Korach and His Followers: A Controversy that was Not for the Sake of Heaven
The Sages say, “Which controversy was not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his followers” (Perkei Avoth 5:17). We should try to understand how it is possible that Korach and his followers were opposed to Moses and Aaron for selfish reasons, since they possessed Ruach Hakodesh (which is alluded to by the expression adat Korach [Korach’s assembly], where adat is composed of the same letters as da’at [knowledge]). How could they dare oppose Moses and Aaron other than for the sake of Heaven? For that matter, how could Korach – who was among those who carried the Ark in the desert (Bamidbar Rabba 18:2) – challenge Moses while knowing that G-d had chosen Moses over himself?
We shall attempt to explain all this. A controversy for the sake of Heaven means that the protesters are not in any way thinking about themselves or their own dignity. Rather, their only goal is to magnify G-d’s Name in this world by restoring things back in their rightful place, as was the case in the controversy between Shammai and Hillel, or between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages concerning an oven made of several parts (Bava Metzia 59b). A voice was then heard speaking from Heaven, and even though Rabbi Yehoshua replied that the Torah is not in Heaven and we do not rely on Heavenly voices to render Halachah (Eruvin 7a), G-d’s Name was truly sanctified in the whole world at that point because people saw that we must follow the opinion of the majority (Exodus 23:2). The evil inclination was then confounded, and G-d said: “My children have conquered Me” (Bava Metzia ibid.), which proves that His Name was glorified, sanctified, and magnified in this world.
Korach was opposed to all this. He looked for the reasons behind each mitzvah. The name Korach is composed of the same letters as choker (“one who searches”), and if he was not able to understand the reason for a mitzvah, he scorned and rejected it, believing that did not concern him. He did not consider the fact that according to the Sages, there are 248 limbs and 365 sinews in man that correspond to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah (Makot 23b). Korach, who did not understand the reason for Tzitzit, scorned this mitzvah and used a Tallit that was completely blue (Tanhuma, beginning of Korach). Now the mitzvah of Tzitzit carries as much importance as the other mitzvot combined (Nedarim 25a), for it leads a person to recall other mitzvot and carry them out (Numbers 15:39). By rejecting the mitzvah of Tzitzit, he rejected all mitzvot and felt proud of himself. He did not magnify G-d’s Name in this world, and he finished by instigating a controversy that was for selfish reasons.
This teaches us that even if a person does not understand the reasons for G-d’s mitzvot, he should still believe in them and not reject them. Korach was mistaken on this point. He rejected everything and became filled with pride, thereby falling from a lofty level to a deep pit (Hagigah 5b). He even suspected Moses of disloyalty to his wife, for the Satan succeeded in making him totally renounce everything. This is the meaning of the expression va’yikach Korach (“and Korach took”), for the word va’yikach is composed of the same letters as the expression vey chok (“woe because of the decree”). Woe to Korach, for he also scorned the decree of the red heifer (see Midrash Peliyah ch.7), whose reason – despite all the study that he put into it – has only been known by Moses. That was a mistake on his part, for King Solomon, who was the wisest of all men, said concerning the red heifer: “I said, ‘I will get wisdom,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23). King Solomon was never able to fathom the reasons for that particular mitzvah (Pesikta Rabbati 14:7), even though he is described as being “wiser than all men” (I Kings 5:11).
Korach, in having reached the point of scorning all mitzvot (including that of the red heifer), became filled with pride and declared to Moses and Aaron: “The entire assembly – all of them – are holy and the L-RD is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the L-RD?” (Numbers 16:3). In other words, “Don’t think that you know the secret of the red heifer, for I too am a great researcher and was not able to understand its meaning. It is therefore probable that you don’t understand it either, and it is simply because of your pride that you claim to know it.” It was in this way that Korach illustrates the teaching: “Whoever criticizes, he criticizes his own flaws” (Kiddushin 70a). Korach was really criticizing his own flaws, for in reality it was he who wanted to elevate himself and become the High Priest. It was certainly not G-d’s glory that he sought, but rather his own. This is what dragged him into a controversy that was for selfish reasons, bringing death and destruction upon himself and others. We find this idea alluded to in the word machloket (“controversy”), which is composed of the same letters as lakach mavet (“he took death”), for Korach took an evil part for himself (Bamidbar Rabba 18:2) and brought death upon himself and everyone that followed him.
