Archetypes of Revolution

Classically, Jews have thought of the events in Torah as a set of archetypes of all events ever to come.1 The story of Korach, then, is the archetype of all revolutions doomed to fail.

Shaking up the status quo is most certainly a central theme in Torah. Abraham is the prototype of all iconoclasts. Moses the prototype of all liberators. The Exodus is the archetypical event of human freedom, and Mount Sinai the ultimate act of socialreformation. Korach’s rebellion is the story of a movement that took all that, applied it in a particular way, and fell into a deep crack in the ground.

Now, that’s very important. If Torah is about how to change the world, the Korach narrative is telling us what doesn’t work. But why doesn’t it work? To answer that question we need to examine Korach’s story, his reasoning, his motives and his general view of how the world works, and find the flaw in all this. And we can reasonably expect that flaw to be alluded to in Moses’ response.

What follows is an Shaking up the status quo is most certainly a central theme in Torah. Why did Korach fail?adaptation of one of the talks of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, in which he tackles this issue. He points out the error of Korach in terms that are extremely relevant to the modern Jew. In the process, the Rebbe also very clearly describes the role of and need for a “head of the people,” in order for us to create the ultimate and lasting revolution that the Torah demands.

Why Was Korach Sleeping?

Korach opposed the appointment of Aaron as high priest. His argument stood on very solid ground:

“You’ve taken too much greatness for yourselves,” he and his followers protested to Moses and Aaron. “All the people, all of them, are holy, and G‑d is amongst them! So why do you raise yourselves above the community of G‑d?”2

Rashi, the classic commentator, spells out Korach’s argument clearly: “All of them heard the words at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty!”3 Meaning that Korach’s grounds for dispute was the giving of the Torah itself and the covenant between G‑d and His people.

The event at Sinai, after all, was unprecedented. G‑d and Moses, His servant, had just created a revolution unlike one humankind had ever known. No more pyramid with one individual standing up in the clouds, a few select others just beneath him, while the masses wallow in ignorance. Every member of the Jewish people now had a direct connection to G‑d. All that Korach had to do was to ask the obvious question: If everyone is holy, what makes some holier than others? If we are a “kingdom of priests”—as G‑d declared us at Sinai—why can’t any of us who so desires be a high priest?If Korach’s argument is so airtight, why did he wake up only now?

But if Korach’s argument is so airtight, why did he wake up only now?

There’s a clue: Korach’s rebellion came on the heels of another serious conflict.4 Moses had hand-picked twelve men to tour the land of Canaan and return with a report, in order that they should conquer it. The spies returned after forty days, and their report incited the people against Moses. As a result, a divine decree sentenced the people to forty years of wandering in the desert, until an entire generation would pass away and their children would inherit the land.

Now, the spies gave their report a full fourteen months after the Torah was given. Aaron had already been serving in the Tabernacle as high priest for five months.5 Where was Korach all this time? Was there something about the fate of the spies that provided Korach with the clincher he needed to seal his argument?

The Spies’ Fatal Error

The answer jumps out at us once we unravel the inner story behind the return of the spies—and how a bright person like Korach likely saw it.

The entire episode of the spies is another fascinating example of the human capacity for failure as a self-fulfilling prophecy. These were great men, hand-chosen by Moses. Yet after only forty days they stood before the entire nation and declared that people of Canaan “are stronger than us”—and even stronger than G‑d Himself. The question begs itself: How was it that righteous men could sink so low in a period of only forty days?

In an earlier talk,6 it was explained that their sin began with a subtle error in attitude. The desert, for these men, was heaven—and perhaps even better. With all their physical needs taken care of—manna from heaven, clouds of glory to protect them and even launder their clothes—they were entirely absorbed in study and contemplation of the Torah that Moses had received directly from G‑d. In their hearts they feared the land of Canaan—but not so much for the giants and ferocious peoples they would have to fight. They knew that entering Canaan meant abandoning this paradise. How could you roll up your sleeves and work the land—in order to fulfill the commandments related to it—while remaining in serene contemplation of divine wisdom?

When your heart doesn’t want to go somewhere, your mind will eventually find an excuse to avoid it. And once the minds of the spies were in the wrong place, they descended yet further, until they ended up turning the people against Moses and against G‑d.

