The Sin of Korach: Pride and Vanity
The verse that states, “Korach, son of Itzhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi took …” (Numbers 16:1) presents some difficulties. Why is it stated that he “took”, and not that he “assembled”, since in fact he assembled the community to make it rise up against Moses? If the verse wants to tell us, as Rashi explains in the name of the Sages (Sanhedrin 109b), that Korach separated himself from the community and thereby brokered a bad deal for himself, we still would have understood this if the word “assembled” had been used in the verse. For in assembling the community against Moses, Korach created a controversy that was not for the sake of Heaven (Perkei Avoth 5:17) and thus took himself out of the community of Israel to contest the allocation of the priesthood.
It must also be understood how Korach dared to contest the authority of Moses, even though he had seen all the miracles in Egypt and in the desert. We should, as well, explain the connection between Parsha Shelach and Parsha Korach, as well as, more specifically, the connection between the passage concerning tzitzit (at the end of Parsha Shelach) and Parsha Korach that immediately follows it.
To see this more clearly, let us begin by citing a well-know passage: “At the moment that the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give the Torah, all the mountains battled among themselves, each one saying, ‘It is upon me that G-d will give the Torah,’ while Mount Sinai humbled itself and said, ‘What am I that G-d should give the Torah upon me?’” (Sotah 5a). And it was precisely because of its humility that the Torah was given upon Mount Sinai, for the Torah is acquired through humility (Perkei Avoth 6:5), as well as by a broken heart, a modest manner, and the sense of being as completely barren as the desert (Pesikta Zutah Terumah 25:16). Moses possessed such humility, as it is said, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” (Perkei Avoth 1:1), for it is from the mountain that he took this attribute.
One may add that the Torah itself alludes to this idea in the verse that states, “and they stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17), for the Children of Israel reasoned, a fortiori, that if Mount Sinai, which has neither spirit nor soul, merited by its humbling itself to be sanctified and to become for several days the place of G-d’s abode, how much more so should the Children of Israel – which have both spirit and soul, and who constitute a permanent dwelling place for G-d (as it is written, “they shall make a Sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among them” [Exodus 25:8]) – humble themselves more than the mountain if they want to receive the Torah. And it is in this way that it will continue to live in them. This is what “and they stood at the bottom of the mountain” means: They were lower and more humble than it.
Concerning this subject, I have seen in the book entitled Minhat Yehudah VeYerushalayim that the Torah is not allowed to dwell among one who is not humble and modest, as was Moses, whom the Torah attests “was exceedingly humble” (Numbers 12:3). The Sages have affirmed this several times: “The Torah can only abide among one who is imbued with humility” (Derech Eretz Zutah 8), and again: “The Torah is not found among the proud” (Tanhuma Ki Tavo 3). Above all, it is said, “The Torah is compared to water, as it is written, ‘Everyone who is thirsty, go to the water’ [Isaiah 55:1]” (Bava Kama 17a). “Why is the Torah compared to water? In the same way that water flows towards lower ground, the words of Torah abide only with those of humble spirit” (Taanith 7a). It seems to me that they cite the verse in Isaiah that states, “go to the water” because all men should go in the same direction as water, which is to leave that which is high and to go towards that which is low, and to learn Torah only in a spirit of humility.
From this point, we may return to our subject, for the questions that we have asked at the outset can now be completely and satisfactorily answered.
Why did we receive the command that tzitzit should hang down, rather than point up? With regards to tzitzit, we know that because of them a man will remember all the mitzvot and the study of Torah, which leads him to action. As the Gemara states, sight brings about recollection, and recollection leads to action (Menachot 43b), just as it is written, “you shall see it and remember” (Numbers 15:39). This is why the tzitzit hang down. One must view them in a spirit of humility, and so one’s resulting action will also be marked by this spirit. Consequently, we see that the tzitzit teach man to serve G-d and to perform His mitzvot in a spirit of humility, without which a man would risk being entrapped by the desires of this material world. Therefore the Gemara states, “His tzitzit struck him in the face, saving him from sin” (see Menachot 44a).
