A Cloak Entirely Blue

blue textile fabric material techelet turquoise

Midrash is the ancient rabbinic way of understanding a biblical text. It is not a simple, literal interpretation. For this, the rabbis had as different phrase, peshuto shel mikra, the “plain sense” of a verse or phrase. They believed the plain sense is important and underlies everything else.[1] But it is not everything. There is much in Torah that is deeper, subtler, than the plain sense. For that they turned to Midrash. In Midrash the rabbis explored the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in the text. Sometimes they spelled out what the Torah leaves unsaid. The Torah can be very cryptic. All sorts of details are missing. The rabbis used Midrash in two ways: first to tease out details of the law (Midrash Halachah), second to fill in the gaps in the narrative (Midrash Aggadah). By interpreting and re-interpreting the Torah, they were continuing the work already begun by Israel’s prophets.[2]

In particular, Midrash is the bridge across the abyss of time between biblical and post-biblical Judaism. Pshat, the plain sense, asks, “What did the text mean then?” Midrash asks the question, “What does the text mean now?” Pshat asks, “What did it mean for our ancestors?” Midrash asks, “What does it mean for us?” If God is beyond time then His word must have meaning for all time, including the present. Midrash is built on this faith.[3]

This is by way of introduction to a famous Midrash at the beginning of Korach. Rashi cites it in his commentary. It takes as its starting point a simple question. The story of the Korach rebellion begins with the words, “And Korach took” (Num. 16:1). What did he take? The verb requires but does not have an object. Rashi begins by stating what he believes is the plain sense. It means, “And Korach took himself to one side.” He separated himself from the rest of the community. He readied himself for an argument. He prepared to start a revolt.

However, Rashi begins his commentary to the story of Korach by telling us that “this passage is well explained in Midrash Tanchuma,” and having explained the plain sense of the opening words, he turns to the Midrash. This is what it says:

He took a cloak that was made entirely of blue wool[4], and dressed his fellow rebels in similar cloaks. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require tzitzit, or is it exempt?” He replied, “It does require them.” They began laughing at him, saying, “Is it possible that one thread of blue wool exempts an entire garment made of other material, yet a cloak made entirely of threads of blue wool does not exempt itself?”

Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2.

The Midrash, in other words, answers the question, “What did Korach take?” by saying that he took a blue cloak, knowing that he could use it to ridicule Moses in public. He was clever enough to know two things: first, that even a blue cloak requires tzitzit, a set of fringes that contain a thread of blue; second, that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain this convincingly to a large and sceptical public. Korach had mastered the art of hitting below the belt by asking an impossible question (the classic secular example is, “When did you stop beating your wife?”). Whichever way you answer, there is no way of avoiding embarrassment. Korach knew that when Moses gave the correct answer, he could be made to seem absurd. Korach could then claim that this showed he was making up all the laws he claimed to have received from God. God could not have issued so ridiculous a command.

Thus far the Midrash. How are we to understand it? Clearly, it is not the plain sense of the text. Neither Korach nor any of his fellow rebels mentioned tzitzit, or any other Jewish law for that matter. Their complaints were quite different. That Moses had acted high-handedly. That he had appointed his brother as high priest, an act they could portray as nepotism. He had failed in his central mission of bringing the people to the Promised Land. Because of the episode of the spies, the people now knew that they would not live to cross the Jordan. Their complaints had nothing to do with a cloak of blue and the laws of tzitzit. So what is the Midrash telling us?

The first answer is that it is doing what Midrash does. It is asking not “What did the Torah mean then?” but “What does the Torah mean now?” Living after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were not faced with would-be usurpers wanting to be leaders of the Jewish people. The age of kings and high priests was over. What they faced were what they called minim, “sectarians,” some of whom argued that that the Torah was not “from heaven” (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1), and that – apart from the Ten Commandments that the people heard directly from God – the laws were made by Moses himself and were therefore not binding.[5] We do not know exactly who these sectarians were, but we have strong evidence that this is the kind of claim they made. The rabbis were therefore making the Korach story directly relevant to their time.

But that is not all they were doing. The second thing they were doing was engaging in a close reading of the text. Listen to it carefully and we immediately note several significant problems. We have already mentioned one. The story begins by saying, “And Korach took,” but it does not say what he took. Rashi’s reading, that he “took himself,” is based on an ancient Targum, but can hardly be said to be the obvious sense of the text.

Then there is the accusation that the rebels seem to have levelled against Moses, but which is not mentioned in the text. At one point, Moses says:

“By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things, that they were not of my own devising.”

