Parshas Korach

Korach’s rebellion is based upon the fact that the entire Klal-Yisroel witnessed Divine Revelation. Korach’s philosophy revolves upon the entire nation’s holiness. Korach’s claim is that the entire nation is an exalted body. Therefore, why is Moshe Rabeinu keeping himself as ‘King’, and why is he busying himself appointing Aharon as Kohen Gadol? Korach seems to be saying “we have no need for any leaders or priests. We are all equals in a utopia of perfect Godly people.

As Moshe finishes explaining to Korach and his assembly that still there needs to be somebody who has the position of taking charge of the sacrifices and the like. Moshe explains that since in Judaism we worship only One God with one Torah and one Temple, there can, therefore, only be one Kohen Gadol. Moshe explains to Korach and his men that indeed he is ready to put the Kehuna Gedola to the test, but that Korach must realize that there will be only one who will be chosen. Since the others will have performed Avoda not prescribed for them they risk the punishment of death. (See Rashi 16, 7 from the Tanchuma).

Aharon had already successfully brought the Ketores offering and survived so it would definitely seem that he was supposed to be bringing the Karbanos and be fulfilling the role of Kohen Gadol.

The Medrash Tanchuma (Rashi and Tanchuma ibid) after this whole explanation of what was transpiring between Moshe and Korach’s assembly asks: Korach was a wise man. What did he see that caused him to act so foolishly and offer the Ketores? The Tanchuma’s question seems rather cryptic: we can assume that the foolishness was the fact that, as mentioned, it was obvious that Aharon would survive and that therefore all others should perish; but who said Korach was so wise?

The Medrash Rabba asks: Korach was from those who carried the ark. What did he see that caused him to act so foolishly and bring the Ketores offering and thus cause his own death? Here too the Medrash seems to be extremely cryptic. What correlation should there be between the fact that Korach carried the Aron (ark) and any form of logic that should have prevented him from foolishness?

While there is no inherent reason that someone who partook in carrying the Ark should have any intuitive logic, or wisdom, perhaps there is a reason as to why someone who carried the ark shouldn’t have erred in thinking he could be the Kohen Gadol. At the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar (Bamidbar and Naso) Moshe Rabeinu assigns all the posts in carrying the Mishkan and its vessels. While there doesn’t necessarily seem to be any connection between who got what item/items to carry, there was quite clearly a very specific infrastructure.

Perhaps this is the correlation between Korach’s carrying the Ark and the logic that he should have used and thus should have saved him from acting so foolishly. Korach being part of this great infrastructure of carrying the Mishkan and its accessories should have realized that there is a tremendous importance to an order. Korach should have realized that in any hierarchy there is a need for the appropriate order. He should have realized that when a hierarchy works it means things are in the right place, that people are fulfilling the appropriate roles. Korach should have indeed been a wise man; he should have recognized the whole big picture and should have realized that everything was in the appropriate place. The Medrash therefore asks: Korach was a wise man. What caused him to have erred so gravely?

Chazal tell us that Korach misinterpreted a nevuah that he had had and that that was what had caused him to err. Chazal also tell us that jealousy, desire, and love of honor remove a person entirely from the world.

Very often in life our circumstances speak for themselves, the roles we fulfill in life teach us immensely important lessons. We, however, choose to blind ourselves from seeing these lessons and instead allow ourselves to err. By merely paying attention to life’s own lessons we can be saved from many many mistakes.

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This week’s Sedra opens with the infamous episode of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe. Korach accuses Moshe Rabeinu of abusing his leadership by giving his own close relatives all the highest positions out of sheer nepotism. He further attacks Moshe Rabeinu and accuses him of putting himself on a higher plane than all others in Klal-Yisroel.

The Medrash asks the following question on Korach’s reasoning in his challenge of Moshe Rabeinu: Korach was among those who carried the Aron Hakodesh (the Holy Ark) when Klal-Yisroel travelled in the Midbar. What could he possibly have seen to cause him to act so foolishly? The question is a difficult one to understand to say the least. What does carrying the Ark have to do with why he rebelled? Furthermore why should carrying the Aron affect Korach’s reasoning? Why should carrying the Aron have stopped him from thinking so ridiculously?

Korach carried the Aron because he was a family member of the Kehos Leviim. Kehos’ job was to carry the Klei-Kodesh. Interestingly, all the jobs of the Mishpechos Haleviim are given in Parshas Naso, while Kehos are commanded as to their job in Parshas Bamidbar. Furthermore, it isn’t only how we break up the Parshios that creates a unique distinction between Kehos and the other Levite families. The Torah itself makes a distinction by adding an introduction to the job descriptions of the rest of the Leviim. The Torah says: count them also — thereby making quite clear that Kehos were somehow superior to the rest of the Leviim.

