Chapter 16

[1] Korach: The three Hebrew letters that spell Korach are similar to the letter hei, but each in a slightly different way. The hei (ה) is composed of three strokes: one to the right, another on top, and a shorter one to the left that is disconnected from the other two. In the first letter of Korach (kuf, ק), the left stroke is drawn further down, continuing past the bottom of the line. In the second letter (reish, ר), there is no stroke on the left at all. In the third letter (chet, ח), the left stroke is equal to the other two, leaving no space between it and the top stroke.

These three deviations from the letter hei in the name Korach are a reflection of his mistakes. As explained in the overview, Korach did not appreciate the proper balance and synthesis that is supposed to exist between the physical and the spiritual. This balance and synthesis is alluded to by the form of the hei; Korach’s distorted approach to this balance is reflected in the three distortions of the hei that make up his name.

We are taught that the three strokes of the hei allude to our three means of expression: the top stroke alludes to thought, the right stroke to speech, and the left stroke to action.1 In terms of our relationship with God, these three modes of expression are (1) thinking about the ideas of the Torah, (2) articulating them, and (3) actively performing the Torah’s commandments. The fact that the left stroke of the hei is present altogether alludes to the necessity of action; the fact that it does not descend below the line indicates that active involvement in the physical world must not extend into realms not mandated by the Torah; and the fact that it is disconnected from the other two strokes indicates that when we are engaged in action, we must realize we are thereby disconnected from the world of Torah study and must yearn to return to it.

The extended left stroke of the kuf, in contrast, expresses the sentiment that action has its own, independent merits, and can therefore venture into realms of life the Torah would define as off-limits. On the other hand, the absence of the left stroke in the reish expresses a disdain for action altogether. The connection of the left stroke to the other two in the chet expresses the feeling that involvement in the world of action does not adversely affect our consciousness, and that we therefore need not entertain any desire to refresh our inspiration with pauses for Torah study.

As stated above, Korach inferred from the incident of the spies—in which God affirmed that the purpose of creation is for us to make a home for Him in this world of physical action—that there is no intrinsic superiority of Torah study over the performance of the commandments, and that a person to whom Providence assigns the task of working in the world has no need to aspire to moments of “reconnection” to spirituality. This is reflected in the chet of his name.

Continuing this line of thought, he reasoned that since fulfilling God’s purpose by bringing Divine consciousness into the physical world has its own intrinsic value and need not be refreshed by purely spiritual moments, it follows that if we are involved in this mission, there are no limits to how much of our lives and what aspects of our lives we engage in this pursuit. This is reflected in the kuf of his name.

When Moses told him that this is not the case, that spiritual pursuits and the Divine consciousness they provide are superior to the performance of the commandments—because the renewed inspiration they provide ensure that we remain true to our ideals—Korach countered, “if so, then let there be no need for fulfilling the commandments altogether.” This is reflected in the reish of his name.

These three conclusions were expressed in the three arguments he presented to Moses:

  • Chet: “You take too much upon yourselves”—he argued against the exclusivity of the high priesthood, since he felt that the there is no need for a spiritual elite that affords the common man an opportunity to renew his inspiration.
  • Kuf: A robe dyed with blue dye (techelet) does not require tassels. The talit signifies the commandments, and the techelet signifies self-effacement in Divine consciousness. If a person’s performance of the commandments is already suffused with Divine consciousness, what need is there for time off to renew this Divine consciousness?
  • Reish: Korach also argued that a house full of Torah scrolls should be exempt from a mezuzah. If Torah study is superior and a person is full of Torah, what need is there of commandments?2

And On, the son of Pelet: Korach, besides being a member of one of the Jewish people’s most distinguished families, was also learned, wise, wealthy, and among the inner circle of Moses’ and Aaron’s closest confidants.

On, the son of Pelet, by contrast, was not at all exceptional. His appearance here is the only time he is mentioned in Jewish history. Both his intellectual capabilities and his lineage were quite ordinary.

Yet, both their fates took an unexpected turn, each leading to just the opposite of where logic would have predicted. Korach came to a bad end and dragged hundreds of other people down with him. On, on the other hand, was the only one of Korach’s entire assembly who was saved and emerged completely unscathed.

What was the difference? The behavior of their wives!

We are told in the Midrash3 that On’s wife attempted to dissuade him. “What are you getting involved for?” she asked. “What difference does it make to you? If Aaron is the high priest you will be a student, and if Korach becomes the high priest you will still be a student.” Since her arguments did not dissuade him, she gave him wine until he was drunk, and put him to bed. Then she sat, together with her daughter, at the opening of their tent with her hair uncovered. When Korach and his friends came to call On, they saw her and turned away, and so On was saved.

