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Who Was Korach?

Who Was Korach?

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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 other.

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 attainable.

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, was completed.

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 following metaphor:

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 heavens.

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 homogenizing.

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 kehunah, the "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 spiritual pursuits.

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 "choicest" 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?

"Lowly" Defined

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 and world.

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.

False Peace

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.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Discussion (9)
December 9, 2013
Cool, but...
Rabbi Freeman, as usual, I enjoyed your article, but I have a question which I would very much appreciate if you addressed and that is:

You write "It is okay to be different, to cherish your identity, even to die for it—because in truth that is all you have", I totally agree with that great line, but why does my heritage *define* my identity? Maybe what I feel is my identity?

Why shouldn't I act upon that? Why should I curtail that?
Josh
NJ
June 5, 2013
Korach
Thank you. Thanks to your insight I have a much better understanding of Korach. You laid it out in black and white with good background and I finally got it. Thanks
Anonymous
Metairie
June 21, 2012
Korach
Thank you for this. At the heart of every G-d fearing man is a yearning to know more and more.
Such articles are precious finds in a noisy desert world we live in now - precious words of sense and reasoning. Shalom.
Mr. Rex Wilkie
June 17, 2012
The World to Come
Korach would have made a great socialist or communist wanting equality for all and then being a leader of this failed state (ex: USSR). But this philosophy (not Korach) will ultimatly prevail in times of the World to Come, for then the "lower" and the "higher" shall be one.
Anonymous
Palo Alto, CA
August 24, 2011
Double Wow
Since I am a Korach I thank you for this piece and putting it in a concise package.
Ann korach
Chicago, IL
June 24, 2011
Korach essay
It seems that your point--"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"- is beautiful in theory, it doesn't seem play out in practice. The asssumption that there is an absolute truth (one common goal) seems to be the very cause of violence between people, each of whom claim to have the correct interpretation of the truth. It seems that there is far less violence when parallel lives allow for each to experience truth without impinging on each other, without trying to coerce another. Yes it may not fit the Jewish model of meaning, but that meaning itself is subjective. Can you comment on this, as it relates to Shalom?
Mike
Berkeley, CA
December 1, 2009
Is there really a flaw in Korach's argument?
You indicate that the flaw in Korach's argument was that egalitarianism according to him would leave very little connection to bind our people if it were completely taken to heart. But is not our history, our culture, our practices, and our personal (and communal) desires to grow spiritually and find meaning enough of a connection? Is there really any flaw at all in Korach? To me, in addition to saying we should not create a caste system amongst our people, he also was showing by example that we should always question authority, even a great prophet like Moses. Do you agree with that, and do you think he should get at least some credit for the social action that seems to be in our collective DNA?
Gregg Baker
US
June 25, 2008
wow
Thank you so much! For years (no exageration) I have been confused by the story of Korach and what he really stood for. This is the first essay I have seen that explains all the pieces of the puzzle. Not only that, but now I see how the story truly contains a relevent message for personal growth! Thank you again!
Michael
CA
June 24, 2008
Essay
I have looked far and wide nearly all my life for books to read about everything Jewish, on this one site now I get all I want and more.
To read the works of famous Jewish Rabbis, may G-d bless them, is breath taking and a great honour for me.
Dharma
Adelaide, Australia
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