A study of the biblical account of Korach's rebellion against Moses, and of
the numerous Midrashim and Commentaries describing Korach's personality and
actions, yields a complex, even contradictory picture. Korach was no ordinary
rabble-rouser. He was a leading member of
Kehatites, the most prestigious of the Levite families. Joining him in his
mutiny against Moses and Aaron were "two hundred and fifty men of Israel,
leaders of the community, of those regularly called to assembly, men of
renown." Korach's difference with Moses was an ideological one, driven by
the way in which he understood Israel's relationship with G‑d and by the manner
in which he felt the nation ought to be structured.
Yet Korach is regarded as the father of all quarrelers:
his very name is synonymous with disharmony and conflict. The Talmud goes so far
as to proclaim: "Anyone who engages in divisiveness transgresses a divine
prohibition, as it is written: 'And he shall not be as Korach and his
company.'" But if there is more to Korach -- the person and the idea -- than a
jealousy-drive power struggle, why does every petty squabbler fall under the umbrella of
"Don't be like Korach"?
Obviously, there is something at the heart of
Korach's contentions that is the essence of all disunity.
The particulars of Korach's campaign also require explanation. What exactly
did Korach want? His arguments against Moses and Aaron seem fraught with
contradiction. On the one hand, he seems to challenge the very institution of
the kehunah ("priesthood"), declaiming to Moses and Aaron:
"The entire community is holy, and G‑d is within them; why do you raise
yourselves over the congregation of G‑d?"
(Moses had divided the people of Israel into several classes of holiness: "ordinary"
Israelites, Levites, Kohanim ("priests") and, at the pinnacle of this
pyramid, the Kohen Gadol ("High Priest"). The Israelites -- the
farmers, merchants, craftsmen, soldiers and statesmen of Israel -- were to
pursue the "normal" existence of physical man -- a life and vocation that
involve the bulk of a person's time and talents in the material world. The
tribe of Levi, however, was "distinguished by the G‑d of Israel from the
community of Israel, to be brought closer to Him," to serve as spiritual
leaders and priests, "instructing Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel;
placing incense in Your nostrils and burnt offerings upon Your altar" (Numbers
16:9; Deuteronomy 33:10). Within the tribe of Levi itself, Aaron and his
descendants were consecrated as "Kohanim" and entrusted with the
primary role in serving G‑d in the Sanctuary. Aaron himself was appointed Kohen
Gadol, "the greatest of his brethren" in this hierarchy of holiness.
Korach seems to be objecting to this spiritual elitism.)
But from Moses' response ("Is it not enough for you that the G‑d of
Israel has distinguished you from the community of Israel... that you also
desire the priesthood?") we see that Korach actually desired the office of
the Kohen Gadol for himself!
This paradox appears time and again in various accounts of Korach's mutiny in
the Midrashim and the commentaries. Korach comes across a champion of equality,
railing against a "class system" that categorizes levels of holiness
within the community. Yet, in the same breath, he contends that he is the
more worthy candidate for the High Priesthood.
In a number of talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe analyzes the arguments, motives
and spiritual profile of Korach and his compatriots. If Korach is the essence of
divisiveness, says the Rebbe, then an understanding of the dynamics of conflict
and harmony will explain Korach's challenge to Moses. Conversely, an
understanding of the subtleties of Korach's argument will shed light on the very
fine line separating divisiveness from true peace. For although divisiveness and
peace look very different from each other in their full-blown, actual states, in
their essence and origins they are amazingly similar. In fact, they are very
nearly indistinguishable from each other.
What is peace?
Our Sages have said: "Just as their faces are not alike, so, too, their
minds and characters are not alike." Such is the nature of the human race:
individuals and peoples differ from each other in outlook, personality, talents,
and the many other distinctions, great and small, which set them apart from each
It is only natural to expect these differences to give rise to animosity and
conflict. And yet, at the core of the human soul is the yearning for peace. We
intuitively sense that despite the tremendous (and apparently inherent)
differences between us, a state of universal harmony is both desirable and
But what exactly is peace? Is peace the obliteration of the
differences between individuals and nations? Is it the creation of a
"separate but equal" society in which differences are preserved but
without any distinctions of "superior" and "inferior"? Or is
it neither of the above?
The "Firmament": Separation of Spirit and Matter
In the Torah's account of G‑d's six-day creation of the world, each day's
work concludes with the statement: "And G‑d saw what He had created, and
behold, it was good." Each day, that is, except for the second day, which is
the day that "G‑d made the firmament [i.e., the "heavens"], and
divided between the waters which are below the firmament and the waters which
are above the firmament."