By this we should understand that a person must increase G-d’s glory, not his own. Even if he is an intelligent person, he should use his wisdom as a means to glorify G-d, not as a way to scorn His mitzvot. This is what emerges from the mitzvah of Tzitzit, for it is said: “You shall look upon them and remember all the mitzvot of the L-RD” (Numbers 15:39). In addition, “You shall not follow after your heart and after your eyes”: A person must not trust in his own logic, for even King Solomon wanted to outsmart G-d’s mitzvot (Sanhedrin 21b), which prohibit a king from taking many wives and having numerous horses. The result was that Solomon’s downfall came about because he broke these very mitzvot. Hence a person has no reason to demonstrate that he is cunning. Rather, he has only to carry out the will of the Creator, without turning either to the right or to the left from His words and mitzvot.
This is truly impressive. What amazing lessons can be drawn from this parsha! In particular, it demonstrates how those who learn in yeshiva should conduct themselves: When they discuss the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, they should do so for the sake of Heaven, with their goal being to completely understand what is being said. They should not study with the goal of demonstrating that they themselves are correct, imagining as they do that they fully understand what the Rishonim and Acharonim have stated, which is a way of scorning their words. Whoever studies Torah must do so with humility and self-effacement (Taanith 7a), be it while debating with friends or while discussing with students (Perkei Avoth 6:6). A person should keep in mind that all the mitzvot written in the Torah apply to everyone, rich or poor, healthy or sick, and so on. If a person is convinced of this, he will not scorn any mitzvah, but instead will realize that they all emanate from G-d.
In the opposite case – if a person trusts in his own wisdom and wants to reject something in the Torah or some mitzvah – he harms his own body and soul. This is because the 613 mitzvot correspond to the 248 limbs and 365 sinews of the body (Makot 23b), and if he neglects one of them, he will finish by despising them all, for they are all connected. A person should therefore not try to show how smart he is, but instead should focus on carrying out G-d’s will with humility and self-effacement.
Along the same line of thought, the Sages have said, “When a man and a woman merit it, the Shechinah dwells among them. If not, a fire devours them” (Sotah 17a). Actually, we know that the word ish (man) contains the letter yud, and that the word isha (woman) contains the letter hei, and together they form the Name Y-H. However if we remove the letters of Hashem from the words ish and isha, we are left with the letters aleph and shin. These form aish (fire), the fire that devours them. Ish is the man who must study Torah (which is like fire – Tanhuma Yitro 12) in humility and self-effacement. At that point he will merit isha, the woman, which alludes to the Torah, and which connects him to the Holy One, blessed be He, for he only came into the world to increase G-d’s glory. If he does not merit it, the woman will be against him (see Yebamot 63a), for she follows him in his desires and his flaws. Thus when he seeks out his own honor rather than G-d’s glory, there is no Y-H between them, and the only thing that remains is ga’avah (pride), which has the same numerical value as Y-H. Now glory belongs to G-d, as it is written: “The L-RD has reigned; He has donned grandeur” (Psalms 93:1). Consequently, such a man damages the vestment of the Holy One, blessed be He.
The same thing is alluded to with Korach: Va’yikach Korach (“And Korach took”) – alluding to vey lakach – he took for himself ga’avah, which has the same numerical value as the Name Y-H. He also took honors, and together they have the same numerical value as the word vey. In seeking his own glory, he deceived both himself and others, and he fell into a deep pit. As for Moses – who in no way sought out honor and negated everything before G-d’s glory – concerning him it is stated: “Ve’haish [And the man] Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Moses is described with the word ish (man), whom the Shechinah abides with if he is deserving.
The same thing happens in our time, regardless of the community, when one Rabbi comes and opposes the Rav of a given community. If he comes and says, “I’m greater than you, which is why I’m more worthy than you to be the Rav here,” this is repulsive to G-d. Even if his intention is to bring honor to G-d, this is not the proper way to act, for if a Rabbi is the Rav of a community, he was certainly chosen for that position and pleases G-d. Why then should someone come to oppose him and take his position? This shows inner pride and self-satisfaction, and both of these are selfish reasons for a controversy. A person should be careful to do everything for the love of G-d, without scorning any Jew. How much more, therefore, should he not scorn any of the mitzvot, for everything comes from G-d. This must be understood, and I rejoice and thank G-d for having enabled me to explain it.