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)
The drama unfolded quickly. The spies returned from their reconnaissance mission to the Land of Israel and delivered a disastrous report.
They told him (Moshe) and said, “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. The Amalekites dwell in the south land, while the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountainous region. The Canaanites dwell on the coast and alongside the Jordan …. We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we (Bamidbar 13:27-31).”
With just a few words, a few short sentences, the meraglim (spies) created a storm of panic, anxiety, and fear amongst the nation. With this negative report, the dream that had guided our people since the times of Avraham was in peril of collapsing. One man, Kalev, tried to control the damage and steady the people. “Caleb silenced … and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it, Ki Yachol Nuchal Lah (Bamidbar 13:30).” We can do this, we can overcome this struggle, we can take our land and assume our destiny.
How are we to understand Kalev’s response to the claims of the spies? The spies advanced valid points. There are mighty nations who outnumber and can outfight us. Yes, the land is wonderful, it flows with milk and honey, but how will we be able to overcome these challenges? And Kalev’s response is simply – we can do it. He does not respond materially to the claims of his fellow tribal leaders. How did he expect to shift the tide and convince the people that indeed they could and should enter the Land of Israel?
Rav Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira (1889–1943), was the Grand Rabbi of Piacezna, Poland. The Rebbe spent three years (1939-1942) in the Warsaw Ghetto. On Shabbos, he would deliver rousing Divrei Torah and lift the spirits of his broken brethren. These Divrei Torah were written on scraps of paper and buried in a canister inside the Ghetto. On Shabbos, June 22, 1940, Parshas Shlach, the Rebbe addressed this very question. “If the spies spoke with reason, saying, “the people are aggressive, and the cities are large and well-fortified,” why did Kalev not enter into a debate with them, trying to demolish their argument and reasoning? Why did he limit himself to the simple statement “We must go forth?” The Rebbe explains that Kalev was teaching us an important lesson. Sometimes, you have to believe you can succeed even if you can’t immediately see the path to success. God could have made this entire process much easier. God could have easily struck fear into the hearts of the inhabitants of the land, cause them to run away, and let the Jewish people enter an uninhabited and peaceful Land of Israel. God could have easily driven out the Amalekites and the Hittites. He could have caused the giants to kneel before the Jewish people, but He didn’t because God wanted us to see the challenges and believe in ourselves. God wanted to us to the see the challenges and believe that we could and would overcome them. This was to be an exercise in national development. Kalev does not argue with the spies because he agrees with their concerns, comments, and observations. There are mighty nations, significant odds, and factors working against us. But always remember, Ki Yachol Nuchal Lah, we can do it. How? I don’t know yet. What is our strategy? We have to discuss. But we must approach this situation with one clear and indisputable reality – if we put our minds to it, if we believe in ourselves, our God, and one another – we will be successful. The sin of the spies is that they were unable to conjure up a vision of national salvation; they were unable to see beyond their current realities and were only able to see what was right in front of their eyes. They were unable to create and retain a hopeful and optimistic outlook and were unable to see with their heart and soul.
Too often, we give up on meaningful, personal goals and aspirations because their actualization is fraught with challenge and adversity. There are giants that stand between us and the realization of our dreams. We can’t see a way around the difficulties and feel that we may be better served going back to our personal Egypt, the land of mediocrity and under-performance. Kalev’s words are a rallying cry for every Jew. Ki Yachol Nuchal Lah, we can do it. We must find the strength and the courage to create a vision of success and accomplishment. When we embark on a life initiative, we must begin by visualizing what success looks like. We must believe in ourselves. We must believe we can rise to the occasion and accomplish what we know we must. Our ancestors chose to ignore Kalev and admitted defeat in the face of the giants and challenges that stood in their way. Let us rectify the sins of the past, Ki Yachol Nuchal Lah. (Reprinted from 5778)
“Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law, We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel. He said to him, I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace. He said, Please don’t leave us, for because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you will be our eyes (Bamidbar 10:29-31).”
The most high-profile convert of all time, Yisro, had decided to go home to Midyan. Although the Jewish people were just a few days from entering the Land of Israel (this occurred before the sin of the spies), Yisro felt a need to return home. But why? After all he had left behind to join our people as we made this historic journey, why turn back now? Furthermore, how are we to understand Moshe’s counter-argument? What did Moshe mean when he said to his father-in-law, “you can’t leave for you are our eyes?”
