Korach תשפד

                This week’s portion tells the tragic story of Korach, the man who challenged Moshe’s leadership, claiming that Moshe chose his brother Aharon as Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, out of nepotism, and not because of Hashem’s command to him.

                Who was this person Korach? Korach was a 130-year-old holy man who spent his whole life faithfully serving Hashem. He had רוח הקודש – “Divine Spirit” which means, he could see the future. The proof of his holiness is revealed in that he was one of the four people chosen to carry the Holy Ark with the Tablets.  Anyone less than perfectly righteous would die on the spot for just touching the Ark, let alone carry it. For 130 consecutive years Korach pursued a life of holiness and purity in order to reach this high level. Unfortunately, a wrong decision on his part turned his whole life upside down, and instead of being recorded in history as a holy Sage and leader, he goes down in history as the “picture of evil,” the man who argued with Moshe and died a miraculous death.

                The Talmud (Berachot 29a)also tells of Rabbi Yochanan who served as the High Priest for 80 years and in the end became a Tzeduki – the sect who don’t believe in the Oral Torah.

והא תנן אל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך שהרי יוחנן כהן גדול שמש בכהונה גדולה שמנים שנה ולבסוף נעשה צדוקי

                When we hear of stories like these, we cannot help but wonder, how could this happen? How could a person who served Hashem faithfully with all his heart for 130 years, and who reached such a high level of holiness, suddenly fall off the wagon? How could a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest, who performed the Yom Kippur service which required him to enter the Holy of Holies, 80 times, suddenly decide that what he did until now was wrong, and that the way of the Tzedukim is the correct way to perform the service?

                The answer to this question brings us to the very purpose for our existence in this world.

                Hashem has put us in this world to withstand the challenges of the evil inclination and choose to do the right thing, Hashem’s commandment. As it says in the Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 1):

נמצינו למדים, כי עיקר מציאות האדם בעולם הזה הוא רק לקיים מצוות ולעבוד ולעמוד בנסיון

Hence we have learned, that a man’s purpose in this world is to fulfill the mitzvot, to serve Hashem and to overcome the challenges (that seek to derail him).

                When after completing his life in this world a person’s soul reaches the World to Come, he will receive great reward for all the good deeds that he performed during his lifetime. Whenever a person decides to do a mitzvah, the evil force in the world stands up to challenge him and tries to stop him from executing. To do the mitzvah, one must focus his energies to overcome that negative force.  It is always difficult to do the right thing, and it requires great effort on our part. It is for that effort that we are worthy of reward. If there would be no challenge to doing Hashem’s commandment, there would be no justification for reward, since we did not put forth any effort to do the right thing. But Hashem put us here in this world to earn reward for the World to Come, so there must always be a challenge. Hence, as a person advances up the ladder of service to Hashem, and gradually conquers challenges that have now become routine, his tests become more and more difficult. This process continues throughout one’s life until the day he dies, and no matter how holy a person is, he must always have a challenge on his level that he must overcome in his service to Hashem.

The Sages said it in the following way (Tractate Sukkah 52a):

אתא ההוא סבא תנא ליה כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו

                The greater a person is, his evil inclination is greater than him.

This being the case, we can have no idea what challenges a person on such a high spiritual level. Because they are so holy, their challenges are on a very holy level. The evil inclination presents them with a way to reach a new level of holiness, however there is something “wrong” in it. The holy person has to discern that this avenue to holiness is not appropriate, and in spite of his burning desire to reach the next level of holiness, he must forgo this opportunity.

                Korach now felt a deep need to lead. His life had reached a point where he felt that the next step in life for him was to be a leader and to inspire others with his greatness. He had assumed that based on his position in the family, he would become the prince of the Kehat family, and through that appointment, he would actualize this step. How surprised he was when Moshe chose instead, Elitzafan the son of Uziel, his father Yitzhar’s younger brother, for the position! (See the chart below)

This threw a monkey wrench into Korach’s plan for his spiritual growth. It was time to lead! Korach felt ripe and ready to inspire others and to fulfill the next step in his growth. Everything was set! The position was open, he was the next in line after Moshe to get it, and he was the most qualified for the job! How could Moshe possibly have chosen Elitzafan, a man much inferior to him, for the position? This must be a mistake!

