“You take too much upon yourselves, seeing that all the congregation
are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. How then do you elevate
yourselves above the assembly of God?” (Bamidbar 16:3)
There is an interesting discussion that occurs in the Talmud between a
Tzeduki (Sadducee) and Rebi Yehoshua, based upon the verse:
The best of them is like a thorn; the upright is like a succah …
According to the Talmud, the Tzeduki, paying attention only to the first
part of the verse, argued that the best of the Jewish people are like
thorns, obviously a negative thing. However, Rebi Yehoshua berated him for
being so rash and told him to look at the end of the verse, which compares
the upright to a protecting succah. Hence, the comparison to thorns is
positive, as if to says: Just as thorns guard a breach, so do righteous
people protect us (Eiruvin 101a).
What the Talmud means is that thorns can act as kind of naturally-grown
barbed wire to keep out unwanted visitors when there is a breach in a wall.
All a person has to do until he can fix the hole in his wall is stick some
thorns in the actual hole, and predators and the like will be deterred, at
Likewise, the righteous people of the world can keep out evil decrees by
virtue of their merits, effectively filling the breach in the national
spiritual wall. Hence, even though the generation may deserve some form of
Divine punishment because of its lack of spiritual achievements, the
meritorious lives of the righteous people of their time can intercede of
their behalf and mitigate the Divine wrath, just as Iyov did for his
generation in his time.
From this may come a litmus test of sorts for a righteous people. And, even
though we don’t always know who the righteous people are in any given
generation, since some of them hide from the public eye, certainly it can
test those who proclaim their own spiritual greatness, such as Korach in
this week’s parshah, who said:
Korach … said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, seeing
that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among
them. How then do you elevate yourselves above the assembly of God?”
But, Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t born yesterday, and he could see Korach and his
argument this were heading. Korach may have been speaking about everyone
else around him, but Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he was talking primarily about
himself. So, he challenged Korach and those who followed him, as if to say,
“Listen, Korach, if you are as great and righteous as you say you are, let’s
see if your merits can save you and your followers.”
But, right on cue, crack went the earth, and down went Korach and his
followers. It looks as if Korach was not as righteous as he claimed to be,
because neither he nor his generation was protected from the Divine wrath:
And it came to pass as he concluded his words that the ground under
them opened up. The earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their
households, and all the men that appertained unto Korach, and all their
goods. They, and all that pertained to them, went down alive into the pit.
The earth closed on them, and they perished from among the assembly. All
Israel that were around about them fled at the cry of them, saying, “Lest
the earth swallow us up.” And fire came from God and devoured the 250 men
that offered the incense. (Bamidbar 16:31-35)
So much for the righteous Korach and his followers.
The first clue that Korach was not who he claimed to be was the fact that he
said he was righteous. Righteous people do not like to talk about themselves
and certainly do not assume that they are righteous. Indeed, we are told,
there are 36 righteous people in each generation (actually, 36 in Israel and
another 36 in the entire Diaspora) saving it, and they tend to be hidden.
Hence, their Hebrew nickname Nistarim, which means hidden ones.
For example, there is the following example from the Talmud:
The whole world is sustained for the sake of My son Chanina, and
Chanina My son has to subsist on a kav of carobs from one week end to the
next. (Brochos 17b)
In other words, while many people live it up as if the world exists in their
merit, the righteous barely partake of this world, though it does exists in
their merit. This is a large part what makes them so righteous: unlike
Korach they expect little from this world, and therefore rarely experience
negative emotions such as greed and jealousy.
And, most important of all, the righteous are completely self-honest and
know that, though you can fool yourself some of the time, other people most
of the time, you can’t fool God any of the time. They don’t blame others for
their own problems, and realize that what ever difficulties they must
undergo in this world is only for the sake of bettering their portion in the
world that counts the most, the World-to-Come.
