Skip to content

Parashat Korach 5778 — 06/16/2018

Parashat Korach 5778 — 06/16/2018

Bamidbar 16:1-18:32

A couple of years ago we discussed R. Adin Steinsaltz’s analysis of Korach’s rebellion as an attack on the authenticity of Torah itself. Korach argued that Moshe Rabbeinu had made up (at least parts) of the Torah on his own, and that therefore it did not have any absolute validity. It is easy to see where this leads. If there is no absolute standard of right and wrong we are each of us thrust back on our own limited intellect to discern right action. Naturally, since we have divergent interests, conflict over values is sure to follow. This is anarchy and leads to a situation where the powerful are able to impose their will on the weak, as we have found in every society that men have created. In theory, by ordering our lives according to an absolute, Gd-given standard, we avoid these problems. The trouble is, as Jewish history has amply borne out, it is difficult to force ourselves to live by this high standard. The Jewish people constantly went astray “after their hearts and after their eyes” and the whole project collapsed in defeat, destruction and exile. Apparently something more than just a standard is needed. We need to be on a spiritual level where we can actually follow the standard. And since it appears that people are not born on that spiritual level, we need to have a set of techniques that will allow us to raise our spiritual level to a degree that correct action is not only possible, but it is natural and effortless.

Abarbanel, in the passages that R. Kasnett has selected, approaches the rebellion from a different angle. He analyzes Korach’s and his coterie’s claims against Moshe and Aharon, and identifies three separate claims:

First, Korach claimed that the office of the kohen gadol should have gone to him, not Aharon. Since the leadership went to Moshe, as the son of Levi’s firstborn, Amram [RAR: Amram and Yitzhar were the first two sons of Kehat, and grandsons of Levi], the office of kohen gadol should have gone to Korach, the son of Levi’s [Kehat’s] second born, Yitzhar.

The second dispute was between the firstborn from all the tribes and the tribe of Levi. At least some of them were angered by the fact that the privilege of serving in the Mishkan had been taken away from the firstborn and given to the tribe of Levi.

The third dispute involved the tribe of Reuven, as represented by Datan, Aviram and On, who claimed that the privilege of royalty should have gone to them as the offspring of Ya’akov’s firstborn [RAR: i.e. Reuven], and not to the tribe of Yehudah.

Now, according to the Torah, Gd assigned the leadership positions, presumably to those who were most worthy. What was it that made Moshe and Aharon worthy of leadership, and Korach and his followers unworthy? I think the answer, in brief, is that Moshe and Aharon had a high degree of self-awareness, while the others did not.

Self-awareness comes on many levels. On the surface level, it simply means knowing our strengths and weaknesses, and being able to work with our strengths and get help where we need it. That, of course, requires us to admit weakness and imperfection, and that, for some people, is very difficult to do. Consider what Korach and his 250 followers had witnessed. They saw that Aharon was able to function perfectly well as Kohen Gadol. They also saw that Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered incense in an inappropriate way, and were miraculously burned up. Now there are 251 people challenging Aharon for the one position of Kohen Gadol. So Moshe says, “Fine, we’ll have a little incense burning contest. Everybody bring their own incense tomorrow morning and whoever survives gets to be Kohen Gadol.” Each one had 251-to-1 odds of being dead on the morrow, yet every single one of them brought incense. Really?! What were they thinking?

The case of Datan and Aviram and On ben Pelet is also instructive. Datan and Aviram were troublemakers from before the Exodus. On ben Pelet is listed in the initial roster of conspirators, and then is not heard from again. The Midrash fills in the back-story. On’s wife, seeing that he is about to get into big trouble, asks him a simple question: “If Moses wins this confrontation, you’ll be under him. If Korach wins, you’ll be under him. What’s in it for you?”  On has to admit that his wife is right, and she concocts a plan to get him out of his commitment to his fellow conspirators. On ben Pelet didn’t have the self-awareness to see that he was in this whole controversy solely for personal gain. Fortunately for him, his wife was a wise woman and he had enough sense to listen to her.

There is a much deeper level of self-awareness that we need to consider. Human beings are souls, and our souls are, in essence, unbounded and eternal, “a portion of Divinity from on high.” As such, they are transcendental to all the activity of the world, including the body and mind, the thoughts and actions that we normally think of as our own. True self-awareness is identifying ourselves with our most fundamental nature, and thereby remaining detached from the hurly-burly of the material world. The world is ephemeral. We in our essential nature are eternal. Obviously, if we know ourselves to be immortal, what happens in the ephemeral world is of little consequence to us. Like a billionaire who is unaffected by small gains or losses in the marketplace, what happens in the material world is neither greatly elating nor causing great sorrow. Ironically, when we have risen to this state, we attain true humility, for what are riches and power, what is fleeting honor? It doesn’t belong to us anyway, as the Psalmist says: The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” When we are full inside ourselves, we have no need to arrogate to ourselves that which belongs to Gd. This is true self-awareness, and when we have it we live every moment in the Light of Gd.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Korach

Parshat Korach reminds us that what is important in life is to live in harmony with Gd, not to worry much about our status relative to other humans–“to love Gd with all our heart, all our soul, all our might” and to “love our neighbor as ourself.”

Korach, along with 250 other leaders of the Children of Israel challenges Moses right to lead, claiming that all of Israel is holy and Moses should not place himself above everyone. They did not love Gd with all their heart, soul and might otherwise they would have felt Gd’s leadership flowing through Moses. They did not love their neighbor as their selves otherwise they would have been happy for Moses to be such an open person that Gd could flow through him.

Korach and the others have forgotten that when the 10 Commandments were given out, all of the Children of Israel were frightened that they would die if they heard any more of Gd’s voice: they requested Him to give the rest of Torah to Moses — so they also placed Moses above them, more pure, more capable.

Moses pleads with them to be grateful for what they have been given but they do not listen.

Moses tells them to bring their fire pans (the pans through which they make offerings) and we will see whose offerings Gd accepts.

Gd tells Moses He will destroy the rebellious.

At the appointed time, Moses tells the people of Israel, to paraphrase. “We will see who Gd wishes to lead. If these people die a natural death, then they are right. If not, then Gd has appointed me to lead.”

The ground opens up and all of the 250 are swallowed alive.

Moses’s genuineness is confirmed.

We see a lot in Torah of complaining, sinning, Moses pleading for forgiveness for his neighbors, the Children of Israel. A lesson we can learn from Moses is to be open to Gd, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to plead with others to be open also, and to plead with Gd that he forgive those who lack openness.

In such ways, little by little, person by person, we help to create a world in which harmony, respect, friendliness, love, contentment, fulfillment exist.

In this world, Torah is experienced not just as words in a book but as the living eternal reality of the liveliness of Gd, of One. We function not just as our individual selves but as Totality functioning through all.

And this world is the Real World–achievable soon. Let’s continue creating it and request that Gd bring it NOW!

Love and Love and Love,

Baruch HaShem