Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kehath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly? (Bamidbar 16:1-3)
Just when we thought things could not get worse, another national debacle occurs. Still reeling from the fall-out from the sin of the spies, Korach took advantage of the feelings of sadness, despair, and anger to ignite a rebellion. But why would anyone rebel against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon? How could Korach accuse Moshe of selfish power-grabbing when Moshe was the paradigmatic embodiment of selfless devotion to the nation? What was Korach’s issue? Why was he so angry and outraged at Moshe? What was it that led him to lead this rebellion which ended so tragically?
Korach’s entire rebellion rested on one concept, Kulanu Kedoshim, we are all holy. Rashi explains that Korach said to Moshe, “We all heard God speak to us as Sinai. We all heard God declare His unique and singular relationship with us. We are all equally holy, and therefore, you have no right to lord over us and maintain an unshakeable grip on the reigns of leadership.” It is interesting to note that Korach felt that he (and the nation) were holy because they “heard” God. Hearing is a passive act. The listener must simply remain attentive and absorb the stated message. Korach thought that Kedusha, sanctity was conferred. All you have to do is remain at attention, and it is yours for the taking.
Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) explains that there are two different forms of holiness; innate and acquired. Innate holiness is the result of being the offspring of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. Innate holiness is the result of being part of the Jewish people. This holiness is not linked to something I do; it is part of my very being. But there is a higher level of holiness. This is called acquired or personal holiness. This level of Kedusha is acquired through good deeds, chessed, and self-sacrifice. Personal/acquired holiness requires great effort from the individual and cannot be acquired through lineage or familial connections. The Rav explains that these different forms of holiness account for the strikingly different traits of two sacred mountains, Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) and Har HaMoriah (Har HaBayis, the Temple Mount). The holiness of the Har HaMoriah is in effect to this very day, yet Har Sinai (if we were able to identify it) does not possess any residual sanctity. Why this distinction? The holiness of Har Sinai was conferred. God came down to the mountain and delivered the Torah on the mountain. The mountain became holy when God arrived and yielded its holiness when God ascended. Har HaMoriah was the site of Akeydas Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac, Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his one and only son from Sarah). Har HaMoriah was the site purchased by King David from the Jebusites and later, upon which King Solomon builds the Beis HaMikdash. Har HaMoriah is a place of human effort, initiative and self-sacrifice. When man pushes himself to accomplish great things, the holiness permeates the spot long after the event has concluded.
Korach was focused on innate holiness but forgot that true greatness can only be found in acquired personal holiness. Korach forgot that true and lasting Kedusha, holiness must be earned. Holiness is a state which can only be reached after man has expended incredible amounts of effort. Holiness is the culmination of dynamic, dramatic, and sustained life activity. The nature and depth of my relationship with God, Torah, and Mitzvos is directly related to the amount of effort I am willing to put in. A life of holiness is a life filled with work and effort. Hearing God does not make you holy – serving Him does.
Rashi continues and explains that Korach saw prophetically that he was to have a descendant as great as Moshe and Aharon. In this respect, he was correct – Korach’s great-grandson was the prophet Shmuel. How did Shmuel actualize his greatness? The Navi states, “And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And from year to year, he would set forth, and go around to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpah, and he would judge Israel in all these places. And his return was to Ramah, for there was his house, and there he judged Israel, and he built there an altar to the Lord (Shmuel I 7:15-17).” Shmuel was the prophet and the judge. It was his sacred mission to uplift and inspire the people. It was his responsibility to facilitate the growth of his nation. He didn’t wait for the people to come to him; he went to the people. He spent the entire year travelling throughout the land on a mission of inspiration and spiritual repair. He helped the people settle their disputes and create shalom within their ranks. He invested incredible amounts of effort and hard work in order to create an atmosphere of holiness and spiritual devotion. Shmuel understood what his grandfather, Korach did not. It is true, Kulanu Kedoshim, we are all holy, but that holiness is only actualized through hard work and incredible effort.
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “If a person will say to you, I toiled but did not find results, do not believe him. If a man says to you, I didn’t toil but found results, do not believe him. But if a person says to you, I toiled, and I found results (ya’gati u’matzasi) – believe him (Talmud, Megillah 6b).” We live in a society of instant gratification. We want success, and we want it now. We want holiness, and we want it now. We want a meaningful, fulfilling, and blissful life, and we want it now. Am I a not entitled? Was my soul not present at Mount Sinai? Am I not holy and worthy enough? Too often, we approach life situations from a perspective of entitlement – like Korach. The important things in life can only be acquired through incredible work and toil. We must always remember that beautiful, meaningful, and holy results require magnificent, diligent, and vigilant effort. (Reprinted from 5777)
“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’ Moses heard and fell on his face. He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, ’In the morning, the Lord will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him. Do this, Korach and his company: Take for yourselves censers. Place fire into them and put incense upon them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses he is the holy one; you have taken too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi.’” (Bamidbar Chapter 16:3-7)
It was another tragic episode. As the nation was still recovering from the sin of the spies, a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon was brewing. Korach, a close cousin of Moshe’s, accused him of nepotism and abuse of power. Moshe was so overwhelmed that at first, he could not even find the words to respond; he simply fell down to the ground, sapped of his strength and vigor. Korach told Moshe and Aharon, “Rav lachem (you have taken too much for yourselves). Interestingly enough, a few verses later Moshe uses the same wording telling Korach and his followers, “Rav lachem bnai Levi, (you have much the sons of Levi.)” It appears like a verbal duel. Korach told Moshe, ”You have too much power and influence” and Moshe responded to Korach, “You already have much responsibility and standing.”
