Parshat Korach תשפ”ב
This week’s portion, Korach, details the events of Korach and his 253 compatriots’ rebellion against Moshe and Aharon (Numbers 16:1,2):
א) וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן
ב) וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי משֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם
1) Korach son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi separated himself, with Datan and Aviram, son of Eliav, and On son of Pelet, the offspring of Reuven. 2) They stood before Moshe with 250 Israelite men, leaders of the assembly.
What angered Korach’s that caused him challenge to Moshe? Our Sages teach us that it was his dissatisfaction with Moshe’s choice of Elitzafan as the Prince for the Levite family of Kehat. Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kehat, and Merari. Each family had a prince, a family leader. Gershon’s was Elyasaf son of Lael; Merari’s was Tzuriel son of Avichayil; and Kehat’s was Elizafan son of Uziel. In Korach’s eyes, Moshe had erred in appointing Elitzafan to lead the Kehat family instead of him. Korach’s grandfather, Kehat, had four sons, the eldest of whom was Amram (Moshe’s father). Yitzhar, the next eldest, was Korach’s father, and then Chevron and Uziel, in that order.
Initially, Korach had no problem with Moshe choosing Aharon as the Kohen Gadol, since Amram, Aharon’s father, was Kehat’s oldest son. Thus, the first two positions of leadership should rightfully go to them. Yitzhar was the next eldest son, so the next leadership position should have gone to his eldest son, Korach. But instead of appointing Korach, Moshe appointed Elitzafan, the middle son of Uziel, Kehat’s youngest son. The chart helps us keep track of the players:
As one of the four holiest people in his family, Korach was eminently qualified for a leadership position. He was one of the people who carried the Holy Ark when it traveled, a job given only to someone who has achieved a very high spiritual level. Korach thought that Moshe had something against him and therefore deliberately overlooked him for Elitzafan, a “lesser” personage. In Korach’s mind, there could be no other explanation, as it was obvious to all, that Elitzafan was not in Korach’s league. Korach further posited that although Moshe had made a mistake, Hashem approved Moshe’s incorrect choice because of Moshe’s closeness to Him. Korach was upset at Moshe because he did not receive the leadership position that he coveted.
Korach sought to challenge Moshe’s Divine authority by accusing him of choosing Aharon as the High Priest out of nepotism. How would Korach accomplish that? The entire nation heard Hashem call upon Moshe to be the one to give them the Torah. Maimonides writes (Foundations of the Torah 8:1):
ובמה האמינו בו במעמד הר סיני שעינינו ראו ולא זר ואזנינו שמעו ולא אחר האש והקולות והלפידים והוא נגש אל הערפל והקול מדבר אליו ואנו שומעים משה משה לך אמור להן כך וכך
What convinced the Jewish people to believe in Moshe? The Sinai Event! When our eyes saw, and not the eyes of others, and our ears heard, not the ears of others, the fire, the voices, and the torches on the mountain. Then Moshe approached the thick cloud and we heard Hashem’s voice say, “Moshe, Moshe, go tell them the following…”
What could possibly influence a person to ignore what he heard and saw with his own ears and eyes and accept a lie? Indeed, Korach managed to do so! He convinced those around him that his claim had merit and gained a following against Moshe.
Our Sages teach us that there the one force in the world powerful enough to accomplish such a formidable task is the power of ליצנות – Leitzanut – mockery. Mocking something tears it down in the eyes of the others, stripping away all of its importance and leaving it worthless.
Our Sages taught: ליצנות אחת דוחה מאה תוכחות
One word of mockery eclipses a hundred proofs.
How is this possible? Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains how it works in his seminal work, מסילת ישרים , The Path of the Just (Chapter 5).
כן כל עצמו של השחוק אינו אלא מסיר הלב מן המחשבות הישרות והעיוניות, ונמצא שלא יבואו הרהורי היראה בלבו כלל
The essence of how joking about something [or making a mockery of it] works is that it disconnects a person’s mind from straight and serious thinking, so that no proper thoughts about Hashem enter his heart.
