The Torah teaches us in this week’s reading that one should never underestimate the power and influence that ego and arrogance can play within the lives of people who are otherwise seen as wise, capable, and even moral. Throughout the ages, the commentators have asked themselves the famous question, quoted by Rashi and based on midrash: “What drove Korach to commit such a foolish act?”
Rashi points out that Korach understood that his descendants in future generations would be prominent people of great leadership. He could not imagine that they would achieve such a status of power and recognition when he himself was not able to boast of such an achievement. While this explanation certainly cast some light on the issue, it does not fully resolve the problem.
There are many instances in life and history when later generations of a certain family rose to power and influence, even though their origins were humble. Most commentators fall back on the idea that it was the great wealth that Korach possessed that drove him to this folly of behavior.
We are aware that wealth and money many times do strange things to otherwise normal people. The Talmud always pictured money – coins – as being made of fire. They can warm and illuminate or burn and destroy. That certainly is true of the nature of money and how it affects individuals, especially those who have become wealthy over a short period of time. Our world is full of examples of wealthy people who suddenly become experts in all sorts of disciplines in life, whereas before they were wealthy, did not claim such expertise.
It is interesting to note that the Torah sought to limit the potential for any of the Levite families from becoming exceedingly wealthy. Levites in the land of Israel were subject to public service. Their income was based upon the goodwill of their Israelite neighbors, who would grant them their share of the food ordained by the Torah. I imagine that no matter how much of the tithe any given Levite would have received, the feeling of being wealthy – certainly, exceedingly wealthy – would not ever be experienced.
People who are dependent upon the goodwill of others never feel themselves as secure as those who possess great wealth. The truth is that no one is secure, and that even great wealth can disappear in an unknowing and unpredictable fashion. Nevertheless, when a person knows that he or she does not possess great wealth, that person is more careful and circumspect in advancing opinions and demanding honor. The combination of the natural ego that exist within all of us, and especially those like Korach who have aristocratic bloodlines combined with the largess of great wealth, can oftentimes be a lethal mix that leads to disaster. That certainly was the case regarding Korach and his group of followers.
Rabbi Berel Wein