Moses had a different attitude. To Moses, everything was about action.To Moses, the study of Torah was a means to an end. The revelations they had received in the Sinai desert had a purpose: to be translated into action in the land G‑d had promised them. To Moses, everything was about action, about getting the job done. And that was something the spies, indeed the entire people, had yet to fathom. Until now.

Korach’s Insight

Imagine the revolution this created in the people’s minds. Imagine people who had witnessed G‑d’s hand at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, who lived on bread from heaven and were surrounded by clouds of glory, who stood at Sinai and heard G‑d speaking to them in a way that no prophet had ever heard or will ever hear again. Imagine people whose entire lives were made of miracles, spirituality and the study of Torah wisdom.

The people knew very well what spirituality was, and they knew very well that Aaron had it on a level they could never dream of attaining.7 With spirituality as the measure of all things, Korach could not begin to compare himself to the man before whom every person, big and small, stood in utter awe.

And now the people discover that spirituality for its own sake is a dead end. That their entire attitude is way off course. That it is worthwhile to leave behind the spiritual high of Sinai to work the soil of the land of Canaan and bring all that into action. Because everything is about action.

And now Korach jumps in.

Korach realized that the physical act of a mitzvah is the great equalizer. Korach realized that the physical act of a mitzvah is the great equalizer. Intellectually, people are in different worlds—both in the way they grasp ideas and in how real those ideas are to them. Spiritually, some are sensitive on an entirely different level than others. But when it comes to the raw “just do it”—then there’s no difference between how Moses eats a matzah and how Joe Shmoe eats a matzah, how Aaron wraps tefillin and how a bar mitzvah boy wraps tefillin.

Suddenly, everyone is in the same league. Because those things that differentiate us are almost irrelevant. In the ice cream shop there are many flavors. Some really fantastic flavors. But when all you want is to cool down, they’re all the same freezing cold ice cream.

Within Korach’s words we are to hear, “Yes, Moses, your intellect is great and your soul shines bright. So does that of your brother, Aaron. But all that is no more than the icing on the cake—as you yourself have taught us, in G‑d’s name. And if so, why shouldn’t anyone be a candidate for even the highest position of Kohen Gadol? Why is it only Aaron, your brother, who is fit for such a position? What places either of you so far beyond any of us?”

That explains a lot. It’s quite apparent that Korach was not an anarchist. He wasn’t out to eliminate status and protocol altogether. The men supporting his rebellion are referred to as “the princes of the community.” Korach himself was a Levi, affording him greater status than a regular Israelite—and he wasn’t about to surrender that for the cause. On the contrary, he and his fellow Levites wanted to retain that and have yet more.

Korach understood that some individuals are more spiritual than others, and some are brighter than others. But all that is secondary. So Korach challenge was: A secondary factor shouldn't be allowed to carry Aaron to a position of such exclusive privilege. In doing so, he was also challenging Moses’ utter transcendence over the people, his acting not simply as a leader but as a king lifted entirely beyond the people.

These privileged positions made sense if everything was about the spirit. But if everything was about plain vanilla action, in what way could anyone claim utter transcendence? Whatever spirituality anyone had was just another flavor of “getting the job done.”

Not Just a Teacher

It seems this is what was truly bothering Korach and company—perhaps subconsciously, just as the spies had been driven by their own subconscious attitude. Beneath their arguments was their incapacity to surrender to the notion that there could be someone so entirely beyond them, so much so that the entire being of every other individual was subsumed within this one individual’s greatness.

Moses, after all, was not just a teacher, but also a king, as we read later, “There was a king in Jeshurun, as the people gathered together.”8 “Jeshurun” refers to the Jewish people, and the king was Moses. A very humble king, one who could claim, “I did not take even one donkey from them!”9 But a king nonetheless.

A teacher is not a king. A teacher provides intellectual guidance. To learn from him, you must respect his greater knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If he teaches you something and it doesn’t make sense to you, you must be ready to submit to the idea that perhaps he sees something that you don’t. But you don’t need to feel your entire being subsumed under his.

Not so a king. True, a Torah king is not simply a ruler or a dictator. On the contrary, he is a constitutional monarch, completely subservient to the law of Torah. But then, just as he is not apart from the people, neither is he just another one of them who excels at leadership.