I had addressed this issue in my Parshas Naso Dvar Torah, and pointed there to yet another, slightly less apparent distinction the Torah makes for Bnei-Kehos. The Torah commands the Kohanim (towards the end of Parshas Bamidbar) that they must properly wrap the Klei-Kodesh in order to protect Bnei-Kehos from dying. While it is true that this task had to be performed by the Kohanim because they were the only ones who could touch and wrap the Klei-Kodesh, it still ends up that the Kohanim were being Meshares – serving Bnei-Kehos. This is a reversal of roles. In general Kehos as Leviim were supposed to service the Kohanim, whereas here we have Kohanim servicing Kehos who were Leviim. I had explained that this being the case it is only fit to place Bnei-Kehos on a pedestal because they are in a sense superior to the Kohanim.

The whole rebellion was a shtus – an absolutely ridiculous fight. Korach’s claim was that the entire nation was great and holy, and that it was therefore preposterous for Moshe to place himself, and Aharon on a higher plane than the others. The greater and holier Klal-Yisroel became, the more evident it was that Moshe was a true God-appointed leader as he was the one who was shepherding Klal-Yisroel to rise to such summits. Klal-Yisroel had just witnessed the awesome event of Har-Sinai, and thus understood that Moshe Rabeinu was way above them. They also equally understood that what he repeated in the name of Hashem was truly from Hashem.

With all of the above taken into consideration, we can still rationalize the average good Jew coveting Moshe or Ahoron’s positions. However, Korach is still inexplicable. Korach was mibnei-Kehos, he was in the highest ranks of the elite; how could he succumb to such a ridiculous idea, let alone lead such a rebellion?

The truth is that the entirety of the Yetzer Horah for Kavod is all a falsehood. We all have delusions as to what positions will bring us glory. The only real way of bringing onto ourselves glory is by acquiring a shem-tov through giving glory to Hashem.

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A central part of this week’s Sedra is the Korach-led rebellion. Korach spearheaded a challenge against Moshe Rabeinu’s and Aharon Hakohen’s powers. In doing so, he was able to draw on a large following, many of whom were Tzadikim and people of stature. Moshe Rabeinu’s response was not to counter the mutiny head-on but rather to challenge Korach and his followers. Moshe Rabeinu proposed to Korach and his assembly that they all offer Ketores (bring an incense offering). He then told them, In essence, “we’ll see whose offering Hashem is willing to accept, and whose offering Hashem doesn’t accept”.

Moshe Rabeinu at first appeared bold and ready to prove his and his brother’s credentials. He then, however, seemed to waver, with what looks like a note of desperation creeping in. Moshe Rabeinu is described in the text as pleading and begging of Hashem not to accept the Karbonos. Was Moshe Rabeinu not sure of what the results would be? Did Moshe Rabeinu have doubts that he and Aharon were to be the leaders of Am-Yisroel?

In the final hour, as the Ketores ’test’ was about to take place Moshe Rabeinu tells Korach and his assembly that the real proof as to whom Hashem has assigned to lead Klal-Yisroel isn’t whether Hashem accepts the Ketores or not. Moshe Rabeinu explains the test will be whether those who offer the Ketores and aren’t deemed the “correct” people then die a supernatural death. In other words, should they then die an ordinary, normal death, there would be no proof of anything.

Why was it necessary for them to die a supernatural death in order to prove that Moshe Rabeinu was right? Why did that death have to be supernatural? Why could it not be natural?

In last week’s Sedra after the Meraglim talked slanderously about Eretz-Yisroel, Kalev took a leadership role in quieting the Nation, and began to convince Klal-Yisroel that they could capture Eretz-Yisroel. Yehoshua on the other hand, although he didn’t fall into the ill doings of the Meraglim, didn’t take up the lead (See K’sav Sofer). While Kalev seemed to be the more natural leader, it is Yehoshua who ends up assuming leadership upon Moshe Rabeinu’s passing. Likewise, when Hashem chose Moshe Rabeinu over Aharon HaCohen to lead Klal-Yisroel, Hashem seemed not to make the natural choice. Aharon HaCohen was well liked, while Moshe Rabeinu had a lisp and was already somewhat disliked by some (i.e. Dassan and Avirom who reported him to Paroh).

Korach was a talented individual. He was able to inspire an uprising against the most powerful leadership team. Moshe and Aharon together had led Klal-Yisroel through the thick and thin. They were the emissaries of many of Hashem’s wonders performed for Klal-Yisroel in Mitzraim and in the Midbar. Nonetheless Korach managed to stir the masses against Moshe and Aharon. In any regular society in all likelihood Korach would have succeeded in becoming the leader. It was for this reason that a supernatural death was necessary. Moshe Rabeinu knew that in order to break the following of Korach something supernatural was necessary.

In Judaism leadership isn’t merely based on leadership qualities or popularity. Rather, true leadership is based largely on actual Tzidkus and Chochmas HaTorah.

