This week’s Torah portion is named for Korach, the great and holy man who fomented a rebellion against Moshe. Although Jewish history characterizes Korach as the example of one who created a rebellion for his own selfish reasons, his life of 130 years until that point had been righteous and holy.
Of the three Levite families Gershon, Kehat and Merari (See chart below), Kehat was chosen to carry the Tabernacle’s holy vessels. The holiest vessel, the Ark, contained the second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments, pieces of the broken original tablets, and a small Sefer Torah. Korach, from the Kehat family, was one of the four people holy enough to carry it, which means that Korach had to be of the four holiest people in the tribe of Levi, because if someone who was unsuitable to carry the ark would as much as touch it, he would immediately die.
This unfortunate occurrence actually happened to Uza the son of Avinadav. When escorting the Aron Kodesh (holy ark) as it was being carried on a wagon from his father’s house, the wagon hit a bump. Uza thought that the Aron Kodesh was going to fall off the wagon, so he extended his hand to it to stabilize it, and unfortunately, he died on the spot.
Korach had רוח הקודש- divine intuition, the ability to see the future, a quality reserved for only prophets and the holiest people. Yet, after such a long life of holiness and dedicated service to Hashem, Korach lost it all, and instead is the paradigm of one who instigated an argument for purely selfish reasons.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 5, Mishna 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
Every argument that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and every one that is not for the sake of heaven will ultimately fail. Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement between Hillel and Shamai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The conflict between Korach and his entire assemblage.
Korach and his family are also the only people in history to die of a punishment that Hashem created specifically for them.
The reality is that a lesser person would not have raised even the slightest doubt about Moshe’s integrity. Only Korach, with his respected status as someone comparable to Moshe, was able gain a substantial following, including some of the nation’s most prestigious people.
The essence of Korach’s rebellion was his claim that Moshe was deciding matters on his own, not as Hashem’s agent. This claim threatened to undermine the complete basis for the Torah: Moshe represents the very authenticity of the Torah, as it was through Moshe that Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish People. If, as Korach asserted, Moshe did even one thing on his own, how can we know with certainty that anything that he did was from Hashem?
Korach’s claim focused on Moshe choosing Aharon, his older brother, to be the High Priest. Korach alleged that Moshe selected Aharon for the position out of nepotism, and that Hashem had not directed Moshe to choose him. Korach moreover felt that he had very strong evidence for this accusation.
Initially, Korach had no problem with Moshe choosing Aharon as the High Priest, as it made perfect sense: Amram, Moshe and Aharon’s father, was the oldest son of Kehat; therefore, the first two leadership positions should rightfully go to his children, Aharon and Moshe. Yitzhar, the next eldest, was Korach’s father, and Korach was his first born. Then came Chevron, and Uziel the youngest and father of Elizafan. (See the chart below.) Korach, being the eldest son of the next eldest, Yitzhar, should have received the next leadership position. Especially since he was so eminently qualified for a position of leadership, as one of the bearers of the holy ark. Moshe, however, passed over Korach and instead gave the leadership position of the Kehat family to Elizafan, son of the youngest son of Kehat.
Korach thought it impossible that this could have come from Hashem, Who, of course, knew how holy he was! Hashem would never betray a person as beloved and close to Him as Korach! Korach concluded that Moshe obviously had something against him and therefore deliberately overlooked him for someone much inferior. Elitzafan, who got the job, was simply not of Korach’s caliber. If Elitzafan would so much as touch the Holy Ark, he would die on the spot! This, Korach determined, must be Moshe’s own doings, concluding that if Moshe wasn’t following Hashem about this, then he probably wasn’t following Hashem about Aharon either. Moshe, felt Korach, was just choosing whomever he wants for whatever position, and it is my mitzvah to expose him.
When Korach presented his argument to people, no one could refute his seemingly rock-solid stance. Or so it seemed, save for a little unknown fact: The Zohar reveals that Hashem had a very good reason to pass over Korach from being the leader of the family of Kehat. He was overqualified for that position! Korach was indeed destined for a position of much greater importance and prestige. He was earmarked for the position of the לוי הגדול – High Levi. That’s right, the High Levi. Just as there is a Cohen Gadol, a High Priest, so too there was going to be a position of the High Levi who, similar to the High Priest, would have greater holiness and special responsibilities. This was a job befitting a person of Korach’s status and holiness. But, apparently, he had a test to pass before he would be granted that great position. What was that?