Explains the Midrash: "Why does it not say 'it was good' on the second
day? Because on that day divisiveness was created; as it is written, 'it shall
divide between water and water.'" However, the Midrash then goes on to
point out that on the third day the phrase "it was good" appears
twice, because then "the work of the waters," begun on the second day,
In other words, the division effected on the second day was a less than
desirable phenomenon, but only because it was not yet complete. On the third
day, when the "work of the waters" was completed (involving even
further division of the lower waters' domain into "dry land" and
"seas") this divisiveness itself is deemed "good".
Our sages tell us that G‑d's six days of creation correspond to the six
millennia of human endeavor that follow. Therein lies the significance of the
Midrash's words: in the third millennium of the world's existence, the element
that resolves the conflicts created by diversity was introduced into our lives.
This is the Torah, revealed to us at Sinai in the year 2448 from creation.
Indeed, the Talmud states that "The Torah was given to make peace in the
world." The Midrash expresses the peacemaking quality of Torah with the
Once there was a king who decreed:
"The people of Rome are forbidden to
descend to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to ascend to Rome."
Likewise, when G‑d created the world He decreed and said: "The heavens are
G‑d's, and the earth is given to man." But when He wished to give the Torah
to Israel, He rescinded His original gezeirah ("schism" and
"decree"), and declared: "The lower realms may ascend to the
higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms."
The schism and decree to separate the heavenly from the earthly, effected by
G‑d's "division of the waters" on the second day of creation, was thus
alleviated on the third "day" of history with the revelation at Sinai.
No longer were the material and the spiritual two irreconcilable realms. The
heavens descended to earth, and the earth was empowered to ascend to the
But the Torah did not come to blur the distinction between the heaven and
earth. In fact, its self-proclaimed task is "To differentiate between the
holy and the mundane, between the pure and the impure" (Leviticus 10:10).
Nor does Torah endeavor to create a uniform world society: its detailed laws
delineate the many different roles (man and woman, Jew and non-Jew, Israelite,
Levite and Kohen, full-time Torah scholar and layman, etc.) to comprise the
overall mission of humanity.
Indeed, a uniform world could no more represent a harmonious state
than a single-hued painting or a symphony composed entirely of identical notes
could be said to be a harmonious creation. Like the third day's
"work of the waters" that harmonizes the divisiveness of the second
day by means of further delineation, the Torah makes peace in the world -- peace
between the conflicting drives within the heart of man, peace between
individuals, peace between peoples, and peace between the creation and its
Creator -- by defining and differentiating, rather than by blending and
This is why, explain the Chassidic masters, the Torah is associated with the
third day and the third millennium. The number "1", connoting a single
entity or collection of identical entities, can spell unanimity but not peace.
If "1" represents singularity and "2" represents
divisiveness, then "3" expresses the concept of peace: the existence
of two different or even polar entities, but with the addition of a third,
unifying element that embraces and pervades them both, bringing them in harmony
with each other by defining their common essence and goal, but also their
respective roles in the actualization of this essence and the attainment of this
goal -- and thus their relationship with each other.
So the "third day" does not undo the divisions of the second.
Rather, it introduces a "third" all-transcendent element which these
divisions serve. And it is this dynamic of harmony by diversity that
"completes" their differences and renders them "good."
Back To Korach
In light of this, Korach felt, how can we speak of "higher" and
"lower" roles in G‑d's world? How can one say that the Kohen Gadol
is loftier than the common laborer? True, the Kohen Gadol's life is
wholly devoted to spiritual pursuits while "ordinary" Israelites must
contend with the mundanity of the marketplace. But "within them is
G‑d" -- they serve the divine purpose no less in the fulfillment of their
role than does the Kohen Gadol in the fulfillment of his.
Korach was not opposed to a division of roles within the community, nor to
the distinction between spiritual and material. On the contrary, he himself
yearned for the spiritual path of the High Priesthood, to serve G‑d utterly free
from worldly affairs. What he did contest was the way in which Moses
defined this division of roles.
"Why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G‑d?" he
argued. Why this "ladder" of spirituality, on which the Moseses and
Aarons of the generation occupy a higher rung than the farmer who works
his land or the merchant engrossed in his accounts? Why is the
"ordinary" Jew told to regard Aaron as the one who represents him in
the Sanctuary and who facilitates his relationship with G‑d? Is G‑d closer to
heaven than to earth? Is serving Him by transcending the material a more
important part of humanity's mission than utilizing the material existence to
fulfill His will?
Give me the High Priesthood, said Korach, and I will eliminate the
connotations of "leadership" and "superiority" that Moses
and Aaron have given it. To me, the most spiritual and the most material of
lifestyles, and all gradations between, are all distinct but parallel paths in
our endeavor to serve the Almighty.
Korach and the Spies
Korach's challenge to Moses' and Aaron's leadership followed another
tragic mutiny among the Jewish people, that of the Spies, of which we read in
last week's Parshah.
