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Parshat Korach – Fringe Elements


1 Now Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘You take too much upon yourselves; all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the L-rd is among them; why do you lift yourselves above the assembly of the L-rd?’ (Numbers 16)

Is it acceptable to question authority? To protest against what you perceive to be corrupt or overbearing leadership?  If so, why were Korach and his associates punished in such an unearthly manner? What was the nature of Korach’s crime?

The simple meaning of the Torah text suggests that Korach attempted to establish a form of spiritual communism, where each member of the Jewish people would have been a leader in his own right.  “Everyone is holy; why do you lord yourselves over the assembly of G-d?” (Numbers 16:3).  But maybe this is the ultimate form of existence?  In fact, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag z”l, who is also known as the Ba’al HaSulam, noted that there is a verse in the Torah that describes the Jewish people as “a nation of priests, a holy people” (Matan Torah).  Priests, or Kohanim, being that they are from the tribe of Levi, have no inheritance in the land of Israel; this is an exchange for the privilege of serving G-d in the Temple.  If we are a nation of priests, says the Ba’al HaSulam, we too must give up our individual claims to property except where we can utilize it in the fulfillment of the commandment to “love thy neighbor”.  

This idea is based on another, namely, that the world has been created in terms of the will to give and the will to receive, givers and receivers.  We have a commandment to emulate the ways of G-d, and G-d is the ultimate Giver.  Therefore, we must try to transform our nature; we must become givers.  Only in this way will be able to truly fulfill the mitzvah to love every Jew, which is the overarching purpose of the Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim 2).

So what was the problem with Korach?

The opening verse says, “and Korach took…”  Onkelos reads the word “took” as “dissociated himself”.  What exactly was he dissociating from?

The previous Slonimer Rebbe zt”l, in his sefer Nesivos Shalom, states that Korach rejected the idea that the world was configured in this way, as a system of givers and receivers.  He understood that, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Moses was the giver, i.e. the conveyor of the Torah from G-d to the Jewish people.  However, now that the Torah was “not in the heavens” anymore, he did not think that there was any need for the role of giver; anyone, following the Torah that is in his hands, could govern himself, as it were.  As a Levi, Korach specifically could not accept the concept of a Kohen Gadol, a singular High Priest, who would essentially be a conduit for the holy exchange between the Jewish people and G-d.  What made Aaron more fitting for this role than he, or, by extension, anyone else?

This flaw in concept, when it becomes virulent, can obviously lead to the ultimate heresy; if there is no longer a need for a giver, then perhaps there is no need for the ultimate Giver either.  There is a concept known as Divine non-intervention, where G-d is likened to the potter, who, having already fashioned the vessel, takes it to the market and leaves it there to be sold; his involvement with the vessel ceases, but the vessel retains its integrity as a vessel.  The Ba’al HaTanya discusses this idea extensively in his Sha’ar HaYichud VeHaEmunah, as being antithetical to what our Torah tells us.  G-d is like the potter who never removes his hand from the vessel, which is constantly spinning upon the wheel, being formed and shaped at every second.  His involvement with the vessel is permanent.

The way G-d designed the world, everything exists in pairs, with one being the mashpia (the giver) and the other being the mekabel (the receiver).  Only G-d exists beyond this framework as an entirely independent and unique Being.  Human beings, though they constitute the pinnacle of Creation, nonetheless are paired up in this way.  Parents who care for their children, a teacher who imbues his student with knowledge, a master craftsman who hones the skills of his apprentice–all of these fall into the roles of giver and receiver.

Yet there is one human being who sits at the top of the pyramid, and although he himself is a receiver, he is the one who is the giver to the rest of Creation.  In our terminology, we refer to this person as the tzaddik, about whom the verse states, “the tzaddik is the foundation of the world.” )Proverbs 10:25)  The gemara says, regarding Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, “the entire world receives its sustenance because of My son Chanina, while he himself is content with a bucket of carobs from one Erev Shabbat to the next” (Berachot 17b).  The phrase “because of”–b’shvil–can also be read as “through the channel of”, i.e., through the channel of Chanina ben Dosa, the entire world was nourished.  The Divine attribute of Yesod (foundation), which is also associated with the concept of tzaddik, is alluded to in the verse, “for all that is Heaven and on Earth” (I Chronicles 29:11), meaning that there is a conduit that connects Heaven and Earth, and this conduit is the tzaddik.  Clearly, Moses filled this role; he was the connector between G-d and the Jewish people, and as the Seven Mitzvot were re-established at the Giving of the Torah, he was the connector between G-d and humanity as a whole.  

Korach believed that being holy obviated the need for being a giver.  But because “the world is/will be built upon kindness” (Psalms 89:3), holiness must find its fulfillment through giving.  In the first parsha of the Torah, we meet the very interesting personality of Chanoch (Enoch), who lived to 365 years (rather young for those days), and then “was no more” (Genesis 5:24).  The Zohar comments that Chanoch became so spiritual that he simply stepped out of his earthly parameters and entered Heaven without dying.  Truly a high level of spiritual development.  Yet the father of the Jewish religion is Abraham; he is the one referred to as “My beloved Abraham”, because he reached out to others, he ushered them into his home, he prayed on behalf of them, he taught them the ways of G-d.  He is known as the “chariot of chesed”.  He exemplified the role of giver, par excellence.   

Korach sought to do away with this role, not being the one chosen to fill it himself.  Therein we find his true motives.  However, he was forced to admit that, “Moses is truth and his Torah is truth.”

It is very difficult to accept leadership.  I know that, as a child, it was common for me and my friends to dream about becoming the president.  Now, adolescents dream of becoming the president, but for entirely different reasons.  It is interesting, though, that we do not dream about having a teacher who can enable us to become who we are meant to be, and to give as we are meant to give, and in so doing, truly emulate our Creator. May we be blessed to merit this.


By Rabbi Tani Burton

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