Specifically, how Korach would handle what looked like a deliberate slight by Moshe. Instead of judging Moshe unfavorably and creating a public dispute with him by accusing him of not receiving the instructions from Hashem, Korach should have sought a peaceful resolution. He should have given Moshe the benefit of the doubt and simply gone and asked him.
“Moshe, I don’t get it! I am one of the carriers of the Holy Ark. How is it that I was passed over and not chosen to become the leader of the Kehat family?”
Moshe would have responded, as he did a few times earlier, “I really don’t know! To be honest, it was quite a surprise to me as well. But you know what? I will ask Hashem what His reason was.”
The response would have come back, “Yes, Moshe, Korach is correct! He is too great for the leadership position of the family of Kehat. He is the only person worthy of a new position of greatness, the position of the High Levi!”
Korach was so close to everything that he so much wanted. He would have been able to serve in the Holy Temple in a position of leadership equal to that of Aharon whose position he coveted. Had he only sought to shun arguments and confrontations, had he only sought a peaceful avenue through which to achieve his goals, how much different would his life have turned out.
And what a tremendous lesson this would have been for all of us! Instead of Korach going down in history as the example of an argument not for the sake of heaven, he would have gone down in history as the very first Levi Hagadol of equal status to Aharon.
The reason that that position never materialized, the Zohar says, was because only Korach was great enough to become the very first Levi Hagadol. When he failed his test, there was no person great enough to fill the position.
Had those who joined him, instead of choosing to create strife and ill will, told Korach, “Can’t we solve this issue peacefully instead of tearing down Moshe and everything he stands for? Let’s figure out a peaceful way to go about this.” What an example it would have set for future generations on how to deal with a problem when things don’t go your way.
This is the lesson for us as well. We need to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and to seek a peaceful path to resolve an issue. This applies especially when speaking about someone close to us such as a spouse or a dear friend who has done something from which we feel slighted. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that they intentionally did something to hurt us, we should just ask them what they were thinking. We may be very surprised by the answer.
In dealing with Korach, we see that Moshe acted completely out of character. Instead of asking Hashem to save Korach and his group, Moshe actually requested Hashem to create a new punishment never before seen.
It says (Numbers 16:28-30) And Moshe said:
(כח) וַיֹּאמֶר֘ מֹשֶׁה֒ בְּזֹאת֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּן כִּֽי־יְדֹוָ֣ד שְׁלָחַ֔נִי לַעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֵ֥ת כָּל־ הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה כִּי־לֹ֖א מִלִּבִּֽי:
(כט) אִם־כְּמ֤וֹת כָּל־הָֽאָדָם֙ יְמֻת֣וּן אֵ֔לֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת֙ כָּל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם יִפָּקֵ֖ד עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם לֹ֥א יְדֹוָ֖ד שְׁלָחָֽנִי:
(ל) וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א יְדֹוָ֗ד וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־יְדֹוָֽד:
28) “By this you shall know that Hashem has sent me to do these deeds and that I have not done them of my own mind. 29) If these men will die as all men die, and if a fate like that of all men will be visited upon them, then Hashem has not sent me. 30) But if Hashem will create an entirely new thing, and the earth will open up its mouth and swallow them up with all that is theirs, so that they go down into the grave alive, then you will know that it is these people who have scorned Hashem.”
Upon the conclusion of Moshe’s words, that is exactly what happened. The earth opened up its mouth and swallowed up Korach and his family, men, women, and children. Why did Moshe react in this way here and nowhere else?
The answer is that the integrity of the Torah’s authenticity was at stake here. If Moshe’s authority was questioned when he was alive, by one of the most important people of the generation, and it was not proven beyond a doubt that the rebel was wrong, how could future generations be expected to accept Moshe’s complete authority as the giver of the Torah? This insurgent needed to be exposed as a complete trouble maker without a shred of supporting evidence.
This is why there had to be a new creation to punish Korach and his followers. Hashem Himself needed to show His complete support for Moshe to underscore that Moshe’s faithfulness as the giver of the Torah is unquestionable, and that every letter of the Torah was written exactly as Hashem told Moshe to write it. It had to be proven that everything Moshe did was done exactly as Hashem had commanded him, without exception.