By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
June 23, 2001
KORACH, joined by Datan and Aviram and his 250 followers, challenge Moshe and Aharon:
It is too much for you, because the whole community is holy, and Hashem is in their midst; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of Hashem? (Bamidbar 16:3).
IN A WELL-KNOWN MIDRASH, Korach precipitates his rebellion against the authority of Moshe by challenging the
mitzvot. In the passage immediately preceding, we were taught:
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they make themselves a fringe (TZITZIT) on the corners of their garment throughout their generations, and they shall place on the fringe a thread of blue (Bamidbar 15:38).
THE MIDRASH (Tanchuma Korach 2) says that Korach questioned: "Does an entirely blue garment require this blue thread?" To which Moshe responded that it does. Korach disputed: "All the blue threads that make up the garment are insufficient, yet the four threads in the corners are?! Hashem could not have commanded this. You have made it up yourself." Then he asked regarding mezuzah, the mitzvah of placing two Torah sections (Devarim 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) on the door-post of the house. He asked "Does a house filled with Torah scrolls require a mezuzah? Again, Moshe responded affirmatively. "All the sections of all the Torah scrolls are insufficient, yet these two sections are?! Hashem did not command this. You have made it up yourself", Korach argued.
BY QUESTIONING THESE COMMANDMENTS, simultaneously Korach was able to threaten the authority of Moshe and to project himself as a leader concerned for the spirituality of the people and of the halachic system. But, why does he choose these specific commandments? What do they represent in his battle against Moshe?
KORACH AND HIS FOLLOWERS meet a horrible end:
And the earth (ADAMAH) that was beneath them was split open, and the earth opened its mouth, and it swallowed them and all their houses, and all the people (ADAM) that were with Korach and all the possessions. And they, and all that was theirs, descended alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them and they were lost from the midst of the congregation. . . . And a fire (ESH) went out from Hashem, and it consumed the 250 men (ISH) that offered the incense (Bamidbar 16:31-33, 35).
THE NEXT DAY, the Children of Israel are not calmed. They charge that Korach and his followers have died innocently, and Hashem sends a plague to ravage the people. Moshe tells Aharon to take an incense pan and fire (ESH), and to make atonement for the people. After doing this, and once the plague stops, Hashem commands the Children of Israel to take one staff for each of the twelve tribes and to write the name of the leader of the tribe on his staff; Aharon's name is inscribed on the staff of Levi. Then, the twelve staffs are placed in the Tent of Meeting overnight.
And it was on the next day that Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting, and behold the staff of Aharon for the house of Levi blossomed and brought forth budding (TZITZ), and produced almonds (17:23).
AHARON'S STAFF is shown to everyone, and then placed in the Tent of Meeting, to remain there permanently as a token reminder.
THE TRAGIC AFFAIR of Korach's rebellion is an ideological struggle in which images and symbols play an important role. Korach challenges the sanctity of the priesthood with the tzitzit, and it is proved with the tzitz, the buds blossoming from Aharon's staff (tzitz is also the name of the gold plate Aharon wears on his forehead as the Kohen Gadol). The rebels, who are described as adam and ish, are proved with esh, and they are destroyed with adamah and esh. But, of course, more than a play on words is involved here.
KORACH'S DECLARATION, "the whole community is holy" is his response to the central tenet of the Torah:
You shall be holy, because I, Hashem your G-d, am holy (Vayikra 19:2).
HOWEVER, RATHER THAN TAKING this as a command, Korach regards this as a description: the people's sanctity is intrinsic, like Hashem's. The people are symbolized by the wholly-blue garment and by the house filled with Torah scrolls. They are holy; they don't require sanctifying.
MOSHE, THE REPRESENTATIVE of true Torah values, teaches that the innate sanctity of the people must be translated into deeds: just like the blue thread and the mezuzah project beyond the boundaries of the garment or the house, so must their sanctity enter the world of action.
THE PIVOTAL ITEMS IN KORACH'S struggle symbolize the potential and the inchoate: the earth, fire, blossoms. These become the instruments of the revolt's undoing, because they point to a fundamental about mankind: potentials must be actualized.
R. YEHUDAH LOEW BEN BETZALEL, the Maharal of Prague (c. 1525-1609), explains (Exposition on the Torah, p. 9, and elsewhere) that the human being is called adam, associated with adamah (earth), because, unlike other creations, whose identities are fully realized when they emerge, man's potential perfection must be developed by him, over time, as a result of his own efforts. R. Shlomo Wolbe, shlita, in Planting and Building, describes the similarities between human development on the one hand, and both plants and houses on the other: the individual grows as a result of what is implanted within him, and is upraised by experience.
KORACH ARGUES that a wholly-blue garment is a fully-realized garment, that a house full of Torah scrolls is a completely achieved house, that the potential for sanctity should satisfy Hashem's demands. Moshe shows that Hashem has fashioned man to develop his potential, to demonstrate his ability, to construct and nurture it.
In the ways of the Torah, it is not sufficient to be holy "at heart"; the concealed holiness must sprout forth and sanctify the world through action.