality of how memories and association work. This is a reality of the human mind just as much as the reality of the physical world. There is no distinction. That is why the Midrash explains there are bounds. Contrasts. The original text of the Midrash supplies contradictions of night and day, light and dark, Israel and the other nations, and Aharon and the rest of Israel. These differences exist. One can’t deny that. An event that occurred has become a reality, just like the creation of light and dark. One can’t deny that.

So when we seek to approach a life of service of Hashem, we need to look at what is real.  Our past informs our future. God created man in a certain way and provided our nature with a specific method of reaching Him. If we want to advance we need to look at what was given. We need to look backwards to move forward. We cannot change the past, but can very much learn from it and alter our present because of it.