Making a mockery of something creates a disconnect between one’s mind and his heart. Since in his emotions he has dismissed completely the matter’s importance, all that is left is the overriding feeling that that idea is silly and unworthy. When emotions take over, one’s mind ceases to function. All the clear information–the hundred proofs– falls to the wayside in the wake of the emotion that this is the dumbest thing in the world. This is why leitzanut, making a mockery of something, is so powerful. It defeats the mind, and a mindless person is prone to anything.
This was Korach’s scheme to ensnare the people and turn them against Moshe. With the power of leitzanut, Korach succeeded in making a mockery of Moshe. Once he accomplished this, he had no worry about what the people saw or heard. It wouldn’t enter their minds. The only thing they would be thinking about is how silly Moshe looked.
The Midrash (Rabbah 18:3) relates how Korach began his rebellion with the power of leitzanut.
(ג) ויקח קרח מה כתיב למעלה מן הענין (במדבר טו) ועשו להם ציצית קפץ קרח ואמר למשה טלית שכולה תכלת מהו שתהא פטורה מן הציצית א”ל חייבת בציצית א”ל קרח טלית שכולה תכלת אין פוטרת עצמה ארבע חוטין פוטרות אותה בית מלא ספרים מהו שיהא פטור מן המזוזה אמר לו חייב במזוזה א”ל כל התורה כולה רע”ה פרשיות אינה פוטרת את הבית פרשה אחת שבמזוזה פוטרת את הבית אמר לו דברים אלו לא נצטוית עליהן ומלבך אתה בודאן הה”ד ויקח קרח אין ויקח אלא לשון פליגא שלבו לקחו
The previous chapter commanded us to fulfill the mitzvah of tzizit. One of the four strings on each corner of the garment must be dyed with a special sky-blue dye called techelet. Korach jumped up and took a completely techelet (sky-blue) garment and asked Moshe. “Does this garment require a blue string on it?” Moshe said, “Yes, it does.” Korach responded, “A garment whose threads are all blue doesn’t exempt itself but four blue strings on it will? How ridiculous!”
“Does a house full of Sefer Torah require a mezuzah on the door?” continued Korach. “Yes, it does.” Replied Moshe. Korach said, “A whole Torah with 275 chapters doesn’t exempt the house from a mezuzah yet just one chapter of the Torah does? How ridiculous! Moshe, you were not commanded these things; you made them up!”
With these two questions, and Moshe’s answers, Korach sought to make Moshe appear the fool, and he succeeded. He made Moshe’s answer look stupid, and hence made a mockery of him and the Torah that he stood for. Once Korach made a mockery of Moshe, the people concluded that they need not take seriously anything that Moshe said. He surely made it all up.
It is frightening to contemplate the awesome power of leitzanut. With two words, Korach tore down Moshe, the most important and holy man in the history of the Jewish nation. It was Moshe who Hashem called “My trusted servant” and it was he who served as Hashem’s messenger to bring us the Torah, Hashem’s most precious treasure. Even a person of Moshe’s stature could withstand leitzanut. If even Moshe and the Torah could not withstand the awesome destructive power of leitzanut, for sure no other worthy concept or cause can fare any better. Leitzanut can destroy and render worthless anything of importance.
This is why our Sages caution us to stay as far away from it as possible. We should never mock something and tear it down. We should never be in the presence of others who are skilled at making a mockery out of everything good and holy to permit themselves to do anything they please. Mockery penetrates our hearts and cheapens any matter in our eyes. We will have to work very heard to restore the mocked idea to its previous state of importance. That is because leitzanut bypasses the brain and enters one’s emotions directly. When something is made to look ridiculous to us, it is hard not to see it so.
What a tragedy for Korach himself. Korach was 130 years old, and, as mentioned, one of the men appointed to carry the Holy Ark. Reaching such a high level of holiness must have required a lifetime of dedicated service to Hashem. One does not reach such a high spiritual level without hard work and constant effort to come close to Hashem. One must keep every detail of the law without any deviation to achieve such a high level, and Korach did. Korach was also a prophet, for he saw his grandchildren serving Hashem. This led him to believe that he would certainly prevail.