Rather, A true king is to the people as a head is to a body.a true king is to the people as a head is to a body. As a body is a living, single organism only so long as it is connected to its head, so the people are a people because of their king, and without him they are not a people. As a head renders every cell of the body a human cell, so a king is responsible for the very being of each citizen of his nation. As the cell is not a human cell independently of the brain, so the Jew—whether he realizes it or not—is a Jew only due to his connection to Moses.

In the second chapter of Tanya, we are told that every Jew has this connection. And not just to Moses himself, but to the the sages and the tzaddikim whom the Zohar calls “the extension of Moses in every generation”—those leaders of each generation within whom the soul of Moses is invested, so that the people may retain their essential connection to Torah and to G‑d. Even those who openly rebel against those tzaddikim, the Tanya continues, cannot sever that connection. They connect, so to speak, through the back door. But all Jews are connected to the head, because the head and the body compose one single being.

Back to the analogy with the brain: A brain does more than simply assist the limbs. Every limb is dependent upon the brain, through the nervous system, in order to be that which it is. If the nerves that connect a finger to the brain are severed, the finger will no longer be a finger. It will be little more than a growth on the end of a human hand.

For an important man such as Korach, this was hard to take. He was like that finger, saying to the brain, “What do I need you for? Doesn’t my existence come from G‑d, just like yours?”

Korach could not bear this idea of being just another limb of a body, entirely dependent on Moses not only for his transcendent wisdom but for his very existence as a Jew. He had to feel that he was also a somebody, even when standing before a giant such as Moses. He couldn’t find that sense of self-surrender inside himself. His rebellion simply expressed that inability.

Korach’s Error and Moses’ Response

Nevertheless, the question must be asked: What is truly wrong with Korach’s argument? If the main thing is in fact action, how could Moses be on a level incomparable to others?

In Moses’ words, there seems to be no response to any of Korach’s arguments:

He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, “Morning, and G‑d will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him.”

It’s hard to believe that Moses is simply being dismissive here, as to say, “Yes, all the people are holy, and G‑d is amongst them. But come and burn some incense, and let’s see what happens.” True, an incense competition could demonstrate that G‑d had certainly chosen Aaron. But what would be with Korach’s argument, “Why do you raise yourselves [plural] above the people of G‑d?” Besides, Korach’s argument, as we explained, is really with Moses more than it is with Aaron.

But perhaps Moses appreciated Korach’s intelligence more than we imagine. Perhaps Moses appreciated Korach’s intelligence more than we imagine. Perhaps he knew that one word alone would be enough to provide Korach his answer. And that word is “morning.”

Why did Moses say to wait until morning?

Rashi provides two explanations:

  1. To give them time to reconsider and repent.
  2. Moses was providing a coded message: Just like G‑d divided the morning and the evening, and we cannot change that, so too we cannot change G‑d’s appointment of Aaron and Moses.

Yet neither of these explanations can be taken at face value. Concerning the first one, there is no timeframe for repentance. A person can change his mind and heart in a moment and repent. Others need several days, or even years. But the wording of Torah is very precise. What does “morning,” as opposed to “evening” or some other time, have to do with repentance?

As for Rashi’s second explanation, the division of morning and evening can already be seen as soon as it becomes evening. What is the need to wait until morning? What was Moses saying to Korach?

[At this point, the Rebbe asked the chassidim to sing. When they were done, he continued:]

Shiny Gems

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Chabad), compares mitzvahs to luminous gems.10 He cites the phrase used by our sages, “repentance and good deeds.” The word “good” seems superfluous. If deeds follow repentance, we don’t expect they’ll be bad deeds. They will certainly be mitzvahs. Rather, he explains, what’s meant is that they will be “good, shiny deeds.” They will be deeds that light up the world.

But don’t all mitzvahs light up the world? Not necessarily. That’s where the analogy of precious gems comes in. A brilliant diamond covered with mud could spoil the looks of the most elegant woman. You can have a brilliant diamond, but it’s covered with mud. Not only doesn’t it shine, it diminishes the light. A muddy diamond could spoil the looks of the most elegant woman. So too, a muddy mitzvah could sink the one who performed it, and his entire world, deeper into darkness.