If our views are correct with regards to this, we will be able to understand just what Korach and his supporters claimed. Korach believed that the if the Torah abides only with one who is humble, and if it is necessary for a person to behave modestly, how would it be possible to be king or High Priest all while remaining humble? After all, a king must conduct himself with all the honors due his position, as it is written, “Set over yourself a king” (Deuteronomy 17:15). To this the Gemara adds; “His fear should be upon you” (Ketubot 17a) and also, “A king who pardons a wrong done to his honor, it is not pardoned” (Kiddushin 32b). How could Moses therefore take this great position upon himself? This is why the Torah places the passage concerning the tzitzit next to Parsha Korach, for Korach believed that the tzitzit represented humility, which seemed to him to be incompatible with the behavior required of a king.
Yet Korach contradicted himself, for he wanted to be High Priest instead of Aaron. How was it possible, on one hand, for Korach to reprimand Moses and Aaron for their lack of humility, and on the other to claim honors for himself? In fact, the Torah rejects Korach’s assertions, for it attests to the fact that “the man Moses was exceedingly humble” (Numbers 12:3). He was king and conducted himself in a dignified manner, yet nevertheless with perfect humility.
It is not by chance, either, that Parsha Shelach is found next to Parsha Korach. The Midrash says that the sin of the spies was to not have drawn a lesson from the punishment of Miriam, who had spoken against Moses, even though he had kept quiet. Now Korach himself didn’t draw a lesson from the severity of the punishment against the spies (for having spoken badly against Eretz Israel), nor from the incident involving Miriam. Without having learned anything from all this, he said to Moses and Aaron, “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the L-RD?”(Numbers 16:3), meaning that Korach accused them of not being humble and therefore not worthy of teaching Torah to the Children of Israel, for only those things which come from a modest heart enter into the heart of the listener. True, Korach knew perfectly well that the Eternal spoke face to face with Moses, however pride and jealously made Korach transgress, and he assembled the community against Moses and Aaron. In fact, it is written, “Jealousy, desire, and honor-seeking drive a man from the world” (Perkei Avoth 4:21). Their dissension continued to the point that they still protested even when G-d descended into the Tent of Meeting, as it is written, “Dathan and Abiram came out standing at the door of their tents” (Numbers 16: 27). Instead of asking forgiveness and repenting, they continued to contest the authority of Moses and Aaron.
We see from this just how serious controversy is, for a man that takes pleasure in it (all while knowing that his arguments are not valid) ends up by justifying himself in his own eyes, thus bringing disaster upon himself and his family. This is precisely what is meant by a controversy that is “not for the sake of Heaven” (Perkei Avoth 5:17). Korach contradicted himself, and from here we note that “whoever pursues honor, honor flees from him” (Tanhuma Vayikra 3). This is what Rashi meant when he wrote, “He took himself to a different side, to be disassociated from the community and to cast aspersion on the priesthood,” for his words were not true enough to be satisfactory, and he was therefore not able to assemble the community against Moses and Aaron except through means of deception.
Yet in reality, one also finds the following declaration of the Sages: In the future, the third Temple will be built by Messiah the king, and Korach will be the priest, for his controversy dealt with the desire to be G-d’s priest (see Shir Hashirim Rabba 7:10). This seems to indicate that his actions contained some aspect of selflessness. Yet if so, why was he punished? It is because he had the ability to stop the controversy yet did not do so. He did nothing to avert the disaster that came upon himself and his family, and he continued to fight for the priesthood with all his strength. Now we know that G-d pays special attention to give to every righteous person his reward (Perkei Avoth 2:16). This is why He will give the priesthood to Korach in the future, notwithstanding that his sons said, “Moses is truth and his Torah is truth” (Bava Batra 74a). Korach, therefore, will receive his reward in order to show that, in reality, Moses is truth and his Torah is truth, and that Moses was truly a humble man and that there is no reason to oppose the leader of the generation.