Parshat Korach תשפא
This week’s portion, Korach, details the events of Korach’s (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 Reuven’s offspring, Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet. 2) They stood before Moshe with 250 men from the Children of Israel, leaders of the assembly.
What prompted Korach’s challenge to Moshe? What angered him?
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. Korach felt that Moshe had erred in appointing Elitzafan to lead the Kehat family instead of him. Kehat, Korach’s grandfather, had four sons. The eldest was Amram (Moshe’s father); Yitzhar, the next eldest, was Korach’s father; and, then, Chevron and Uziel, in that order.
Initially, Korach was fine with Moshe having chosen 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, Uziel’s middle son who was Kehat’s youngest son. The following 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 the Holy Ark’s carriers when it traveled, a job given only to someone very holy. Korach felt that Moshe had something against him, deliberately overlooking him for Elitzafan, a “lesser” personage. There could be no other explanation. Everyone knew that Elizafan was not in Korach’s league. Korach further figured that as a result of Moshe’s closeness to Hashem, Hashem had approved Moshe’s “incorrect” choice. Korach was accordingly upset that Moshe had not given him the leadership position that he coveted.
When Korach decided to rebel against Moshe, he began his argument in an interesting way.
The Midrash (Rabbah 18:3) relates the following story.
(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 took a completely techelet (sky-blue) garment and asked Moshe, “Does this entirely blue 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 affixing four blue strings on it will? How ridiculous!”
“Does a house full of Sefer Torahs require a mezuzah on the door?” continued Korach. “Yes, it does,” replied Moshe. Korach said, “An entire Torah with 275 chapters doesn’t exempt the house from a mezuzah and just one chapter of the Torah does? How ridiculous! Moshe, you were not commanded these things; you made them up!”
The two commandments that Korach chose in trying to unravel Moshe Rabbeinu contain a common denominator. They are both designed to remind us of something very important.
As to tzitzit, the Torah says, (Numbers 15:39):
וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְדֹוָד וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם
“And you should see it, and you will remember all of Hashem’s commandments and do them.”
The tzitzit remind us of all the mitzvot. How? Just by looking at the tzitzit we will remember the 613 commandments?
The word ציצית refers to the hanging threads themselves. And we know that each letter of the alef bet(the Hebrew alphabet) has a numeric value, the numerical value of the word ציצית being 600. (צ=90 + י=10 + +צ=90 י=10 + (600= ת=400. Add to that the eight strings and five knots yields 613, the number of the Torah’s commandments. Thus, when looking at the fringes, if you take a moment to contemplate them, you will be reminded of “all the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.”
The Torah also commands us to dye one of the four strings on each corner with תכלת, a sky-blue dye, extracted from a difficult to identify marine creature. Most people don’t have the blue string in their talit today because we don’t have the blue dye. (Though there are those who believe that the dye has been rediscovered, and you may see here and there a tallit with blue strings.) The Talmud wonders why the Torah identified תכלת– sky blue– of all the colors of the spectrum, to be a part of the tzitzit. The Talmud answers that the color of תכלת reminds us of the sea, the sea reminds us of the sky, and the sky reminds us of Hashem’s Throne of Honor. When we see the blue strand in the ציצית , we should be reminded of Hashem’s Throne of Honor and our commitment to keep His commandments.
The mezuzah (Korach’s second challenge) also conveys a very powerful message to a person. Maimonides writes (Laws of mezuzah 6:13):
(יג) חייב אדם להזהר במזוזה מפני שהיא חובת הכל תמיד וכל זמן שיכנס ויצא יפגע ביחוד השם שמו של הקדוש ב”ה ויזכור אהבתו ויעור משנתו ושגיותיו בהבלי הזמן וידע שאין דבר העומד לעולם ולעולמי עולמים אלא ידיעת צור העולם ומיד הוא חוזר לדעתו והולך בדרכי מישרים
A person must be very careful to do the mitzvah of mezuzah because it is a constant obligation on all people. And every time that someone enters or exits a doorway, he will meet up with Hashem’s special name and remember Hashem’s love for him. This will awaken him from his stupor in the whiles of this world and make him cognizant that the only thing that is forever is knowledge of Hashem. This will return him to his senses and help him pursue the straight path in life.
Since both tzitzit and mezuzah carry reminders to a person, Korach reasoned that an entire blue garment alone or a room with a complete sefer Torah should suffice to provide that reminder. So, what’s the point, argued Korach, of the blue string on the already blue garment or the mezuzah on the door of a room with a sefer Torah in it?
His logic seems sound; so why did Moshe answer that they are still required?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ”ל (1895-1986) answers this question. All of the Torah’s laws are in essence edicts that apply even where we think that they shouldn’t. This is because even though the Torah may state a reason for a mitzvah, every mitzvah is far deeper than we can fathom, and the reason offered is only one of a myriad of reasons known to Hashem only. Therefore, our evaluation that the reason doesn’t apply doesn’t allow us to change the mitzvah.