Alas, at the end of such a stellar life, when Korach did not receive his so desired appointment, he resorted to leitzanutto make a mockery of Moshe and the Torah, and, as a result, went down in history for all time as the symbol of an argument for personal gain.
With all that we have said about Korach, being that he was on such a high level, we must conclude that Korach did not sense that his critique of Moshe came from his selfish desires. In his eyes, he was properly pursuing the position to serve Hashem and His people. We see that if even such a great and holy person as Korach can be misled by his inner desires, what chance do regular people like us have to do the right thing and not get misled by our selfish inner desires? Is there any way to know if we are on the right track? What should Korach have done in his situation where he wanted fervently to serve Hashem but had been overlooked for the position of his dreams?
One thing that should have been absolutely clear to Korach is that the way to achieve a holy vocation cannot come from creating an argument with Moshe or anybody else. From evil, creating strife between people, good can never come. Machloket – an argument – is another most destructive force in the world. It can destroy loving families, close friendships, and business partnerships. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz זצ”ל (1902-1979) says that there were great Yeshivot that endured many difficult challenges but were destroyed in the end by an argument between the heads of the Yeshiva. Korach should have known that he needed to pursue peaceful methods to accomplish his goal.
The Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers (5:17) says:
(יז) כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ
17) Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven will endure: and every argument that is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not endure. What is an argument for the sake of Heaven? Such was the argument between Shamai and Hillel. And what is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the argument between Korach and his entire assemblage.
The simple explanation of this Mishnah is that an argument held by people who wish only to do the right thing in Hashem’s eyes will endure because over the course of the argument the matter will be clarified, since both sides will agree to the best conclusion. Whereas when an argument is based on selfish ego, the only thing that is important to each party is that he be correct. In this case, it is always a battle to the bitter end, until one or both is gone.
Another explanation is that in an “argument for the sake of Heaven,” the ones arguing endure and continue living. Whereas, in an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, the parties involved don’t continue to live, as was the case with Korach and his 253 backers, all of whom perished.
Note something peculiar in this Mishna. In the case of the argument for the sake of heaven, the Mishna presents both sides of the argument, Bet Shamai, and Bet Hillel. Whereas, in the case of an argument for personal gain, it lists only one side, Korach and his compatriots. It should have said Korach and his compatriots against Moshe Rabbeinu.
There are two lessons here. (1) There was no argument between Korach and Moshe because Moshe did not engage in the argument. He had no opinion on the matter because he was just Hashem’s messenger and had no personal involvement whatsoever. (2) When an argument is personal, each party involved is seeking a specific personal goal of his own. The only thing that binds them is their common opponent. Upon successfully eliminating him, each will pursue his own agenda to the exclusion, and at the expense, of all the others. Thus, in reality, they are all in disagreement with each other, but only look like they are on the same side of the argument.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter זצ”ל (1810-1883), the master of Mussar, explained the Mishnah in a counterintuitive way. He explained that when the two parties are really in it for themselves but think that their argument is for the sake of Heaven, the argument will endure in the end because there is no limit to how far they will go to win the argument. Since each protagonist thinks that he alone represents Hashem, he is prepared to do anything to have his opinion accepted, since, after all, he represents Hashem in this matter, and Hashem’s honor is at stake! Hashem must be defended it all cost, even if it means hurting and doing wrong to the other party.
What a pitiful ending to such a stellar life. If only Korach would have just asked Moshe why he was passed over for the Prince position of the Kehat family instead of waging a battle against him, things would have ended up so different for him. I am sure Moshe would have come back with a suitable answer, because Hashem has a good reason for everything that He does.
From Korach’s story we learn about the awesome destructive power of leitzanut, and the awesome destructive power of machloket – argument. These are two forces from we need to stay far away.