Korach reasoned that because Hashem knows his holiness and the purity of his desire to serve Hashem in this new leadership role, He certainly instructed Moshe to choose him for the position. However, Moshe must have something against him, so he chose Elitzafan instead.

Once Korach realized (in his mind) that Moshe had made up the choice of Elitzafan, it occurred to him that perhaps it was Moshe’s decision to choose his brother Aharon for the position of Kohen Gadol as well. Korach decided that if Moshe is taking liberties and doing as he pleases, nothing is from Hashem, so if I want to serve Hashem in a leadership position, I should go for the top position of Kohen Gadol and serve in the Mishkan! That will afford me the greatest opportunity to serve Hashem, instead of just being the leader of the Kehat family.

So, in his great zeal to serve Hashem, that is what Korach did. He challenged Moshe saying that he chose Aharon out of nepotism and that Aharon was not Hashem’s choice.

 The Chidushei Harim teaches us:

מוכן היה קורח להיות ראש ללוים כמו אהרן כהן גדול לכהנים אלא שדחק את השעה

Korach was primed to be the High Priest for the Levites just as Aharon was the High Priest for the Kohanim, but he acted prematurely.

Korach’s deep desire to lead the Jewish people was on target, and it truly was his next step in his service to Hashem. Hashem also saw a great leader in Korach and set aside a special job for him. He was earmarked to be the leader of the Levites, the helpers in the Mishkan and Holy Temple. In this capacity, he would have been on par with Aharon, the Kohen Gadol; exactly what he sought. This position never was filled because only Korach was great enough to fill it, and when Korach failed in his test, it became obsolete. Had he only taken a different path in his pursuit of that goal, it would have been his.

This is the tragedy of Korach. He was so close to everything he wanted, yet, because of his choice to argue with Moshe not only did he lose everything, he goes down in history as an evil person. He should have known that one cannot obtain holiness or closeness to Hashem by violating a law in the Torah. Such a thing can never work. One cannot achieve holiness by using the opposite of holiness – argument – to obtain it. The opposite of holiness will only bring evil.

Moreover, Korach sought to undermine the entire foundation of the Torah. If Moshe made up one speck of a law, the rest of the Torah is equally in question. Who is to say what Moshe received from Hashem, and what he did not? If Korach succeeded in his argument, all would have been lost, for the integrity of the transmission from Hashem on Sinai would have been destroyed.

What should Korach have done when Elitzafan was chosen instead of him?

His first mistake was to suspect Moshe of wrongdoing. Everyone knew that Moshe was Hashem’s faithful servant and would never do anything against what Hashem said. Such a thing should have been impossible to Korach.

Second, Moshe was the most humble person on the planet. Korach should have gone to Moshe and asked him, “Moshe, why was I not chosen to be the Prince of my family? I am far more qualified for the job than Elitzafan!” 

Likely, Moshe would have responded, “You know, I was also surprised that you were not chosen. Based on our family tree, you are next in line, and you are eminently qualified for the job. Let me ask Hashem what He had in mind.”

With that, Moshe would have asked Hashem and Hashem would have revealed to Moshe why Korach was passed over. Korach was earmarked for a much more important job, the Head Levi.

The Torah tells us that 250 men joined Korach in his argument with Moshe. Who were these men, and what was their agenda?

The Sages explain that these were very learned and holy people, each a head in the Sanhedrin, the high court, and all first born sons. Originally, the first-born son of every family was designated to work in the Mishkan or the Holy Temple. When they sinned with the golden calf, the right was stripped from them and given to the Levites. These first-born sons were here to reclaim the right to serve in the Mishkan and Holy Temple. They too, were seeking to advance their service to Hashem, and the ultimate place to serve Hashem is in the Mishkan. They wanted it back, and since Korach had convinced them that Moshe had made up the various jobs, this was their opportunity to set things right.