What is a muddy mitzvah? One that is done for ulterior motives. In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat,11 Tosafot explains how Jews came to be lax in the mitzvah of tefillin. Apparently, certain people wore tefillin all day with the ulterior motive of gaining the trust of others so that they could cheat them in business. Were these Jews doing a mitzvah? Yes. They were wearing tefillin, and wearing tefillin is a mitzvah. But they covered their mitzvah with mud when they used it for foul purposes—and ended up discouraging other Jews from performing mitzvahs by doing so.

You don’t have to go that far. A mitzvah that is done without inspiration, without any consideration of its being a divine act, simply because you did this mitzvah yesterday and the day before, and so it’s just time to do it again today without even thinking about it—there’s not much sparkle to that mitzvah. Yes, you’re doing what G‑d requested. But is His presence felt?

Such mitzvahs can even feed a person’s self-infatuation. He might feel, “Look at all the challenges that lie before me, and nevertheless I am so good—I withstood them all and got the mitzvah done!” Especially if he did the mitzvah behiddur—in the best way possible, with a beautiful sukkah, a fine pair of tefillin, a huge spread for Shabbat, etc.

Yes, these are still mitzvahs. We don’t tell him to stop, G‑d forbid. No, keep doing mitzvahs!

But in effect he is accomplishing the opposite of what a mitzvah is meant to accomplish. The word mitzvah is related to tzavta, meaning “a connection.” Through mitzvahs he connects to G‑d. But with such self-infatuation and arrogance he becomes, G‑d forbid, sundered from G‑d. G‑d says about the arrogant person, “The two of us cannot dwell together in the same world.”12

Acts That Shine

On the other hand, Even the most mundane act, when done mindfully and purposefully, shines and illuminates all its surroundings.even the most mundane act, when done mindfully and purposefully, shines and illuminates all its surroundings.

Maimonides writes13 that a wise person’s wisdom is apparent in everything he does—meaning even the simple things that everyone else also does: the way he eats, the way he sleeps, the way he walks, the way he talks, how he does business and how he treats others. He supports his statement with a saying of the Talmud: “All your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”14 Then he cites a verse from Proverbs: “In all your ways your should know Him.”15

There is a reason for citing both sayings: When all your deeds are done for the sake of heaven, that doesn’t necessarily imply that G‑d is felt in the deed itself right now. You could be making an honest business in order to send your children to a good Jewish school and to give generously to good causes. You could be eating a healthy meal so that you could study Torah with a strong, healthy mind. But those are outcomes that come later, in consequence of your business or your healthy meal.

When “in all your ways you know Him,” you have made each of your actions into a way of knowing G‑d, of perceiving Him through the action itself. When you eat, you’re not thinking of how tasty the food is, but of how you are redeeming the divine sparks within the food. When you do business, you feel G‑d’s presence wherever you are and see His hand in everything that happens to you. From all that you see and hear, you learn a lesson in your relationship with G‑d. When others see how you run your business, they too see G‑d there. That is the truly wise person—one whose every action is a window through which he and all those who observe him can perceive G‑d in the world.

Morning Light

This was all wrapped up within the first word of Moses’ response to Korach. By saying “morning,” Moses was really saying that, yes, it’s true that the main thing is the deed, but we also need to make those deeds “morning” deeds. They have to shine like the day.

Korach’s error lay in his understanding of what doing a mitzvah is all about, and what life in this world is meant to accomplish. We live in a world of action, but our job is not just a matter of “getting it done” or even of "just following G‑d’s instructions.” All human activity is a matter of bringing G‑d openly into our material world of action. And to bring G‑d openly into our world, you need to be connected to a soul that remains G‑dly even as it is in this world. You need a strong and open connection to a Moses.

All this is right there in Rashi’s two explanations:

  1. “Maybe they would repent.”

    True, anyone can repent in a single moment. But it would be an “evening” sort of repentance—out of fear of punishment. Yes, that person would be forgiven, but he would remain the muddy, coarse person who had done those dark deeds.

    Repentance needs to be a “morning” kind of repentance—out of love for G‑d and a yearning to reconnect. Only then does it have the power to transform intentional sins into merits—to reach back and pull out the spark of light that was thoroughly hidden in the darkness of that sin. If so, certainly it can pull a person’s mitzvahs out of their muddy darkness and make them shine. Then you have the real “repentance and good (shiny) deeds.”

  2. “G‑d made boundaries in His world.”