There is another interesting point about tzadikim that comes from the Zohar
on last week’s parshah, Shlach. According to the Zohar, the reason why Moshe
Rabbeinu did not know how to answer the Bnos Tzelofchad in Parashas Pinchas
when they requested land in Eretz Yisroel in the merit of their dead father
is because Moshe Rabbeinu was not sure that he was forgiven for breaking
Shabbos in Parashas Shlach. (Maybe he lost his portion in Eretz Yisroel when
he sinned, making the request of his five daughters an empty one?)
However, when God referred to Bnos Tzelofchad in the name of their father,
Moshe learned that Tzelofchad had indeed been forgiven for his sin, for God
does not mention the names of evil people, only the names of tzadikim.
Apparently, however bad the sin that Tzelofchad did had committed, his death
atoned for it, and he passed back into the category of righteous once again.
The question might be asked, why is it that the merits of righteous people
can save a generation? It’s a nice idea, but not a logical one. Righteous
people are good people and deserve good in return. Evil people are evil
people and deserve evil in return. Why should the latter have their cake and
eat it too? Obviously they hope to, but why should they be able to?
There are a few answers to this question, but the most obvious one is the
concept that every Jew is a guarantor for his fellow Jew (Sanhedrin 27b). To
be part of the Jewish nation is to be part of a single unit that functions
very much the same way a body does. Stubbing one’s finger may not send pain
down to the toes, but there is no denying that the toes are affected by
virtue of the fact they belong to the same overall unit to which the hurt
finger belongs. And, if an infection starts to spread, eventually it will
affect all parts of the body
This means that, even though Heaven judges an individual as an individual
when it comes to his portion in the World-to-Come, when it comes to the
Jewish people in this world, there is also a collective judgment (Shabbos
54b). On many occasions, all the merits and demerits of the entire nation
are thrown into one pot which is then placed on the scale of Divine judgment
to see if the scale balances out in favor of the nation or against it.
As one can well imagine, millions of Jews make for a lot of sins in the pot,
which can only spell trouble for the Jewish nation. If so, then how can the
merits of a few righteous people balance them out, and even tip the scale in
our favor to avert a Divine decree?
There are a few answers for that one as well, but the main answer is because
of the mitzvos that the tzadikim do, and how they do them, usually with
tremendous self-sacrifice. Righteous people do the will of God with as much
gusto, if not more, than the rest of the nation may do sins. However, the
drive with which righteous people perform mitzvos counts for a lot more to
God than the drive with which the average person performs sins.
For, where as the latter is the result of the yetzer hara, the former is the
result of pure will to please God, something that is far more difficult to
muster and maintain. More than God’s hate for sin is His love for mitzvos,
and the sincerity with which they are performed. More than God dislikes the
spiritual impurity of the common individual He loves the purity with which
righteous people conduct their lives.
Hence, if you were to look into the pot of Divine judgment, you might see,
in general, a lot of black coal. But, amongst the black coal you would also
see sparkling diamonds, whose glitter might be enough, on many occasions, to
overcome the darkness of the coal and bring about a favorable judgment for
the entire pot, as it has done on many occasions.
However, on many occasions the merits of the righteous have not always been
enough to avert the Divine decree. At such times, the demerits of the Jewish
people may have grown too great that even the diamonds amongst them are
unable to sparkle enough to overcome the blackness of the sins, leaving the
Sometimes history might be the imperative, meaning that something is meant
to happen historically by a specific time, but the Jewish nation is not
doing that which it is necessary to bring it about. Therefore, Divine
Providence may use an alternative method, but one that is not pleasant for
the Jewish people. Just look at how many such corners have been turned that
way throughout the last three millennia.
Whatever the reason, one this is for certain: it is important to take care
of the righteous people in each generation. In their humility, they may
appear unimportant to the world, and especially to themselves, but in
reality, they are what is keeping the world going, and the Jewish people
alive. Once they go, God forbid, we can expect history to take a turn for
the worse, God forbid, and historically, it usually has.