So, Moshe and Aharon were confronted by Korach, 250 men, and a few others, all claiming they want to be Kohanim. How did Moshe respond (Numbers 16:6,7)?

(ו) זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

(ז) וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְדֹוָד הוּא הַקָּדושׁ רַב לָכֶם בְּנֵי לֵוִי

6) Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans -Korach and his entire assembly- 7) and put fire in them and place incense upon them before Hashem tomorrow. The man whom Hashem will choose – he is the holy one…

Although Moshe told them clearly that only one man could be chosen as the high priest, each of them thought that they were going to be the one. They each felt so pure and righteous in their intentions to serve Hashem, that they were sure they would be Hashem’s choice for the job.

Korach had an additional reason to believe that he would be the one to survive.

Rashi provides the information.

רש”י על במדבר פרק טז פסוק ז

 וקרח שפקח היה מה ראה לשטות זה עינו הטעתו ראה שלשלת גדולה יוצאה ממנו שמואל ששקול כנגד משה ואהרן אמר בשבילו אני נמלט וכ”ד משמרות עומדות לבני בניו כולם מתנבאים ברוח הקודש שנא’ (ד”ה כח) כל אלה בנים להימן אמר אפשר כל הגדולה הזאת עתידה לעמוד ממני ואני אדום לכך נשתתף לבוא לאותה חזקה ששמע מפי משה שכולם אובדים ואחד נמלט. אשר יבחר ה’ הוא הקדוש טעה ותלה בעצמו ולא ראה יפה לפי שבניו עשו תשובה ומשה היה רואה. (תנחומא)

                 Korach who was smart, how did he fall for this? His eye led him astray. He saw a great chain of holy people who stemmed from him. Among them the prophet Shmuel who was as great as Moshe and Aharon, and he thought, “In his (Shmuel’s) merit I will be saved.” He saw 24 families of his grandchildren, all prophets … So he said. “Is it possible that all this greatness is destined to come from me, and I should be silent? That is why he took such a strong position thinking that all the others would perish but he alone would survive. But he didn’t see accurately, because his children did teshuva, (and survived). Moshe did see the correct future.

                Here we see that it was Korach’s high level of holiness that led him astray. Had he not had רוח הקודש  –  the “Divine  Spirit” and the ability to see the future, he would not have had the rationale to think he would win the argument. But, because of his ability to see the future, he was fooled into thinking that he would survive. It didn’t occur to him that his very own children would go against him and side with Moshe. Because Korach was embroiled in the argument, this simple refutation did not occur to him.

                This explains Korach’s position, but what were the 250 other men thinking? They didn’t have the vision that Korach had, and they still went through with it.

The Netziv explains:

העמק דבר על במדבר פרק טז פסוק א

 ע”כ יש להבין שר”ן איש היו באמת גדולי ישראל בכל פרט גם ביראת ה’. והיה מניעת הכהונה שהוא גורם דבקות ואהבת ה’ כאש בוער בקרבם. לא לשם שררה וכבוד המדומה כי אם להתקדש ולהשיג מעלה זו ע”י עבודה. וגם המה ידעו אשר דבר ה’ אמת בפי משה. ואין להרהר אחריו ח”ו. רק הרהרו בלבם אחר רצון ה’ ומסרו עצמם למסירת נפש ולמות על אהבת ה’ כי עזה כמות אהבה.

We must understand that the 250 people were really of the greatest Jews in the nation in every way, even in fear of Hashem. And the inability do the service in the Mishkan and Holy Temple (as first-born) which would bring them to cling to Hashem and to love Him, burned like fire inside of them. Not because they were seeking the perceived honor in it, rather to become holy, and to achieve greater spiritual heights through it. They also knew that what Moshe said was true, and they had no doubts about what he said, but they were unhappy with Hashem’s decision, and they were prepared to give their lives for their love of Hashem.