Moshe’s answer also addressed Korach’s hidden agenda in asking these questions. Korach claimed (Numbers 16:3):
רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְדֹוָד וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְדֹוָד
3) It is too much for you! For the entire assembly – all of them- are holy and Hashem is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over Hashem’s congregation ?
In other words, since Hashem dwells inside every Jew, making him holy, what need do we have for leaders like you and Aharon? If the garment is all blue, and the house full of sefer Torahs, who needs the blue string representing Aharon who wears the special priestly garments with techelet in them, or the mezuzah, representing you, Moshe, the giver of the Torah?
It is ironic how Korach’s being cheated of a coveted position of honor caused him to claim that Moshe and Aharon had usurped the leadership positions for themselves. Korach alleged that Moshe and Aharon, in their quest for honor, inappropriately took the most prestigious positions for themselves, implying that the pursuit of honor is wrong. Moreover, because the entire nation is holy, it needs no leaders at all. Korach nevertheless started the rebellion to grab a leadership position, the one belonging to Aharon. How could he not see this gaping flaw in his argument?
This is one of the lessons that the Sages teach us from this episode in our history. When a person’s self-interest is involved, he will not see even the most obvious contradictions in his behavior. His ego gets in his way and prevents him from seeing matters properly.
In requesting greatness for himself, Korach actually revealed the flaw that Moshe saw in him to disqualify him from being the head of the Kehat family. A leader who seeks a position for his own selfish reasons is insensitive to his constituency’s needs, and, perforce, fails in his role as leader . He is only interested in himself and his prestige. He sees the community as a means to serve him instead of he being there to serve the community.
Here lies a deeper answer to the question of why, to create the reminder, the completely blue garment still needs the additional blue strings. Because the garment has its own function, viz, to clothe a person and keep him warm, when a person looks at the garment, he sees only the garment and appreciates it for what it does for him. Nothing triggers the desired reaction of reminding him of the mitzvot. On the contrary, he is enthralled by the benefit that he receives from the it, which becomes his sole focuse, preventing him from obtaining the underlying, ultimate message. For something to constitute a reminder, it must stand out and provide no independent benefit so that it triggers the question, “What is that doing here? Oh yeah, it is to remind me of…. ”
The same idea applies to the house full of Sefer Torahs. Since the Torah is so inherently marvelous, when seeing the sefer Torah a person will focus only on the enjoyment of learning the Torah and the pleasure that he derives from it. It will remind him of nothing other than how much he loves the Torah. Yet only something from which a person derives no pleasure can provide a reminder because when seeing it he does not think about himself, so he is free to contemplate its message.
This concept also answers the question of why “if the entire nation is holy” they still need leaders. A leader is someone who is there only for the people. He dedicates his life to serving Hashem selflessly to be the proper role-model and advisor for the people. He stands out in his righteous behavior and his unswerving commitment to serve Hashem with every fiber of his being. He sees himself as nothing more than Hashem’s servant of. This is the greatest compliment to a leader. The greater a servant he is to Hashem, and where there is nothing in it for him personally, the greater a servant he is to the Jewish people. .
This, then, was Korach’s flaw: he was in it for himself. He was the all-blue garment, there for himself instead of for the people.
Korach was no ordinary person. He was 130 years old (almost 50 years older than Moshe and Aharon), had רוח הקודש ,“divine spirit” (he could see the future), and was one of the four people who carried the holy ark, with the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a small Sefer Torah on a small shelf inside. Korach’s suitability to carry the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) perforce rendered him one of the nation’s four holiest people. Indeed, a lesser person would die on the spot for merely touching the ark. It is clear that Korach did not sense that his critique of Moshe came from his selfish desires. In his eyes, he was only pursuing his deep desire to serve Hashem and His people. If even such a great and holy person such 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 was overlooked for the position of his dreams?
One thing should have been absolutely clear to Korach: the way to achieve a holy vocation cannot come from creating an argument with Moshe (or anybody else). From evil, good can never come. Machloket – an argument – is the most destructive force in the world. It can destroy loving families, close friendships, and business partnerships. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz זצ”ל (1902-1979) observed that great Yeshivot that endured many difficult challenges were only to be destroyed in the end by an argument. 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 which is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end: and every argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, will in the end not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? Such was the argument between Shamai and Hillel. And which 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 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. In an argument based on selfish ego, however, the only thing that is important to each party is that he wins. In this case, it is always a battle to the bitter end, until one or both is gone.
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. Since each protagonist thinks that he alone represents Hashem, he is prepared to do anything to have his opinion accepted because, 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 destroying the other party!
Korach was a great enough man that he should have known this, and, even for us today, this is how we can always know if we represent Hashem or not. The litmus test is that if we are prepared to enter into an argument ultimately to promote our agenda, we are probably not doing it for the right reason.