So On’s wife saved him and their entire family, albeit only in the final hours. Korach’s wife, on the other hand, encouraged him in his rebellion and thus led to the downfall of her husband and all of his followers.

This demonstrates the great responsibility of the wife and mother in every home. Her own destiny, her husband’s, and her entire family’s is entirely in her hands.4

[3] And Aaron: It appears that Korach himself wished to replace Aaron as high priest, while his followers wished to be high priests in addition to Aaron.5

They did not doubt that all that Moses had instructed came from God. After all, they had seen with their own eyes that God spoke to him at Mt. Sinai.6 Furthermore, God had promised Moses that “they will believe in you forever!”7 (Only Moses, in his immense humility, assumed that their rebellion stemmed from their lack of belief in him.8)

* * *

But although they trusted that Moses spoke the word of God, they believed that certain aspects of God’s instructions were subject to change. They had seen God “change His mind” when Moses prayed for his people after the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies. Indeed, the priesthood itself had originally been the domain of the firstborn and was later transferred to the descendants of Aaron. Hence, they felt that changes could be made regarding Aaron’s status, especially since, unlike the Levites, Aaron had been involved in the sin of the Golden Calf.9

Against Moses and against Aaron: The sages labeled Korach and his faction as the archetype of strife and conflict. “What is a controversy…that is not for the sake of Heaven? It is [one like] the controversy of Korach and his whole faction.”10

The sages here do not describe this controversy as one between Korach and Moses. Indeed, Moses did not quarrel with them; “they gathered together against Moses and Aaron.” The sages rather imply that the controversy raged between “Korach and his whole faction,” that is, between themselves. An endeavor against God (or Moses) always becomes strife-ridden, for it attacks the essence of unity and seeks selfish concerns and personal gratification.

* * *

Korach felt that it is enough to acquire spirituality. Once all the books are sitting on our shelves and we have become knowledgeable and well-read, there is no need for anything more. The mezuzah is no longer necessary.

Moses insisted, however, that a mezuzah is still needed. The mezuzah contains the first two passages of the Shema. The first passage describes the requirement to constantly remember, wherever one may be, that everything is God’s—that God is always in control. The second describes the result of the first: a complete adherence to all of God’s commandments and directions.

We affix the mezuzah in the doorway between the home and the street. In this way, the teachings of the Torah are not confined to the dusty bookshelf. Our declaration of devotion to the Torah’s teachings accompanies us out into the world and becomes a part of our everyday lives.

It is not enough to be filled with holy books, ideas, and thoughts. We must affix a mezuzah upon the “gates” of our minds and hearts, reminding us to live up to our ideals, motivated by the threefold love of God, the Torah, and our fellow Jew. This love must permeate all that we do, so that it is immediately noticeable that we are people with mezuzah’s on our “doors.” When this mezuzah is in place, we are assured of the blessings contained further in that same passage: i.e., that God will provide all our physical and spiritual needs.11

So why do you raise yourselves above God’s community? Although every society has leaders who assume more responsibility and have more privileges than the rest of the people, Korach claimed that the generation of the desert, the “generation of knowledge,” was different. Having all witnessed God’s miracles and the revelation at Mount Sinai, they were all of a very lofty spiritual nature, above the need for a leader like Moses. In this, Korach erred.12

[6-10] Then the man whom God chooses, he shall be the holy one: but the rest would die, since unauthorized use of the incense would cause death, as the Israelites had seen in the case of the two sons of Aaron.13 Still, Korach’s band took up the challenge—not because they thought they would live, but because they wished to experience the lofty service of the high priest even at the cost of their own lives.

This phenomenon reoccurred during the era of the second Temple. Dozens of unworthy individuals lost their lives because they bought off the office of the high priest and performed the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies.14 Even with the knowledge that their predecessors had died, they were impelled by their great desire to become high priests in order to experience the sublime.

Where did this yearning come from? The answer can be found in Korach’s original words: “for the entire congregation are all holy, as evidenced by the fact that they all heard God’s voice at Mt. Sinai. So why do raise yourselves above God’s community?” At Mount Sinai, God gave all the people the title of “kingdom of priests”;15 at that moment, every one of them was on the level of the high priest.16 It was there that they acquired a taste of that sublimity and learned to crave such a state. Indeed, every soul that was present at Sinai should crave to relive those moments.17

[25] He took an impressive entourage with him…hoping this would encourage them to defer: Dathan and Aviram had openly demonstrated their animosity toward Moses, charging him with being a despot and an imposter. Moreover, God Himself had already sealed their punishment, instructing Moses only to save the others from their impending fate. Still, Moses did not give up hope that his “enemies” would repent, and did whatever he could to influence them to reconsider.

