Korach the son of Itzhar, the son of Kohas, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dasan and Aviram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peled, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moshe 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 Moshe and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and HASHEM is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above HASHEM’s assembly?” (Bamidbar 16:1-3)
How can it happen? Korach had such a dramatic fall from grace! He came from the loftiest of families and was inestimably great in his own right. He was already occupying one of the highest positions in the universe. Yet somehow there was a hidden, subconscious urge that began to percolate deep within his being. We can do the psychoanalysis thing here and try to figure out how that ulterior motive morphed into a tragic flaw. It may just be more practical to ask again, “How can it happen?”
Maybe more important than how it happened is to simply know that it did happen and it can happen and it can happen to anyone! That may be the real practical point to ponder. The Talmud Brochos 29A makes the following most remarkable statement, “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death! We see that Yochanan Kohein Gadol served as the Kohein Gadol for 80 years and he became a Tzadoki!” It’s mind numbing notion to consider such a phenomenon!
During the 420 years of the 2nd Temple more than 300 Kohanim Gedolim did not survive their entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur because of their lack of authentic Kedusha. Yochanan Kohein Gadol endured his encounter with the ultimate spirituality 80 times! He was thereby certified as one of the greats of the greats! How do we understand that in the end he became a Tzadoki, a heretic!?
The Kotzker Rebbe has a searing insight that may not be the simple meaning but it does breathe new meaning into this perplexing statement of the sages. What does it mean that he became a Tzadoki? He started to think he was Tzodek-right or righteous! He believed in himself! I’m Yochanan! I survived the Holy of Holies where others did not!
There’s room for a person to become intoxicated with their own success! Like the old saying goes, “Nothing fails like success!” Success can be as dangerous, if not more so, than failure! A person can believe over much in himself. So we should not be surprised that Korach fell, literally, so hard and so fast.
The Talmud says that a person does not truly understand what his Rebbe says until forty years have passed. Certain ideas that sounded so oversimplified then, ring louder and louder as true as time goes by. We realize how right the Rebbe was.
So when Rashi explains that “this world” is made with the letter “HEY” and why it works that way it sounds at first like a very cute visual game based on the pictographic nature of the Hebrew Language. A “HEY” is wide open on the bottom! There is plenty of room for a person and the tendency of the gravity of life is to exert pressure and pull a person downward. There is a slight opening near the top of the “HEY” for the one who wishes to do Teshuva and climb back to his original position. Returning, repairing regaining innocence requires a serious investment of sincere energy.
The simple fact that Korach descended to the depths is no surprise. That piece of reality by itself is the greatest lesson. Nobody is entirely safe! When we hear that it happened, it’s a shock but it shouldn’t be a total surprise that it could happen. We have all been put on notice by Korach. Life requires eternal vigilance. We should not be caught off guard or be overly confident, awaking too late exclaiming, “HEY”- What happened!?””
DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.