19 Jun 2015

Korah 5775: A Hairy Situation

Korah 5775: A Hairy Situation

“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”

— Rita Mae Brown

One would not expect hair to be at the heart of a deep moral lesson. Yet, in Torah, hair is treated as a serious element of human expression and individuality. For as long as there have been attempts by human beings to coalesce a group of individuals into a cohesive whole, the problem of individuality has been a formidable challenge. What does one do with the uniqueness of human identity when working on developing a functional society? Everything, from complete subjugation to full empowerment, has been attempted. But even within the most communist-oriented groups there are hierarchies and specific assignments that cannot be held by any and every person.

In Torah this issue is brought to light by a first cousin of Moses and Aaron named Korah. He insists that: “The entire nation is holy…why do you put yourselves above the nation of G-d?”[1] Although he cast contempt upon the system, Korah was happy to assume the position held by Aaron himself. While Korah seemed to be advocating the equality of individuals in the community by insisting that everyone was special, he was also fighting against their unique expression.

The oddity in all of this, is that hair seems to play a central role in questions regarding individuality. It starts with the tribe of Levi, to which Moses, Aaron and Korah belonged. The tribe had their hair removed as a part of their consecration for service in the Tabernacle.

 Take the Levites from the midst of the Children of Israel…they are to pass a razor across their whole body… (Numbers, 8:6-7)

The point of this procedure was to allow the individual to start fresh and be reborn in this new sanctified role. Tradition has it, however, that it was seen by Korah’s wife as degradation.

Korah’s wife said to him: Look what Moses has done to you!…He has shaved you bald and treated you like waste. He has focused on your hair[2] [to degrade you[3]].

 The irony in this is that Korah’s name actually means bald in Hebrew. Korah was an enemy of individual expression. He aimed at stripping away distinction from individuals and smothering it in the power of the group. Korah, the bald man, is a symbol for the shearing of one’s hair or one’s individualistic expression. We find, sadly, that human beings will turn to shaving hair as a means of quieting the uniqueness of another human being. Dr. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four concentration camps during the Holocaust, eerily depicts this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

‘Next we were herded into another room to be shaved: not only our heads were shorn, but not a hair was left on our entire bodies…while we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies — even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence.[4]

 Individuality brings with it unpredictability. There are those of us who are intrigued by its surprise and enlivened by its astonishing diversity, while there are others who are so threatened and frightened by it that they believe it must be completely subjugated at all costs — even destroyed, if need be.

Hair for us is a symbol and even a tool for our self expression. How we wear our hair is one of the most common ways that human beings show their uniqueness. In Torah the diversity of Creation is a hallmark. Whether it be stars or planets, snow flakes or leaves on a tree, fingerprints or grains of sand, the natural world celebrates difference. The ubiquitous diversity in the universe expresses the singular nature of its Maker. As G-d is one, His creations express His unity in their individuality.

To build communities by eclipsing the beauty of human diversity is to rip apart the fabric of Creation and fly in the face of the Creator’s creativity. It is in the synergy of individuality into a cohesive and multifaceted whole that Creation finds its greatest expression. Korah threatened this and, as a result, he found no footing on earth and was swallowed by it. It is through his story that we are taught this valuable lesson.

[1] Numbers, 16:3

[2] Sanhedrin, 110a

[3] Rashi, ibid.

[4] (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) 15.