Ten of the twelve tribal leaders sent to scout the land of Canaan returned to
dissuade the people from their mission of conquering the land. Here in the
desert -- they argued -- sustained by manna from heaven and shielded from a
corporeal and hostile world by the heavenly "clouds of glory," our souls are
free to pursue the divine wisdom in Torah and soar in meditative
attachment to G‑d; there, in the Land, we shall be subject to the political and
economic mundanities intrinsic to an earth-bound existence. "It is a land that
consumes its inhabitants," they warned the people, reminding them that many a
spiritual giant had been corrupted when exposed to the enmeshments of material
life. So why abandon our spiritual idyll for a life of subsisting off the land?
The Spies erred in confining their relationship with G‑d to the realm of the
spirit, rejecting, in effect, the purpose of the Exodus and the very essence of
Israel's mission: to conquer and settle the land of Canaan as the "Holy Land"
-- to realize the land's potential for holiness and sanctity. Korach
took the lesson of the Spies' error to the other extreme, contesting the very
distinction of spiritual life as something loftier and more desirable than
material life. The Spies spurned the mundane; Korach and his followers denied
that there was anything mundane about the mundane.
The Uplifted Part
This also explains Korach's particular aversion towards the mattanot
"gifts to the Kohanim,"
instituted by Moses. The giving of the matanot kehunah was commanded by G‑d, but Korach argued that Moses had misinterpreted their function and significance.
Why was the Jew commanded to "separate" and "uplift" a
portion of his crop, the "first shearings" of his flock, and other
"gifts"? On the practical level, Kohanim and Levites need to eat. The
tribe of Levi was to be given no allotment in the Land of Israel, since "G‑d
is their lot" and the perfection of the spirit their vocation. Their material
needs would therefore need to be provided by their brethren, in whose stead they
serve in the Holy Temple and whose lives they supply with the spiritual
dimension of Israel's mission. On a deeper level, the matanot kehunah
represent the resources that each and every individual reserves for the "Kohen"
within himself -- the time, energy and possessions he allocates for his own
Here, again, Korach did not object to the matanot kehunah per se. But
why do we speak of these gifts as things "uplifted" (terumah)
to G‑d? Korach refused to accept the notion that the bushel of grain that the
Israelite farmer reserves for the Kohen, or the daily hour or two he devotes for
study and prayer, are somehow loftier and "holier" (i.e., closer to G‑d)
than the rest of his harvest or day. Yes, agreed Korach, the materially-involved
individual ought to designate a certain portion of his life and wealth for
matters of the spirit. But to see these as the
elements of his life? As the ultimate objective of everything he does? Why, demanded Korach of Moses
and Aaron, do you insist on defining it as the apex of our communal and
individual endeavors? The entire community is holy, and G‑d is amongst them and
in their every positive effort. Why do you raise yourselves, and the
spiritual ideal that you -- and, indeed, I myself -- represent, above the
congregation of G‑d?
Korach was right: our involvement with the material can be no less G‑dly an
endeavor than the most transcendent flights of spirit. Indeed, our sages
consider man's sanctification of material life the ultimate objective of
creation. "G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms," states the Midrash;
"This," writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, "is what
man is all about; [this is] the purpose of his creation, and the creation of all
worlds, supernal and terrestrial." But Korach erred in his understanding of
the nature of this "dwelling in the lowly realms" that G‑d desires, and the
manner in which man can indeed fashion a divine home out of his material self
But first we must understand why it is that the material is regarded as "lower"
than the spiritual. Should not the focus and objective of G‑d's creation be
considered its loftiest element? And yet, in the very sentence in which the
Midrash states that the Creator's desire lies specifically in the physical
existence, it refers to it as "the lowly realms"!
The Chassidic masters explain: The cardinal law of existence is, "There is none else besides Him"
(Deuteronomy 4:35). G‑d is infinite and all-pervading; any other existence or
reality we may identify -- the objects and forces of the physical universe, the
axiomatic truths we contemplate, the "I" of our identities -- are not
existences "besides Him" but expressions of His all-embracing reality.
This is why the physical reality is the "lowest" element of G‑d's
creation. The more "existence" a thing possesses, the more presence it
presumes and exudes, the greater a distortion it is of the divine truth. While
spiritual realities also possess definition and existence, these are far more
ethereal than the brute tangibility of the physical. More importantly, the
spiritual entity is of a "selfless" nature, always expressing and serving a
reality greater than itself, while physical matter manifests only the "I am"
of its tactual being. An idea or an emotion is always about something else; a
stone or tree is ostensibly about itself. A person praying or studying is
demonstrably relating to a higher truth; a person dealing or eating is
demonstrably affirming his individual being.
To again quote the Tanya, of all the "worlds" and realities
created by the Almighty, the physical reality is "the lowest in degree, of
which there is none lower -- 'lowest' in the sense that it most conceals His
manifest reality. It is a world of doubled and redoubled darkness, so much so
that it even contains 'evil' -- elements which oppose the reality of G‑d,
declaring: 'I am the ultimate.'"