Rav Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu (Ben Ish Chai, 1835-1909) provides a magnificent insight. Yisro was a giver. Yisro was the kind of person who wanted to enhance the lives of those around him. Even before he found God, he was the high priest of Midyan, and in that position saw to the spiritual and emotional needs of his constituents. Yisro ultimately leaves that life on a quest for true spirituality and becomes a member of the Jewish people, and it is here that he finds himself surrounded by exceptional people. His son-in-law, Moshe, the prophet of prophets, Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, Elazar, Yehoshua, and the Seventy Elders were present at every moment to inspire the masses. Yisro felt blessed to live within a cocoon of holiness but felt despondent that he had nothing to contribute. The nation didn’t need him; they had the most wonderful spiritual role models and teachers. And so, Yisro approaches Moshe. “I will go to my land and my birthplace. I can have an impact back in Midyan. You see, my precious son-in-law, Midyan is a spiritual desert. I will return and open the hearts and souls of the residents with all the beautiful Torah and life-lessons I have learned. I want to be a giver and not a taker. I have much to contribute, but my abilities are not needed within the Jewish nation. Let me go back to inspire and spread the word of God.” Moshe responds, “Please don’t leave us…. for you are our eyes. My beloved father-in-law, you inspire us every day through your mere presence. We were a slave nation for 210 years, and when we heard the message of salvation, we listened and acted. We had nothing, and so, when God offered us the opportunity to become something, we grabbed it. For us, it wasn’t much of a decision. Barbaric treatment and death in Egypt or Torah, our own land, and freedom to decide our destiny. But you, Yisro, you had everything. You had a beautiful family, fame, wealth, and an identity. Yet, you gave it all up for the sake of becoming something greater and holier. You sacrificed everything to find God, join the Jewish people, and find deeper meaning and fulfillment in life. You inspire and teach us every day. You are the embodiment of the important lesson in life – if you truly desire greatness, you must be ready to sacrifice. You can’t leave, “for you are our eyes,” you teach us how to properly view life, how to be properly see ourselves.”
Yisro wanted to return, for he desperately pined to be a giver. Moshe begged him to stay, for Yisro’s mere presence was an ongoing inspiration. It is from this simple exchange that we emerge with three powerful lessons:
Lesson #1 – Be a giver not a taker. The greatest gift one can receive in life is not something he gets – but rather, the ability to give. All too often, we approach life situations thinking, “what’s in this for me? What can I get out of my involvement? How will this benefit me?” The Jew asks one simple question – how can I give? How can I contribute? What can I do to help build the individuals and the world around me? What’s in it for me? The opportunity to roll up my sleeves and give. What do I get out of it? The profound and life-affirming satisfaction that I am making a difference. If we nurture a constant desire to give, we will constantly seek out new avenues of growth and fulfillment.
Lesson #2 – There is no growth without sacrifice. In greater society, sacrifice is a bad word. We are told that we should be able to have what we want, when we want, how we want. But this is not true. Sacrifice is part of the very fabric of the human condition. Whenever you choose one thing, you are sacrificing another. We must learn the art of sacrifice. We each have things which hold us back. For some, it may be a negative relationship; for others, it may be a particular pleasure or behavior. If we truly want to grow, we must identify the things which are holding us back and find the courage to “sacrifice” them. Yisro left Midyan because he felt that his existence there was an anchor tethering him to a life of mediocrity. We all have our anchors which weigh us down and keep us from moving forward. We must learn to sacrifice these items to forge forward.
Lesson #3 – Don’t always look for comfort. We often gravitate to situations with which we feel at home or comfortable. We may tend to socialize and associate only with people who look like us, practice like us, and believe like us. Sometimes, your ability to make a dramatic contribution comes when you are willing to leave your comfort zone. You don’t always have to be with people who mirror you in every way. At times, putting yourself in the uncomfortable position allows for maximum growth and impact.
Moshe was correct; Yisro is one of our most important teachers and role-models. Yisro’s legacy is not what he said. Yisro is not remembered for a particular sermon or lecture. He didn’t leave us any meaningful statements, mantras or aphorisms. Yisro teaches us how to live through modeling a life-style of growth and achievement. This simple man has and continues to illuminate the eyes of our nation. (Reprinted from 5779)
It is in this week’s Parsha that we are introduced to an important personality – the Nazir. He is a man who takes a vow to abstain from drinking wine, cutting his hair and coming in contact with the dead in order to attain a higher level of life sanctity. The Nazir is a person who has lost his way, become too entrenched in the material world and is looking to hit the reset button. His behavior is extreme, but it is designed to allow him to ultimately find the middle path of synergistic partnership between body and soul.
Yet, sometimes the best laid plans go awry.
“If someone in his presence dies unexpectedly or suddenly, and causes the Nazirite head to become defiled, he shall shave off [the hair of] his head on the day of his purification; on the seventh day, he shall shave it off. And on the eighth day, he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the Kohen, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The Kohen shall prepare one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering and atone on his behalf for sinning by coming into contact with the dead, and he shall sanctify his head on that day. He shall consecrate to the Lord the period of his abstinence and bring a lamb in its first year as a guilt offering; the previous days shall be canceled because his naziriteship has been defiled.” (Bamidbar 6:9-12)
The Nazir tries his best, but an unavoidable circumstance puts a corpse in his proximity. The days observed fall by the wayside and the Nazir must restart the fulfillment of his vow. The Beis Yisroel (Rabbi Yisroel Alter of Gur, 1895-1977) explains that the Torah is conveying to us a deeper message. The Nazir represents a person looking for more out of life. He realizes that he is not living the life he should be living, he is not becoming the person he is capable of being. So, he decides to make a dramatic life change. At times, we must bring life to a grinding halt in an effort to recalibrate and plot a new course for the future.
