The first line of Rashi on this week’s parsha says it all: This parsha is elucidated well in the Midrash Tanchuma.
It is a rare statement for Rashi to make. Rashi’s role, as he says periodically, is to explain the possukim according to their simple understanding. Occasionally, he will rely upon midrash (exegetical teachings) to explain a verse or two. However, rarely will he place so much emphasis on midrashim to explain the simple meaning of what is going on. The fact that he does so here is indicative of just how complicated this parsha is to understand!
What’s so difficult about this week’s parsha? As long as there has been a Jewish nation, there has always been rebellion in the ranks at some point. It seems as if it is true: to be Jewish is to be political … Who else can have two Jews and three presidents?
The problem with Korach’s rebellion is twofold: how could he challenge Moshe, G-d’s hand-chosen leader, and how could he do it with the Presence of G-d hovering above so close? Logic would dictate that this was more than a matter of chutzpah; it seems as if they had in fact gone mad, and lived with a death wish! As one reads the parsha, one can hear a little voice in the background saying, “Do you know what you’re asking for?!”
The truth is, it wasn’t so simple. It has to be remembered that we are looking at events in the Torah through the eyes of the Torah, as G-d saw and recorded them. However, had we been there at the time, it is not so obvious that WE would have acted differently. After all, he did take some of the greatest men of his generation down with him … This is why the Torah had to emphasize that WE should not become like Korach and his group.
Not only did the Torah emphasize this, but the rabbis reiterated the same message:
Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven will result in a constructive outcome; but one not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What is an example of a dispute that was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his company.What is important to point out is that the above teaching is not parallel. In the case of the dispute for truth’s sake, both sides of the disagreement are mentioned (Hillel AND Shammai). However, in the example of a disagreement for selfish reasons, only one side of the dispute is mentioned: Korach and his followers! The mishah doesn’t bother to even mention Moshe as his rival in the argument!
(Pirke Avos 5:20)
The truth is, the reason for this omission is alluded to in the first verse of the parsha:
And Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas ben Levi took …He took what? The possuk never finishes its thought, not quite telling us what Korach took! However, Targum Onkeles interprets the word “took” here to me he set himself apart, that is, he took HIMSELF. In other words, Korach was “taken” with himself and convinced that he had a case against Moshe, and that he was really the champion of the rest of the people. As He demanded,
“All of us are holy! Why do you [Moshe] lord yourself over the rest of us?!”However, the Torah is hinting, the truth was that he was so caught up in his OWN sense of mission that even though he challenged Moshe, the truth was, it didn’t make a difference WHO he challenged! In the end, he was simply arguing, and his own sense of self-righteousness convinced him that it was his RIGHT to speak up and challenge Moshe’s appointment of Aharon as the Kohen Gadol.
This is why the mishnah omitted Moshe’s name from the disagreement, to teach us the tell-tale sign of an argument that is less than altruistic: when there is no respect for the other side (even when it is authoratative). In fact, what the Torah and the mishnah are really alluding to is that Korach had not, in fact, challenged Moshe, but G-d Himself! For, anytime an argument is based upon false assumptions and insincere motivations, it is an affront to truth, and that means it is directed against G-d.
The frightening thing about all of this is that Korach came from fine stock. He himself had been a brilliant man, steeped in Torah and possessing the finest lineage. And, as if that weren’t enough, the entire disagreement took place with G-d looking down from Above!
It may be hard to understand in retrospect how Korach could have doubted Moshe’s sincerity and Divine authority, but, at least we can draw one very important lesson. If it could happen to someone like Korach, could it not happen to us too, especially in a generation within which the Divine Presence is not so manifest?
If you’re going to take sides in a disagreement, make sure you know what your innermost motivation is. If you want your opinion to make a difference in the long run, and gain the support of G-d as opposed to the wrath of G-d, make sure THE truth is your bottom line.
The Torah doesn’t tell us much about Korach, and how he had built up his sense of confidence to challenge Moshe in the end. However, the Talmud does provide some insight into what made Korach tick, so-to-speak:
” … And the earth opened her mouth wide, and swallowed them up, their houses, their tents, and all the substance that was at their feet …” (Devarim 11:6)The Talmud explains that Korach had become a very wealthy man. Some of the riches that Yosef had collected in Egypt while viceroy and which he had later hidden, Korach had found. And being so rich, he gained respect in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, as is often the case with wealthy people. Yet, ironically, it was his riches that created within him a drive to have more. This is one of the reasons this episode follows in the wake of last week’s mitzvah of tzitzis, which warned, “Don’t go after your heart and your eyes.”