Num. 16:28

Moses is countering the suggestion that in his capacity as leader, he had taken certain decisions himself and falsely attributed them to God. What were these decisions? Next, there is the problem that arises many times in the book of Numbers, namely, what is the logic of the Torah’s sequence of subjects and chapters? Narrative is consistently interrupted by law – and by laws that seem to have no connection with the narrative. Immediately prior to the story of Korach we read of the command of tzitzit – to place fringes with a cord of blue at the corners of our garments. What is the connection between this and the story of Korach?

The brilliant suggestion of the Sages is that each question answers the other. What did Korach take? He took a blue garment and asked Moses whether it still needed tzitzit. Moses replied that it did. Korach was thus able to ridicule Moses’ account of the command. What, after all, is tzitzit for? The blue thread reminds us of the sky, heaven, and the Throne of Glory. If so, a garment made entirely of blue does this far better than one that merely has fringes with a single thread of blue. The illogicality of the law shows that it was not divine. It must have been made up by Moses. That is why, defending himself, Moses was forced to find a way of showing that what he had done was “not of his own devising.” Though none of this is explicit in the Torah, it can be inferred from the juxtaposition of the laws of tzitzit and the story of Korach.

The Midrash is doing more than answering the questions and filling in the gaps. It is telling us something fundamental about the Jewish project itself. There is a perennial temptation in Jewish life to say that we do not need law, halachah, to achieve our religious ideals. There are commands for which a reason is given, and tzitzit is one. It is not a chok, a “statute,” a command without explicit purpose. It is, rather, one of the edot, a “testimony,” whose purpose is to remind us of certain truths, historical or spiritual. For any command with a given purpose, it can always be claimed that what is sacred is the end, not the means, the purpose but not the specific way of attaining it. Korach’s argument is that there are other ways of remembering Heaven than by attaching a blue fringe to the corners of our clothes. Another is to make a garment entirely of blue – surely a far more visible, eye-catching symbol.

Korach’s argument is logical but not rational. What he forgot is that the essence of the command is the means, not the end. It is precisely by doing things God’s way that we achieve personal transformation. The apprentice who is impatient with the instructions of the master will never grow, never become a master himself. Apprenticeship is a matter of doing things we do not fully understand until we have undergone the discipline of subordinating ourselves to the instructions of an expert. That is the meaning of mitzvah, command. It is our apprenticeship to the Master of the universe. In telling us this, the Midrash is teaching us something deep not only about the nature of a mitzva, a commandment, but also about leadership itself. Korach could never be a leader because he was incapable of being a follower. He did not understand what it is to obey. Such a person will never get others to obey. That is Midrash as a close reading of the text.

The third thing the Midrash is doing is theology. Judaism is a set of strong beliefs. This particular Midrash tells a remarkable story about leadership, holiness, and the Jewish people. It takes as its starting point Korach’s opening words to Moses and Aaron:

“You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

Num. 16:3

The inescapable question we find ourselves asking is: Was Korach right or wrong in saying this? Are all the community holy?

The Midrash does not answer this directly but does so implicitly. It tells us that Korach based his challenge on the law of tzitzit. If we turn to that law, we immediately see the strength of the point he was making. The law says this:

Speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe on each corner. It shall be for you as a fringe, and you shall see it and remember all the commands of the Lord.… You will thus remember and keep all My commandments and be holy to your God.

Num. 15:38–40

By linking Korach’s remarks to the immediately preceding law of the tzitzit, the Midrash is suggesting that Korach’s claim was an exceptionally strong one. He did not make up the idea that “all the congregation are holy.” Moses himself had just said so. It was part of the logic of tzitzit. In the light of archaeological research, we can put the point more strongly still. Egyptian and Mesopotamian paintings and sculptures from the first and second millennia BCE show garments with tassels.[6] Rock engravings at Timna dating from the thirteenth century BCE show Midianites or Bedouin wearing fringed cloaks.[7] The wearers were often nobles. Techelet, the specific blue of the tzitzit, is associated with holiness and royalty. The robe of the ephod worn by Aaron the high priest was entirely made of techelet (Ex. 28:31). The Ark was wrapped in cloth of techelet (Num. 4:6–7). When in the book of Esther we read of Mordechai going out in “royal robes,” they included techelet (Est. 8:15).

In other words, Korach was making a very strong case indeed. The very fact that all the men were commanded to wear tzitzit with its thread of royal blue, the colour associated with royalty and Aaron’s priestly robe, meant that they were indeed all holy, all noble, and all worthy to be priests. Had not God Himself summoned Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), meaning a kingdom all of whose members are priests, and a nation each of whom is holy? And since God Himself had said, even before the Exodus, “My child, My firstborn, Israel” (Ex. 4:22), it followed that every Israelite, as the firstborn of the King of kings, was a member of a royal family.

