This parashah is named after its central character, Korach, Moses’ first cousin. Not long after the events of the previous parashah, the episode of the spies and its aftermath, Korach led a rebellion against Moses’ leadership. This parashah is devoted entirely to narrating this rebellion and God’s reaction to it.

One of the curious aspects of this revolt is its timing. After all, Moses led the people out of Egypt over a year earlier. Certainly, if Korach and the other instigators of this mutiny had grievances against Moses there was ample time to voice them before this. Furthermore, God had just unquestionably endorsed Moses’ leadership by supporting him against the arguments of the spies and refusing to aid any attempt at conquering the land without Moses’ involvement. Now, of all times, would seem the least opportune to try to foment a rebellion against Moses.

In fact, however, it was not despite the events of the previous parashah that Korach chose to rebel now, but precisely because of them.

In essence, Korach disagreed with Moses’ and Aaron’s definition of the relationship between the layman and the priest, between the mundane and the holy aspects of creation. In Korach’s view, the man on the street who spends the majority of his day in the mundane activities of life is just as holy as the priest whose entire day is spent in the Holy Temple.

Korach noted God’s reaction to the spies’ desire to remain in the desert. In the desert, the Jews lived a purely spiritual lifestyle, protected by the clouds of glory and nourished by the manna and the well. The spies did not wish to enter “a land that consumes its inhabitants” with its earthly distractions. Moses then made it clear that it was God’s will that the Israelites should enter the land and make it holy. God wanted them to enter the mundane realities of a natural human existence even at the expense of losing the spiritual clarity and vision they enjoyed in the desert. To uplift the mundane was in fact the purpose of all of creation.

If so, argued Korach—and this is where he erred—why must the layman look up to the priest? Why must he look upon the portion of his produce that he sets aside for the priest as the apex of his labor? Why must he look upon the few hours during his day that he spends in priest-like activity—study and prayer—as the highlight of his day? Should they not be considered equal and separate activities, neither one better or holier than the other? If anything, the simple Jew and his consecrated mundane life are holier than the priest and his, since it is he that fulfills God’s purpose in creation.

The different roles of priest and layman, Korach insisted, are separate but equal. God desires them both, and who is to say that the priest’s role is any holier than the layman’s, that the layman needs spiritual nourishment from the priest?

Hence, Korach, who decried Aaron’s “raising himself” above the congregation, wanted to become high priest himself in order to set things right. He wanted to redefine the status of high priest as being only different than the rest of the people, not better. “All of the congregation is holy, God is within them—so why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” And furthermore, why must the congregation “raise” itself and yearn to be like you even while involved in their mundane activities?

To this Moses answered: “In the morning, God will make known....” True, when the layman fulfills God’s commandments in the most mundane aspects of life, he consummates God’s desire for creation, a desire that the lofty activities of the priest cannot achieve. But even though he is told to enter the land and work it, he is also told to keep his eyes on the priest, on transcendence, on the perceptibly holy moments of his day, so that his life will be filled with light like the “morning,” so that in performing God’s commandments he enhances his awareness of God in his heart and mind.

So, from the spies we learn that God’s goal for creation can only be realized when we enter the land, when Judaism is more than an intellectual or emotional affair and finds expressions in action. And from Korach we learn that the emphasis on deed should not translate into a dry and mechanical Judaism. Physical performance of the commandments energized by awareness and love of God shines with the light of morning.

After the rebellion had been quelled, God re-endorsed the distinction of the tribe of Levi and the priestly caste by summarizing the priests’ and Levites’ responsibilities toward the laymen and the laymen’s dues they must give the Levites and priests. Although the thematic connection between this ratification and Korach’s rebellion is clear, it still seems strange that it is placed in a parashah named after the person who challenged the justice of this distinction most vocally.

In light of what we have said, however, the inclusion of these marks of distinction under the title “Korach” is in fact appropriate. For all along, Korach yearned to be the high priest himself, to experience transcendence and the feeling of closeness to God. In this we must emulate Korach. Indeed, this is the central message of the parashah—to yearn for transcendence even while immersed in the mundane.1