It is a classic machlokes (disagreement), one for the ages.
Everybody but Ramban knows that the Torah is not written in chronological order. After all, ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah (lit. there is no early and late in the Torah) and “the Torah is not a history book”. Such has been the mantra of our chinuch from the time we opened a chumash and such is our vaunted American kabbalah (tradition). Stop!
But is the Torah an anti-history book? Must the events be presented out of order, davka, to keep us guessing – a fairly illogical and counterintuitive posture. Surely the God who created man (who created Rolex) can and did produce a book of utter precision. That the Torah is in pristine order, suffering no capricious lack of chronology is axiomatic to all commentators. That the Torah’s order flows from a different cadence and perspective is a notion we must consider. Thus at times, the Torah sacrifices sequential accuracy for the sake of psychological, halachic or hashkafic order. Whatever the particular scenario, disorder is simply not an option.
Yet there is a dispute in the works here.
Rashi and Ibn Ezra more liberally apply the principle of ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah. Thus for Rashi/Ibn Ezra it is axiomatic that the mishkan (Exodus 25) only came as a result of the golden calf (Exodus 32) even as the Torah presents the command to build the mishkan prior to the sin. Similarly, for Rashi (and others) na’aseh v’nishma (Exodus 24) happened before Bnei Yisrael heard the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), the brit bein habetarim (covenant between the parts- Bereishis 15) took place before Lech Lecha (Bereishis 12), and Yisro (chapter 18) may very well have joined the Jews after the giving of the Torah (Exodus 20). There are numerous other examples as well.
For Ramban however, chronological disorder is contraband. Unless the Torah is explicit, we must assume chronological fealty. (cf. Bamidbar, 9:1 and compare to Bamidbar 1:1). To be sure, there are places where Ramban struggles to uphold his doctrine (cf. Bereishis 15), but this is one of Ramban’s great exegetical lines in the sand.
And what of our parsha and the Korach rebellion?
It is a rebellion centering on leadership. Korach was slighted by the choice of Elitzafan ben Uziel as head of shevet Levi, feeling that he should rightfully be the leader. That event took place in midbar Sinai at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar (3:30). Ultimately, he takes on Moshe and Aharon, schlepping along (Dasan, Aviram and) the 250 men of distinction. Who were these men? Some say they were bechorim (eldest sons), others say they were from the tribe of Reuven (and yet others say they were levi’im). Their major gripe is about leadership. Korach successfully sows the seeds of discontent, even as the firstborns were displaced a while ago in the desert
Therefore, Ibn Ezra claims that Korach’s rebellion took place much earlier and belongs chronologically towards the beginning of the book of the Bamidbar. Why the Torah chose to present it here is a question that Ibn Ezra must answer (that we will not).
Ramban however states that the Korach rebellion need not budge from its chronological location. What Ramban must explain is why an older reality simmers to the boil precisely now. He responds with an amazing psychological analysis. For most of the Jews sojourn, Moshe was as close to untouchable as it gets. Here was a man that took the nation out of slavery, brought them the Torah, produced water and manna for them in the desert and perhaps most significantly, fought valiantly and successfully for the nation to mitigate their sin of the golden calf. Korach knowing the time was not right, suffered in silence, unable to vent his grievances with the people of Israel, until Moshe became prone. Only when Moshe’s luster would wear away, would there be room to peck away at Moshe.
Moshe’s prayer in the aftermath of the spies was not wholly successful; he had been unable to change the Divine mind in a most fundamental way. All were now slated to die in the desert. This following on the heels of the tragic episode of the mis’onenim and kivros hata’avah (complainers and those who craved meat), lead to murmuring against Moshe’s leadership. Korach knew the time was ripe.
I am both impressed and depressed by Ramban’s brilliant solution. Depressed, because Ramban’s vort rings so true; Moshe Rabbeinu subject to scrutiny!? Is this not the height of ingratitude? It appears that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Human nature waxeth eternal! Adam Harishon, created in the Divine image eats from the tree and when questioned by Hashem, turns around and says: Ha’isha – the woman whom YOU gave me, fed me the forbidden fruit. Chazal chastise Adam, characterizing him as a kaphui tov, an ingrate. Human beings have a bent towards lack of gratitude, for its recognition is fundamentally an acknowledgement of indebtedness – and who amongst us, wants to carry debt? (most people understand this point) We must develop strategies to fight this tendency in ways small and large – to inculcate the basic midah of gratitude. Surely, this is the basic notion of making brachos on a regular basis
A closing thought and a suggestion: U’basar basadeh treifah…lakelev tashlichun oso (Shemos, 22:30). An animal that is a treifah (torn), the meat shall be given to the dog. Why the dog? The Da’at Zekeinim teaches not just any old dog receives the meat, but rather it is the sheep dog, the one who has been there for the owner, guarding his flock. Is it not strange that it is when he blew it, allowing one of the flock to be ravaged, the Torah recommends rewarding him?
Yes! Davka! For when the animal has failed, we must we go out of our way to show gratitude for all that he has done in the past.
Perhaps the next time a dear friend, child, relative, spouse fails us or slightly annoys us, we should choose that moment as an opportunity to express sincere gratitude for all the good we have received from them.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.