    Moses is also providing a hint of the advantage of shiny mitzvahs over mitzvahs that are in captivity, stuck in the mud—even though those muddy mitzvahs are still mitzvahs. He is saying that, yes, it is true that you need both an evening and a morning to make a complete day, as in the six days of creation: “And it was evening, and it was morning—one day.” The rabbis say that this “one day” refers to Yom Kippur, when darkness is transformed to light in a single day. So yes, the darkness has its purpose. But it is still darkness, not light.

    A person might insist, “Who needs light? A mitzvah is G‑d’s will performed on earth. G‑d Himself is there, in that gem. What does it matter that the gem is muddy? What is a little mud to G‑d? Whatever light you can provide cannot compare to the experience of having G‑d Himself in your actions!”16

    Moses’ point was that this was not G‑d’s intent. G‑d wants us to make Him at home in our world. A home is not a hiding place. A home needs light and warmth. A Jew has a dual task in this world: to invite G‑d in, and to turn on the lights.A Jew has a dual task in this world: to invite G‑d in, and to turn on the lights.

Now we also have the response to Korach’s demand, “How do you raise yourselves over the people of G‑d?”

Yes, it is true that “the entire congregation is holy, and G‑d is among them.” A Jew is holy, not just due to his or her soul. A Jewish body is also holy. And due to this holiness, a Jew has the capacity—through mitzvahs—to bring G‑d Himself into the actions of this world. “G‑d is among them.”

But if G‑d is to be present openly in this world, if the mitzvahs are to be luminescent, shiny mitzvahs, then Korach has it all wrong. There is no comparison between the gems whose luminance is clouded by personal motives and reasoning, and the clear, brilliant gems of Moses and Aaron who perceived nothing but G‑d everywhere and in everything.

That is why every Jew needs that connection with Moses—not just in mind and heart, but in deed as well—so that his or her mitzvahs will also shine. Moses places that within the grasp of every one of us.

Think again of all the Jewish people as a single human body. Think of Moses as the head that imbues it with consciousness. Now here’s the interesting thing about consciousness: it both transcends the body and transforms the body. A finger isn’t simply directed by the brain, like some sort of mechanism moving a lever. The brain renders the finger a human finger, one that performs deliberate, conscious action. If a finger moves independently of the brain, halachically speaking it cannot be called a human action. It’s a finger unplugged.

This is what a leader like Moses provides the people—he imbues them with his own transcendence. We can make our actions meaningful actions, actions that reveal G‑d in His world, because we are connected to the seat of consciousness of the Jewish people, to a Moses.Any mitzvah a Jew does is a divine act. Plugged in to a spark of Moses, those mitzvahs shine.

Any mitzvah a Jew does is a divine act. Plugged in to a spark of Moses, those mitzvahs shine.

The Takeaway

There are those who say the main thing is to be a Jew at heart, that doing the mitzvahs is not so important. Others say that the main thing is to do what you have to do, and it’s not so important to learn Chassidus and to work to improve yourself.

But the Torah is teaching us here that we should not be like the spies who craved only the spiritual life, nor like Korach and company, who felt it was good enough to fulfill their ritual obligation. We need to have both.

This was something that the Moses of our generation, my holy teacher and father-in-law [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the previous rebbe of Chabad], demonstrated. He put his life at risk in Communist Russia both to help Jews to do simple basic mitzvahs, to teach a child alef-bet, to get a Jew to do just one more mitzvah—even if that Jew had no concern regarding spiritual growth, as long as he would do just one mitzvah. And at the same time, he infused the same intense energy into spreading the teachings of Chassidus and encouraging people in their personal improvement in prayer.

This is the path the Rebbe showed for all those who are connected to him and who follow in his footsteps: You need to go in two directions at once. Just as you need to know that “the main thing is to do something,” so you need to ensure that those things you do should be radiant and pure. And that is accomplished through studying the inner Torah and through the labor of prayer—contemplating deeply on the One who gave you these mitzvahs and gave you the power to bring them into action.

By working in these two directions at once, we will make our everyday world into a comfortable home for G‑d—a home in two ways: He will be here in all His essence, and His essence will be open and revealed to all.

Adapted from Torat Menachem, vol. 34 (5722/1962), pp. 90–100.
Originally printed in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4, Parshat Korach, pp. 1048–1055.