We must learn from Moses’ attitude and always do whatever we can save our brethren’s lives and bring them back to the fold—even when it seems that all hope is lost. This applies even when our brethren are acting as if they are our “enemies,” and all the more so when they are acting simply out of ignorance.18

[31] The earth beneath them split open: God did not punish Korach and his supporters until they had acted on their beliefs. Even when Korach convinced the rest of the people to side with him, God did not punish the offenders until He had duly warned them not to commit their crime and they nonetheless did so.

We must learn from God’s example here, and wherever possible give people who offend us or disobey God’s laws the benefit of the doubt, and patiently and lovingly encourage them to better themselves.19

[33] And they descend to the depths alive: Being truly “alive” is possible only by being connected to God through learning His Torah and performing His commandments. This is why the Torah is called “the Torah of life.”20 Nonetheless, learning Torah and performing the commandments for selfish reasons drags down their inherently uplifting vitality into the depths of mundane reality and earthly existence. When the focus is reoriented from God above to the individual below, the Torah of life descends to the depths.

Thus, although Korach and his cohorts were eminent Torah scholars and observant Jews, their self-orientation doomed them to descend to death together with their learning and piety.21

* * *

Similarly, it is possible for a person to be “in the depths,” in a state of spiritual decadence, and still be so oblivious to his predicament that he feels “alive.” However, there is a blessing hidden in this seemingly lost state. If a person feels alive, he can change for the better.

This is why Korach’s sons did not die. Because they were allegorically “alive”—that is, open-minded enough to change, to repent— they remained literally alive as well, and indeed returned to the community later.22

Chapter 17

[5] Do not be like Korach and his party: This verse serves as the source for the law to avoid involvement in divisive arguments and contentious disagreements.23 It is indeed ironic that the same Korach who called for abolishing the distinctions between different groups of Jews became the paradigm of division. Abolishing boundaries does not always produce unity; in fact, it can produce exactly the opposite. It is possible to unite fire and water (by heating the water with the fire) only if they are separated by a pot. So, too, it is often the imposition of boundaries that allows for the truest expression of unity and harmony amongst people.24

[23] Ripe almonds: Almonds are the quickest fruit to blossom, ripen, and be ready for human consumption.25 Among the connections between that alacrity and the priesthood:

  • One of the main functions of the priest is to bless the people.26 But his blessings are not only fulfilled; they are granted speedily and without difficulty.27
  • The priests by nature fulfill their duties in the Temple with alacrity and liveliness.28

These two attributes combine to provide a lesson to us all. Our approach to our Divine mission in life cannot be attempted halfheartedly or resignedly. We must respond to every opportunity with energy and alacrity. When we do so, we are assured that God’s blessings and the success of our efforts will not delay in coming.29

Chapter 18

[2] Enlist also your brethren, the tribe of Levi… and they shall join you and minister to you: The name Levi means “accompany,” in the sense of sharing a close relationship,30 implying that the Levites’ status gives them a direct connection with God. In fact, however, the role of the Levites in the Temple was not to serve or approach God directly, but only to assist the priests in their Godly service.

Furthermore, as we will see,31 all the Jewish people are granted a portion on the Land of Israel except the tribe of Levi. On the other hand, God tells the priests that although they will receive no portion of the land, “God is their portion and inheritance.”32 Thus, the regular Levites (those that are not priests) are left out of both the physical inheritance of the land and the spiritual inheritance given specifically to the priests.

It is precisely this subservience and “homelessness” that propels the tribe of Levi to such great spiritual heights. Their secondary role keeps them humble and unimpressed with their own station on life, and this humility brings them so close to God.33

[7] The gift of service I have given you as your priesthood: The “gift of service” denotes the level of love for God called “the love of delights.”34 This is a state where a person experiences a wondrous pleasure of Godly revelation akin to that of the World to Come. It is referred to as a “gift” since it is impossible to reach this degree of love through our own effort; it can only be given as a present from Above.35

[19] An eternal covenant of salt: The revealed aspects of the Torah are compared to bread and meat, the staples of a healthy diet. The inner dimension of the Torah, Kabbalah and Chasidic teachings, is compared to salt. Just as salt enhances the taste of the food it touches, so, too, the learning of the inner meaning of the Torah reveals the sweetest aspects of the revealed Torah.36

[30] The Priestly Gifts: Although the physical priesthood in the Temple was reserved for the descendants of Aaron, the spiritual priesthood is open to all. God called the Jewish people as a whole “a kingdom of priests.” As Maimonides37 explains, “Anybody who dedicates himself and understands the intellectual imperative to separate himself—to stand before God and serve Him, and to know God—has become sanctified like the Holy of Holies…and will be granted all of his physical needs, just as they were provided for the priests and Levites.”

In other words, if we recognize the purpose of our creation, which is to serve God,38 and dedicate ourselves to accomplishing that purpose, we are assured of the best of everything at all times.39