The Nazir found the strength and adopted a new approach (for a limited amount of time). But then he failed. He finds himself in proximity to a corpse and everything ends; he must start all over again. Here he was trying to better himself and his vow ends in failure. He is tamei (impure) and back to square one. But it is here, in these details that God teaches us how to deal with failure. “V’kidash es rosho ba’yom ha’hu (and he shall sanctify his head on that day).”On the day he finishes his purification process, he gets back up and starts all over again. There is no time for lamenting, there is only time to dust off and start again. As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (24:16), “For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil.” Everyone stumbles and falls, the righteous get back up, the wicked stay down.
There is one more piece. The above-mentioned section ends, “… the previous days shall fall away (be cancelled).” In order to have a meaningful second chance and new beginning, one must let go of the feelings of pain and failure of the past. In the aftermath of failure, we often think to ourselves, “I wasted so much time and resources on this initiative, idea, mission which never materialized.” A person could feel demoralized in the wake of failure and that prolonged feeling could prevent a person from trying again and believing that things can be different in the future. But, we must let go in order to move on.
The message of the Nazir is a message for us all. We all fail and we all fall; this is an inevitable reality of the human condition. What must be our response to life’s failures? Get back up and try again. Clean our wounds, let go of the past and make another go at it. We may not identify with the restrictions of the Nazir, rather his quest for holiness and elevation should inspire us all.
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, and you shall not reckon their sum among the children of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its vessels and over all that belong to it; they shall carry the Tabernacle and they shall minister to it, and they shall encamp around the Tabernacle. When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it; any outsider [non- Levite] who approaches shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:48-51)
Every tribe, every Jew, every man, woman and child is important in the eyes of God. We each have a unique mission and destiny. We each have different roles and responsibilities. The Tribe of Levi was chosen by God to serve in the Mishkan (and later in the Beis Mikdash) and dedicate their lives to the service of God and the Jewish people. During the 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Tribe of Levi had an additional role: to carry the Mishkan from location to location. The Baal Shem Tov comments that when the Torah describes the role of the Leviim it says, “u’vinsoa ha’mishkan yoridu oso, when you travel, they shall dismantle it.” The primary role of Levi was to show the people how to take down and deconstruct. Throughout life we spend time and energy building a life edifice and framework. Then one day we look at it and realize that it is not as it should be. We are not living the way we need to be living, we are not the kind of person we know we can and should be. But we have invested so much time and resources into “building” this life. We are too sacred and unsure to knock it down and start again. Sometimes, “when the Tabernacle is set to travel,” when we know we need to make changes and start living the life we should be living, “the Levites shall dismantle it,” we must find the courage to knock down what we have built and start again.
King Solomon writes: “There is a time for all things …. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted.” (Koheles 3:2) The wise King Solomon doesn’t say, “there is a time to plant and a time to harvest.” Instead he tells us that there is a time to “uproot.” There are times in life when we must uproot what we have planted because it is no longer the right fit. It may have seemed appropriate when we began the endeavor, but we change, the world changes and sometimes the very things which once were acceptable and good, must be deconstructed and uprooted.
It is then after we dismantle, like the tribe of Levi, we must rebuild. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt’l wrote:
יש עבודת ה’ מיוחדת, לקחת דברים מפורקים ולבנות אותם. כל דבר מפורק בהתחלה היה שלם. נעים לראות דבר שלם, אבל יש עבודה מיוחדת לקחת את המפורק ולהחזירו לשלמותו.
“There is a special form of Avodas Hashem (service of God), to take things which are in pieces and make them whole. Everything which is broken was initially whole. It is beautiful to see something which is complete and whole, but there is a unique privilege to in taking that which is in pieces and returning it to completion.”
We are just a few days away from the Yom Tov of Shavuos, the day on which we celebrate the great miracle of Sinaitic revelation. But we are not merely observing a historical event. Shavuos offers us the opportunity to reaccept and reaffirm our commitment to our Torah, the opportunity to start again. If we are broken, Shavuos gives us the strength to rebuild. If we are blemished, Shavuos gives us the chance the heal. If we need to make changes, Shavuos gives us the strength to start changing. But starting again, healing and changing are exceptionally difficult because often they require us to knock down certain life structures. At times, the life or personality we have built doesn’t provide the proper framework for who we really want to be. There are things in our lives that we must knock down, emotional or personalistic structures we must raze because they are getting in the way of growth. Let us find the strength of Levi. To move our Mishkan to the next location often requires some deconstruction and demolition. Let us beready to deconstruct the things which are holding us back and we can look forward to great wave of joy we will experience when we put the pieces back together.