The substance that was at their feet … This refers to a man’s property, which stand him on his feet. (Pesachim 119a)
Now, according to Judaism, money is NOT the root of evil. However, it does provide one very dangerous stumbling block in terms of rising to greater heights of spirituality. This is why the Torah states:
Be careful with the poor, for it is from their mouths that Torah will emanate. (Nedarim 81a)Does this mean the Torah advocates poverty? The answer is YES, and NO. How typically Talmudic! However,the resolution of this conflict can be found embodied in the life of one of the greatest rabbis of all time, Rebi Yehudah HaNasi, or “Rebi,” as he was known.
The Talmud teaches that Rebi had been a very, very rich person. Even in off-seasons, the best of foods could be found on his table. He owned stables and properties, and even had the respect and admiration of the Roman Emperor of that time, Antoninius. However, on his deathbed, the Talmud tells us, Rebi held up his little finger and said, “It is known to Heaven that I took no pleasure even for this little finger!”
Ah, excuse me for a moment, Rebi. I don’t mean to pry, but what about the famous and lavish banquets? What about the tremendous horses and stables? What about the fine and princely clothing you wore? Did you derive no pleasure from any of that?
The answer is, no, at least not directly.
To Rebi, all of his riches were Heaven-sent. To Rebi, he had not merely become one of the wealthiest men of his time; he had become wealthy with a mission, and that mission was to secure the fate of the Jewish nation that was depressed and lost after the destruction of the Second Temple. That mission was to guarantee that Torah did not become a byword of generations gone by. Rebi saw himself as a crucial link between the glory of Torah of the past, and the glory of Torah that was still yet to be. Therefore, every single cent he owned was simply his expense account to bring about his most important contribution to the Jewish people: the redaction of the Oral Law (today we refer to it as the mishnah).
What Rebi spent he did so to accomplish this task. He understood that he had access to all kinds of money, but, he saw the money as belonging to G-d, and himself, as a servant of the King with an expense account. This is why, on the day of his death, he was able to provide his accounting for all that he had spent without fear of being accused of any kind of extortion, on any level. Any pleasure he had derived from what he enjoyed in this world in his position had been the by-product, not the goal of what he had tried to accomplish, and it was this to what he referred when he held up his little finger.
YES, riches provide power and influence. But they also destroy one’s connection to spirituality when the person in possession of them uses them to define himself or herself. In such a case, the independence is not true independence, but “borrowed” independence. And rather than leave the person with a sense of contentment, instead, the riches result in an even greater drive to have more, and more, and more …
There really is so much to discuss and understand, especially when it comes to parshios like this one. However, one insight instantly reveals just how deeply “rooted” the fight between Korach and Moshe was:
|100 + 200 + 8||+||5 + 2 + 30||=||345|
Now, I know what you’re thinking: SO WHAT! There must be a dozen, if not thousands of such gematrios (numerical calculations; every letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bais represents a pre-assigned number, so that each word can be reduced to a numerical value by adding up the value of each of its letters, which is what was done above; hence, Moshe (mem: 40, shin: 300, heh: 5) totals 345). What kind of connection exists between Korach, Hevel, and Moshe?!
I’ll tell you what kind of connection exists between these three people: they are really TWO people! And not only are they two people, but they happen to have once been two very related people: Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel)!
According to the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria), Korach was the reincarnation of Kayin, and Moshe was the reincarnation of Hevel. This means that Moshe and Korach’s dispute was really the final chapter of an old one, the one that took place between Kayin and Hevel shortly after being expelled from the Garden of Eden. And guess what? Whereas the “mouth” of the earth had “swallowed” the blood of Hevel after Kayin had killed him, measure-for-measure, in this week’s parsha, it is the same earth that swallowed up Korach himself (a.k.a. Kayin)-twenty-seven generations later!
The only question is, if Korach had been Kayin, and Moshe was Hevel, then why does Moshe’s name total Korach AND Hevel combined?
The answer to this question came two parshios ago. At the end of Parashas BeHa’alosecha, G-d referred to Moshe as His “most trusted servant in His house,” enjoying exclusive privileges hitherto unknown to any other prophet. But, in the same breath, the Torah had also described Moshe as the “humblest man to ever walk the face of the earth.” Hence, embodied in Moshe was the confidence of a Kayin and a Korach, which was tempered by the humility of a Hevel. That’s why Moshe could maintain such a position of prominence, and yet never lord himself over any other Jew.
Now, at least on some level, we can appreciate why Rashi relegated the “simple” understanding of this week’s parsha to midrashim. For, the true reason why Korach stumbled so tragically, and all the great men and women whom he took down with him, was because they hadn’t gone deep enough into the matter, and into their hearts.
As we learned from last week’s parsha, and again from this week’s, the surface of any understanding can be very deceiving. It is a lesson for the ages as well.
Have a wonderful and PEACEFUL Shabbos,
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org