Elli Schwarcz – Levels of Holiness: Korach’s Mistake

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This week we read about Korach’s challenge of Moshe Rabbeinu and his authority. Though he certainly led the fight  Korach did not fight alone. He convinced 250 important people from the tribe of Reuven, as well as the indefatigable Datan and Aviram, to join his cause. In fact, many more of B’nei Israel seemed to at least sympathize with him as he campaigned in the hours leading up to his final showdown with Moshe.

What did Korach actually take issue with? The Midrash explains that Korach was upset that Moshe named a nephew a Nasi (tribe leader) rather than Korach*.

 

Although Korach at first admitted (at least to himself; see footnote) that Moshe and Aharon were fairly appointed, and was only upset about being bypassed for a position of leadership, he actually complained about much more. He eventually called Aharon’s status as Kohen Gadol into question as well- and broadened his charge further into a biting slogan:

 

And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, “You take too much upon you- for the entire congregation, all of them, are holy, and Hashem is among them; and so why do you lord over the assembly of Hashem?”

– Korach, 16:3

 

-So Korach’s argument was ultimately that both Aharon and Moshe were abusers of power! Neither of them, according to Korach’s speech, should be ruling over the people, because the entire nation was holy and so did not need or deserve to be under another man’s leadership. In truth, even if everyone was holy, it would make perfect sense for an even holier person to lead them to even greater heights. However, the claim here was that Moshe and Aharon were no more deserving of leading than the next person; everyone was holy to the same degree, and so being ruled by an equal would be unfair and illogical.

 

It appears that Korach’s central theme was that all were equal, and should be treated as such. Perhaps this can help us understand a related teaching. The Torah reading begins by going straight to the story: Korach and his followers began to fight against Moshe, ignoring his attempts to discourage them. Straightforward, but… missing something? Here are the first two verses of the parasha, according to their literal translation. Pay attention to the first of the two:

 

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, sone of Kehat, son of Levi, took, and Datan and Aviram-the children of Eliav- and Ohn ben Pelet, of Reuven descent.

And they rose up before Moshe, with noted men of B’nei Israel- two hundred and fifty men; they were leaders of the congregation, elected men of the assembly, men of renown.

-Korach 16:1-2

 

-See the problem? It says that Korach and his group “took”- but doesn’t finish the thought to tell us what they took!

Early commentators argue over the simple meaning of this phrase. It may be understood that he, Korach, took the people described in the second of the two verses: the two hundred and fifty men. Alternatively, Korach and his side “took themselves” from the nation, standing apart from the rest of the people so as to fight Moshe.

The Midrash, however, teaches that something deeper is hinted at by this unusual expression. Last week’s parasha, Sh’lach, ended with the mitzvah of Tzitzit. Korach’s first verse, then, is seen as connecting to it:

“Korach took Tzizit” in his argument against Moshe.

 

Specifically, Korach challenged Moshe Rabbenu with a question on the mitzvah to put a string of techeilet (blueish dye) among the white strings of the Tzitzit; would it apply if the actual garment is dyed techeilet?

Korach stepped forward, turning to Moshe: ‘You say, “Put on the fringe a thread of techeilet wool.” What about a garment that is itself completely of techeilet; would it not be exempt from the techeilet thread (on the Tzitzit)?’

 

Moses replied, ‘It is (still) obligatory to have the techeilet thread.’

 

Said Korach, “A garment which is all techeilet is not exempt, but four simple threads work?”

 

Korach attacked again: “A room full of  Torah scrolls, would it need a Mezuzah?”

 

Moshe answered that it would.

 

Korach replied, “The Torah contains 275 sections and they are not enough to fulfill the house’s obligation to have a Mezuzah, but these two sections (written in the Mezuzah scroll) will fulfil the obligation for the entire house! Moshe, you must be making things up!”

-Midrash Tanchuma

 

-What was Korach doing here? On a basic level, he was riling the people up against their leader, asking him logical questions on laws Moshe Rabbenu had received from Hashem. Moshe’s unwavering stance, holding that the commandments applied even in these cases against logical instinct, was meant to show that he must not be transmitting Hashem’s will correctly to B’nei Israel!

On a deeper level, commentators discuss why Korach chose these two mitzvot as his cases in point; surely other mitzvot apply equally despite unique circumstances?

Kli Yakar explains that these two mitzvot have in common the fact that they are meant as reminders. Techeilet’s color is reminiscent of the ocean, the sky, and of Hashem’s (techeilet-colored) throne- thus reminding us always to do His will. Similarly, the Mezuzah, containing the Torah sections of the Shema that detail this mitzvah, remind us always that Hashem watches over us and of our love for Him.

 

This, Kli Yakar teaches, was Korach’s point: the reminder should not be necessary when there is already a stronger reminder in place! If the garment is fully techeilet, or if the house if filled with Hashem’s Torah, the function of the external reminder has already been fufilled! So too, Korach argued, is it with B’nei Israel. Had we been a nation full of mediocre people, we would need you, Moshe and Aharon, to lead us and to remind us always of Hashem’s will. But all of B’nei Israel are holy! There is no need for external ‘connections’ to Hashem such as you, when the entire nation is itself on a high level!

 

Korach’s arguments are more understandable now, fitting with the theme of equality he was preaching- but he was obviously wrong. Apparently, the logic he was using was incorrect- both in his fight against Moshe’s leadership and in the Torah challenges he was posing to prove his point. What was the flaw in his logic?

 

Commentators separately point out that Korach was mistaken in considering all of B’nei Israel to be of equal standing; every person, however similar he seems to his friend, may still be of a different spiritual level. So while all of the people at that time (except the Erev Rahv) were on the loftiest of spiritual planes, they nevertheless differed from one another. More importantly, Moshe Rabbenu was the greatest man who ever lived, and a prophet in a different league than anyone who came before or after. As much as Korach wanted to think otherwise, neither he, his group, nor the masses of B’nei Israel were close to Moshe’s level. Again, the premise of Korach’s entire battle cry was incorrect.

This mistake- one of many in his case- also provides us with an important lesson. None of us are exactly the same, and we must be aware that even two seemingly similar people may well be worlds apart from one another. This is important for us to remember, for example, because we are constantly thrust into matters of judgment with which we may need help. Acknowledging that we need assistance, then  knowing whom to consult, is predicated on recognizing that there are countless levels of Torah knowledge, fear of Heaven, faith, and practical intuition, and that- to the best of our discernment- we would do well to follow those who are greater than us and others.

 

Lastly, perhaps when one is comfortable simply in knowing that he is doing the best he can, striving to improve every day, never comparing himself to those around him because he can’t really judge himself against others anyway, there will be no room or reason for him to feel anger and jealousy toward any other person.

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*Korach reasoned as follows: Kehat had four sons. Amram was the oldest, and so, Korach admitted, deserved a ‘double portion’- thus, his two sons Moshe and Aharon were selected to lead B’nei Israel. Yitzhar was the next of Kehat’s sons, and was therefore next in line- allowing his son Korach to at least be a Nasi.

 

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz

 

Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

 

 

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