Nevertheless -- indeed, because of this -- the "lowly realm" of the
material world is where G‑d's purpose in creation is realized. For G‑d desired
more than the spiritual's natural affirmation of His truth. He desired that
the physical world, whose nature is inhospitable -- indeed contrary -- to the
divine truth, be made to "house" Him, to serve and express His
all-transcendent, all-pervading reality.
We achieve this by living a material life, but doing so in the service of a
higher, spiritual goal. When a person spends ninety percent of his life earning
a living, eating, sleeping, recreating and otherwise attending to his physical and material
needs, yet does so in a way that demonstrates that all this is only to enable
the ten percent he devotes to prayer, study, charity and other G‑dly endeavors,
he or she is transforming the very nature of the physical. The "I exist" of
the physical, which so blatantly belies the divine truth, has now become partner
to the reality that "There is none else besides Him." It has acknowledged
its subservience to that which is greater than itself.
In other words, as long as the material is not made to express its
subservience to the spiritual, it remains the element of creation that is "furthest"
from its divine source. Yet when the "inferiority" of the material is made
manifest, when the materially-involved individual orders his priorities so that
his every material act is for the sake of the Kohen and the Kohen within
himself, then the "lowliest realm" of creation becomes its G‑dliest -- its
greatest assertion of the divine truth.
If You Feel Inferior, You're Superior
This is where Korach's mistake lay. The different levels of spirituality
among the various segments of the people, and within each individual's life,
do take the form of a "hierarchy" -- a ladder on which the
materially-involved individual looks up to his more spiritual brother, and
regards his own spiritual moments as the loftiest part of his day. The farmer
regards the produce that he gives to the Kohen as the holiest part of his yield,
for it represents the spiritual focus of all his endeavors. The businessman
looks to the scholar as his ideal; he feels trapped and stifled by the demands
of his vocation and lives for those few precious moments which he manages to
devote to study.
This is not because those who fill the more spiritual roles occupy a more
important place in G‑d's world. On the contrary -- the "lowly realm" of
the material is the arena in which the divine purpose in creation is realized.
But the specialty of the materially-involved individual lies precisely in that
he deals with the lowest elements of creation (that is, those which least
express the reality of G‑d in any manifest way) and, recognizing their
lowliness, directs them towards the higher purpose of serving his spiritual
endeavors and spiritual brethren.
If we refer back to the Midrash's parable of the Romans and the Syrians, we
can see where Korach's vision departs from with the Torah's definition of peace.
The distinction between the two realms (the material and the spiritual) is
preserved, but there is movement and interrelation between them. And their
relationship is defined in terms of "higher" and "lower":
the heavenly descends to earth and the earthly ascends to heaven.
This is also why Korach's approach, ostensibly the very picture of harmony,
is actually the source of all divisiveness and discord.
Korach's vision seems the paragon of harmony: diverse elements unified by a
common goal. But while his "separate but equal" world may unite its
various components in that they all serve the same overall goal, it fails to
provide for any true connection between them. The paths may converge at the
destination, but they are separated by walls which isolate and divide them.
Without a reciprocal relationship between them, without any sense of where they
stand vis-a-vis each other, their separateness inevitably disintegrates into
factionalism and conflict.
By pointing to Korach as the father and prototype of divisiveness (machloket)
the Talmud is saying: This pseudo-peace, this "Parallelism" that says,
"I do my thing, you do yours, but it's all equally good, there's no
objective 'higher' and 'lower', so there's neither need nor responsibility of
one toward the other" -- this is the source of all conflict in our world.
Korach the Parshah
Interestingly enough, although Korach disavowed a "vertical"
relationship between matter and spirit, he himself was a prime example of it!
For Korach himself was not content with his divinely-ordained role as a Levite,
and desired the High Priesthood.
So in the final analysis, Korach own internal state constituted the ultimate
rebuttal of his argument against Moses and the ultimate refutation of his own
divisive "peace". His own desire for the High Priesthood, his yearning
upward for a rung on the "spiritual ladder" higher than his own (though he, himself,
would not have defined it as such), demonstrated the truth that, whatever a person's
place and role in life, his commitment to it must be coupled with the desire for
something higher. Korach's failing was twofold: that in regard to his own self,
he had the desire but lacked the commitment (a state analogous to being
"consumed by fire");
and in regard to what he was advocating, he saw only the commitment, and not the desire (a state analogous to being
"swallowed by the earth").
This explains why an entire section of Torah carries the name "Korach",
the name of an unrepentant sinner. For we are to derive the positive aspect of
Korach's deed -- his striving for an existence more spiritual than his own --
and apply it to our lives.