He Is the Sinner
In this parsha we learn about the rebellion against Moses' leadership led by Korach, and God's punishing response. The following verse is part of Moses' reaction to God's wrath after Korach's accusations.
It might be advisable to see the verse inside in order to fully appreciate Rashi's comment, which is based on a subtle grammatical point.
"And they fell on their faces and they said: God, God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and You be angry with the entire assembly?"
One man etc. - Rashi: He is the sinner. And will You be angry with the whole assembly?
A Question: What is Rashi responding to here? What has he added to our understanding? In short: What's bothering him?
This is very difficult. But give it a try.
WHAT IS NOT BOTHERING RASHI?
Some have suggested that Rashi is responding to the future tense of the word "yecheta" which literally means "he will sin." In our verse this would mean: "If one man will sin (in the future) will You be angry with the whole assembly?"
According to this suggested answer Rashi is telling us, by using the present "he is the sinner" - that this word should be understood as in the present tense.
This could certainly be so, because in Biblical Hebrew the tenses do not always follow strict time categories. We frequently have future verbs meaning present and present verbs meaning future (see Rashi on Genesis 29:3).
According to these commentators, Rashi is helping us avoid a misunderstanding. Had the word been taken literally, in the future tense, then the meaning would be "If a man will sin (in the future), will You then be angry with the whole assembly?"
But it is not likely that Rashi's intention is to guide against such an interpretation.
Why would you say that this cannot be Rashi's intention? Common sense should tell us that this is not what is bothering him. Why?
UNDERSTANDING RASHI'S APPROACH
An Answer: It is not reasonable to think that God would punish anyone, let alone the whole, innocent, assembly, for a sin that a man may commit in the future! Why would anyone ever think that God would punish even the would-be sinner himself for a transgression he has not yet committed? Considering the unreasonableness of such an assumption, we can be sure that Rashi's comment is not meant to warn us against accepting such an unlikely interpretation.
Another reason not to accept such an understanding of Rashi's comment is that the "dibbur hamaschil" (initiating words to Rashi's commentary) leaves out the crucial word "yecheta." If Rashi's main point were to correct our understanding of this word, we would expect it to be in the heading of the comment.
What then might be bothering Rashi?
Hint: The answer depends on a little known grammatical rule.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI - BACKGROUND
An Answer: Some background information is necessary. In Biblical Hebrew the letter "heh," when it precedes a word, can have two different functions:
- It can mean "the" – before the definite article, for example, "haSefer" "the book."
- It can mean a question (like a "?" in English). Like "Hashomer achi anochi?" "Am I my brother's keeper?"
One can usually tell the difference between these two meanings by the vowel under the letter "heh." When intended as a question, it usually has a "chataf patach" (a patach with a sheva at the side), whereas when it is intended as a definite article, it has a plain patach.
But, alas, as with all grammar rules, this too has its exceptions. Suffice it to say that before a word that begins with an "alef" the rule is different. Before an "alef" a patach is used for a question and a kametz for a definite article (as in "ha'aretz" - "the Land"). (This is difficult to convey in transliteration.)
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
Now as we look at our verse we can see what is bothering Rashi. At first glance the verse seems to say: "If one man sins, will You be angry with the whole assembly?" (This is similar to the common [incorrect] translation above.) But if this were the correct meaning, then we should have a "heh hashailah" ("questioning heh") before the word "ish" (man) and its vowel should be a patach, because this word begins with an "alef." But, lo and behold, its vowel is a kametz. So it cannot be a question; it must be a regular "heh" which comes before a definite article ("the one man"). Thus, Rashi is forced to break the verse into two parts:
"He is the sinner ("the one man") - will You, then, be angry with the whole assembly?"
The question, you see, begins only with the second half of the verse – and here, ironically, there is no "heh hashailah" at all. Rashi's sensitivity to exact grammatical rules is evident. And his subtle corrective commentary saves the day.
QUESTIONING MOSES' WORDS
But, we should ask why did Moses himself not ask "If a man sins, will You be angry with the whole assembly?"
Why do think he didn't?
UNDERSTANDING MOSES' WORDS
An Answer: Because Moses is not asking a hypothetical question – "if a man sins..." He knows full well that one man did sin – Korach – and he must be punished. Moses' question of God was: One man sinned, (granted) but will You be angry with the whole assembly?"