Korach could not have said this until now. Each of these statements could be taken as merely metaphorical, not literal. But now that Moses had told the entire people to wear garments with fringes of royal and priestly blue, this was no longer metaphor. Garments, official dress, uniforms, worn in obedience to a royal command, are not symbols or fancy dress; they are incontrovertible statements of status and rank. Korach’s challenge, once we locate it in the context of tzitzit, becomes immeasurably more powerful.

In fact, the Midrash takes Korach’s statement and dignifies it. It is no longer a piece of crude populism. It has become a piece of sublime theology. It is not just that Korach and his followers were wearing blue robes. They were making the statement that the Jewish people itself is a robe entirely blue. Every strand of the nation is royal, holy, priestly. It therefore needs no further thread, meaning, it needs no additional leader. If we understand the Midrash in its true depth we realise that Korach was not simply saying that Moses had made a mistake in the command of tzitzit. It was the same mistake he had made in creating a priesthood and a high priest for the Jewish people. The people did not need a priesthood because it already was a priesthood. By telling the entire people to wear fringes with a strand of royal blue on their clothes, God was summoning them all to become “a kingdom of priests.” God was calling not just Aaron and his sons but the entire nation to become leaders. He wanted them to be the human equivalent of a garment every thread of which is blue. Instead of weakening Korach’s argument, the Midrash strengthens it.

What then was Korach’s mistake? Saying that a robe that is entirely blue does not need tzitzit. Saying that a congregation of leaders does not need a leader. The truth is otherwise. A people, every one of whom is holy, still needs a leader, just as a garment, every thread of which is blue, still needs a fringe. A garment that is entirely blue but which lacks tzitzit is simply a blue garment. It has no special sanctity. A blue cloak is still only a cloak. A blue scarf is just a scarf. The function of the tzitzit is not to diminish the significance of the garment but to endow it with a special and recognisable character. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook put this beautifully. In his book Arpelei Tohar,[8] he wrote that the role of the mitzvot in relation to a culture is the same as that of tzitzit in relation to a garment. It is the part that reveals the holiness of the whole. It defines it, as a frame defines a painting, or as a prologue and epilogue define a story. It is not the tzitzit that is holy, but the garment. However, without the tzitzit we would never be aware of the holiness of the garment. It would be potential, not actual; latent, not manifest.

An orchestra of virtuosi still needs a conductor. An ensemble of brilliant actors still needs a director. A team of superstars still needs a captain. Indeed, the more prodigiously gifted the individuals, the more they need a leader – not one who is necessarily better than they are, certainly not one who “sets himself above” them, but one who can orchestrate their various talents, thinks more of the team than the stars, who, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, “sees life steadily and sees it whole,”[9] who can, from time to time, stand outside the group and see the distant dangers and the far-off destination, who can unite people as Aaron could, and who can inspire with his vision as Moses did.

We see, therefore, how one simple Midrash helps us rescue a text from its pastness, from a sad, squalid quarrel thousands of years ago, letting us read it with the closest possible attention to the text as a whole, and showing us the real nature of Korach’s error. He was not wrong to say that all the people were holy. He was wrong to say that holy people do not need leaders – they do. He was even more wrong to say in public that people do not need leaders while privately seeking to be a leader himself. His populism was disingenuous.

Korach did, though, have one virtue. He saw that the Jewish people should aspire to be a “cloak that is entirely blue.” He died for his sins, but his sons survived, and many centuries later their descendants sang psalms in the Temple – a whole series of psalms bear their name.[10] If ambition had not corrupted him, Korach might have been a genuine leader. For he saw a real and moving truth, that if a people dedicates itself to God it can become a robe every strand of which is royal blue.

[1] “Scripture does not depart from its plain meaning” (Shabbat 63a). As Wallace Stevens memorably put it: “After the leaves have fallen, we return / To a plain sense of things” (“The Plain Sense of Things”).

[2] See Michael Fishbane’s important book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

[3] A faith, we might add, radically different from that presupposed by much of academic biblical scholarship since Spinoza, but that is a subject for another time and a different book.  

[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2.

[5] Brachot 12a as explained by Rashi ad loc.

[6] Stephen Bertman, “Tasselled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean,” Biblical Archaeologist 24 (1961): 119–128.

[7] Beno Rothenberg, Timna: Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972), pp. 123–124.

[8] Arpelei Tohar (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1983), p. 6.

[9] “To a Friend.”

[10] See Psalm 42, Psalms 44–49, and Psalms 84–88.

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