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This week’s Sedra opens very dramatically. The Torah tells the story of Korach’s infamous uprising against Moshe. Korach and his assembly challenge Moshe Rabeinu’s Divinely given power to govern Am-Yisroel. Korach asks Moshe Rabeinu rhetorically: since the entire nation is holy, what gave Moshe Rabeinu the right to place himself above them as their leader?

Moshe Rabeinu answers Korach’s challenge by offering a duel of a sort. Moshe Rabeinu tells Korach and his following that they (each one individually) and Aharon should all present an incense offering to Hashem and whoever’s Korban is accepted by Hashem he is the one Hashem has sanctified to be the High Priest. Moshe Rabeinu ends off with his famous words “Rav Lachem Bnei Levi”, an expression generally interpreted as his telling them that they have gone too far. Chazal understand Moshe Rabeinu’s formulation – that the ONE whose Korban is accepted is the one chosen by Hashem – as indicating that only one person would survive the test. This leaves us with the obvious question: why does the selection of only one person as the leader mean that all the other challengers will die?

The source for this Chazal is a Midrash Tanchuma. Rashi, however, uses this Midrash Tanchuma in another context – to explain what Moshe Rabeinu was communicating by telling them רב לכם בני לוי. Rashi asks (and these words appear in the Midrash as well): if Korach was such a wise a man [a Torah Scholar] how could he make such a big mistake by challenging Moshe and Aharon? The Midrash continues by answering that he messed up because of how he interpreted a prophecy. Korach saw that Shmuel Hanavi was going to descend from him. Thus Korach concluded that if Shmuel Hanavi was going to come from him it must be that he deserves to be the leader. Rashi adds in that Korach felt he shouldn’t pass up taking the position of Cohen Gadol for himself. The Midrash explains that Korach didn’t realize that he would die, that his children would be Chozer Betshuva, and that Shmuel would descend from his son.

Perhaps Rashi understood the Midrash differently. Rashi understood that whoever was challenging Moshe and Aharon would, if not selected as new leader, in fact be Mored Bemalchus (rebelling against legitimate authority) and thus deserving to die (see previous Rashi). This whole story with Shmuel was why Korach made the initial mistake of starting up with Moshe and Aharon. Korach saw unbelievable greatness coming out from him – he saw Shmuel Hanavi. Korach thus viewed himself as indispensable. Moshe Rabeinu commented on this point when he said רב לכם. He was in effect telling them ‘you are placing too much importance on yourselves by viewing yourselves as indispensable’. Korach’s mistake was to think it was necessary for him to exist and that he deserved to exist because Shmuel would come from him. In truth it was sufficient for his sons to do Teshuva in order for Shmuel Hanavi to come into existence.

There are many lessons we must learn from Korach’s uprising, but one very important lesson is that we should never feel we are irreplaceable.

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This week’s Haftorah is read from Shmuel. Shmuel Hanavi rebuked Am-Yisroel for wanting to be like the other nations and have a king of flesh and blood. In the midst of his rebuke of Am-Yisroel, Shmuel Hanavi asks Klal-Yisroel a rhetorical question: “did I take anything from anyone of you?” Klal-Yisroel answers in total unison that Shmuel Hanavi had never taken anything from anyone. This proclamation of Shmuel that he never took anything from Am-Yisroel mirrors closely Moshe Rabeinu’s proclamation to the same effect in our Sedra. What particular significance is there to such a proclamation that two of Klal-Yisroel’s greatest leaders used it in a time of rebellion? Furthermore, why did merely not stealing make them great?

Uprisings against existing governments have occurred throughout history. Just the past few years have provided abundant illustrations.   Every time a rebellion is launched there needs to be some sort of ‘trigger’. The overthrow of leaders is hardly, if ever, accomplished without an excuse or justification as to how ‘the people’ are being abused and wronged by the current ruler. It is usually much harder to throw off someone on the grounds that he is just is not a great leader rather than because he abuses the rights of people. Furthermore, if someone somehow assumes leadership without having been formally and officially invested with a specific title or rank, impeaching or removing him becomes more complicated since he doesn’t hold a position to be removed from.

Moshe Rabeinu and Shmuel Hanavi certainly never stole. As such it would stand to reason that their disclaimers were coming to express that they never received any form of salary from Am-Yisroel for their “post” as “supreme leader”. Every leader, be he President, Prime Minister or Monarch, is entitled to receiving financial and other compensation from the community. Moshe Rabeinu and Shmuel Hanavi didn’t.

Perhaps this is what both Moshe Rabeinu and Shmuel wished to express. They were exclaiming that while Am-Yisroel perceived them as Supreme Leaders, they could not be removed from any position because they didn’t hold any. They became leaders because they ended up leading Am-Yisroel.

Being great isn’t defined by a position one gets. It is rather something one becomes.