                Once again, we see that the great holy level of these men is what brought them to sin. Hashem was very unhappy with their show of love for Him. They are considered in the Torah as having committed suicide, willingly giving up their lives for a mistaken cause.

                This is what the Sages meant when they said that the greater the person is, the greater his evil inclination. There must always be a challenge, and in holy people, the challenge is in their extreme desire to be holier.

                Hillel warns us in Pirkei Avot (2:4):

 הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר … וְאַל תַּאֲמֵן בְּעַצְמָךְ עַד יוֹם מוֹתָךְ

Hillel says, Don’t believe in yourself until the day you die.

                No matter how great a person is, he is never above a test that may undo him. Korach thought he had it in the bag; how wrong he was. His deep desire to lead distorted his vision causing him to make the wrong decisions.

                And then there’s the story of On ben Pelet. On the son of Pelet is one of the people who approached Moshe with Korach, but we do not read about him having died with the others. The Midrash tells the story of how his wife saved his life.

ילקוט שמעוני תורה ילקוט שמעוני על במדבר פרק טז המשך רמז תשנ

אמר רב און בן פלת] אשתו הצילתו, אמרה ליה מאי נפקא לך מינה אי מר רבה אנת תלמידא ואי מר רבה אנת תלמידא, אמר לה מאי אעביד הואי לי בעצה ואישתבעי ליה בהדיהון. אמרו ליה ידענא דכולא כנישתא קדישא היא דכתיב כי כל העדה כלם קדושים, אמרה ליה תוב את בביתך דאנא מצילנא לך אשקיתיה חמרא ואגינתיה ואותבא אבבא סתרה למזייה כל דאתא חזייה והדר, אדהכי והכי איבלעו להו:

Rav said: On ben Pelet’s wife saved his life. She said to him, “I don’t get it. If Moshe is the leader, you are his student, and if Korach is the leader, you are his student. So, what do you have to gain from this argument?” He said to her, “What can I do, I am involved with them and I swore that I would support them.” … She said to him, “Stay home, I will save you.” She gave him wine to drink, and he fell asleep. She sat in front of the door and uncovered some of her hair. Whoever came looking for her husband took one look at her and turned away. In the mean time, Korach’s family were swallowed up.  

We see a remarkable thing from On’s response to his wife. Even though he knew she was right, he was still prepared to give up his life because he had given his word that he would support them. We see how hard it is for a person to admit that he is wrong and go back on something he agreed upon. His wife realized that he would not be able to overcome that test, so she took the matter into her own hands. This is the nature of a person. He finds it very difficult to admit that he is wrong and chart a new path forward. A person also finds change difficult, and will do anything not to have to change something in his life. These biases often deter a person from following the correct path amending his lifestyle to accommodate what he knows is correct.

On Moshe’s command, Korach and his entire family; men, women and children, were swallowed up by the earth. The earth opened right under them, swallowed them up, and immediately came back together as if nothing had happened.

A fire came from Hashem, and consumed the 250 men.

On ben Pelet survived, and so did some Korach’s children who did teshuva.  

Although we cannot fathom the level of holiness these people were on, and the true nature of their tests, the Torah tells us this story because there are many important take-aways for us.

  1. When one has a bias, he cannot see clearly, and is in grave danger of acting inappropriately. (Korach)
  2. One must be very careful to be realistic about where he is spiritually, and not seek levels that are beyond his current abilities. (The 250 men)
  3. One who develops an opinion, should be ready to change it if he sees that he is wrong. (On ben Pelet)
  4. Never think you have arrived and are beyond a test. That is when the test is most likely to arrive. (Yochanan the High Priest and Korach)

Incorporating these lessons into our lives will certainly help us in our quest to grow closer to Hashem.

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