The Gemara (Sotah 13b) states:
“And the Lord said to me: Let it suffice for you [rav lakh]; speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26). Rabbi Levi says: Moses proclaimed to the Jewish people when rebuking them with the term “rav,” and therefore it was proclaimed to him with the term “rav” that he would not enter Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara explains: He proclaimed with the term “rav” when speaking with the congregation of Korach: “You take too much upon you [rav lachem], you sons of Levi” (Numbers 16:7), and it was proclaimed to him with the term “rav,” as God denied his request and said: “Let it suffice for you [rav lakh].”
The Gemara refers to the episode at the end of Moshe’s life when Moshe beseeched God for the ability to enter the Land of Israel. God told Moshe, “You told Korach, rav lach (you have enough); I am telling you, rav lach (you have enough).” What does this mean? Did Moshe handle Korach inappropriately? Moshe was the victim not the aggressor.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that God was telling Moshe that although Korach was wrong in his approach, his aspiration was noble. Korach wanted more out of life, he wanted to accomplish and be more. Unfortunately, he went about it all wrong. What could have been a noble quest for enhanced holiness became a self-serving, ego-driven journey for honor. Moshe said to Korach, “Rav lach, you have a lot, you are great, you have accomplished so much – stop this foolishness.” Fast forward a few years when Moshe begged God to allow him entry to the promised land. God responded to Moshe, “Rav lach, you have so much. Why do you need to go into the Land of Israel? You have accomplished much! You faced down Pharaoh, you brought down the man, you vanquished some of the mightiest kings of Canaan – it’s enough!” But of course, for Moshe it was not. Moshe begged and beseeched for more – but it was not to be.
Korach was wrong in every way. Yet in certain respects his motivation was pure. He wanted something more for and from himself. His approach was wrong, inappropriate, and disastrous, but on some level his heart was in the right place. This is an important lesson in how we deal with other people. There are times in life when people do and say things which are upsetting and offensive. It is important to take a step back and try to understand where the other is coming from. There is no justification for inappropriate, hurtful behavior. But when trying to deescalate conflict and repair a relationship, it is helpful to try to understand where the other is coming from.
The tragedy of Korach lies in the fact that he truly desired elevated and amplified holiness, he just went about things in the wrong way. When dealing with difficult people it can be helpful to take a step back and try to understand the root and cause of the inappropriate behavior. Harmful behavior towards another is never justifiable but when looking to mend relationships it can be instructive and helpful to strive to understand the motivations of the other.
“Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kehath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ’You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’” (Bamidbar 16:1-3)
Korach came with a simple claim, “Kulam Kedoshim (we are all holy).” As Rashi explains “we all heard God at Mount Sinai, we are all of equal stature and standing.” Ostensibly, Korach was trying to create unity through equality. Why should Moshe and Aharon occupy positions of power and authority? They are no better or holier than the rest of us; we are all the same. There is Godliness in every Jew, there is holiness in every person. While these statements are absolutely true, Korach could not have be more wrong.
Moshe responds to Korach’s attack:
“He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, ‘In the morning, the Lord will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him.’” (Bamidbar 16:5)
“Moses said to [Korach], The Holy One, blessed is He, assigned boundaries to His world. Are you able to transform morning into evening? That is how possible it is for you to undo this, as it says, “It was evening and it was morning… and He separated ” (Gen. 1:5, 7); similarly, “Aaron was set apart to sanctify him…”
(Midrash Tanchuma Korach 3, Num. Rabbah 4)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe provides a poignant insight. There is day and there is night. If day decided it wanted to be night, and if night pined to be day, the world as we know it would cease to exist. There are different groups within the Jewish people. The creation of Kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim was not intended to create a caste system. Each soul is sent here to accomplish a specific mission. God gives us the circumstances and life-framework necessary to accomplish that mission. The different families, tribes and groups provide the unique platform for individual self-actualization. The soul of the Kohen has a different mission than the soul of the Levi. Those missions are actualized only through their specific tribal and familial frameworks and responsibilities. The Yisrael who cannot work or serve in the Beis Hamikdash (holy Temple) is no less important that the Kohanim and Leviim who can. His soul needs a different set of circumstances to reach its potential. Korach thought the way to create unity was to make everyone the same. Trying to make everyone the same doesn’t create unity, it creates anonymity. No two people are the same. We have different souls and therefore, different missions. God gave each of us the identity and circumstances we need to become the best version of ourselves and accomplish our individual missions here on this Earth. If we strive to be like the other, it’s day striving to become night and night yearning to shine like the day. Whenever we try to be someone or something else, rather than becoming the best version of ourselves, we undermine universal equilibrium.
Kohanim are different than Yisraelim, men are different than women, Jews are different than Gentiles and the list goes on and on. These differences are not something for us to fix or correct. These differences are to be embraced. For it is these very differences which make us who we are and allow for our unique and individual soul to accomplish its God-given mission. Korach was correct, Kulam Kedoshim, each and every one of us is incredibly holy. May we find the courage to stop trying to be the other and start developing the beautiful individual identity we each possess.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.