This sermon was delivered on Shabbat Parshat Korach, 3 Tammuz 5779, the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory

Around the world, Jews are commemorating the 25th yahrzeit of HaRav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a man who revolutionized Jewish outreach and permanently transformed the landscape of Jewish communities throughout the world. His influence today is even stronger than when he was alive. Just look at the ubiquity of Chabad Centers which feed and provide spiritual needs for travelers around the world. In this sense, the Rebbe embodies the Talmudic dictum regarding tzadikim that even in their deaths they are considered alive.1 In honor of the this milestone, we’ll be sharing the Rebbe’s Torah teachings both in today’s drashah [sermon] and for the Pirkei Avot shiur [class] this evening.

The Rebbe had a beautiful insight into Korach and the nature of his insurrection.2 In reality, there were three separate groups of rebels, each coming from a different direction to challenge Moshe’s authority. This in itself is an important message, that sometimes machloket [strife] makes for strange bedfellows. This may be what our sages are alluding to when they state3 that any machloket that is not “for the sake of Heaven” will not endure. For their example, the sages choose the machloket of “Korach and all his congregation.” By adding the word vechol, “and all,” our sages are alluding to the diverse nature of Korach’s cronies. One of the reasons why such a machloket cannot possibly endure is because each component of the machloket is coming from different directions, so eventually the uprising will internally disintegrate.

The variegated nature of Korach’s group is actually indicated by the name Korach itself, which is spelled “ק-ר-ח”. The Rebbe observed that these three letters are all variations and malformations of the letter “ה” in their morphology. “ק” is a “ה” with just a longer left leg. “ר” is a “ה” with a missing left leg altogether. And “ח” is a “ה” with the left leg connected to the top instead of disconnected.

The sages4 tell us that Olam Hazeh [This World] was created using the letter “ה” as the blueprint. That letter has three sides, which represent the three activities of any productive human being: thought, speech and action. Thought and speech are represented by the top of the heh and the right leg of the heh, respectively, but action is depicted by the left leg. The reason why it’s detached from the other two is because, whereas a human being has control over his thoughts and even speech, one’s actions are released into the world and affect others outside of oneself, and thus one’s actions are separable from the individual.

These three components of humanity also represent the three ways to serve G‑d, through thought, speech and action. Those fulfilling Divine service by staying in the study halls of the Jewish community are considered people of thought and speech. But those who are people of deed need to go out into the world in order to affect the physical beings and objects with which they will interact.

The left leg also teaches us important lessons about our physical actions in this world: (1) Action is necessary, such that a “ה” without its left leg is not kosher. Our sages place emphasis on action when they say,5 “It is not the study that is of primal importance, but the deed. (2) The left leg’s separateness indicates that when one commits to serving G‑d through action by going out into the world, it will sometimes be necessary to detach oneself from the holy and spiritual endeavors of “thought” and “speech” that is normally reserved for those who learn spiritual matters in the Beit Midrash [Study Hall]. (3) When one chooses to be this person of action, one must be very careful to work within the strictures of the Torah and not allow his “leg” to overextend beyond its boundaries of Jewish law.

In this sense, the three letters of Korach’s name represents the three kinds of errors that Korach’s insurrectionists made by challenging Moshe:

The “ק” represents those who allowed themselves to extend too far beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior as prescribed by the Torah. This is represented by the longer leg of the “ק” that extends lower than the right leg. This represents people who feel that their cause is so important that they can justify any kind of behavior, even when it trespasses over the halakhic line [of Jewish law] (i.e., “the ends justify the means”). Perhaps this attitude was best reflected in the 250 leaders who sought to offer the ketoret (incense) and were incinerated in the process of doing so.6 They felt that their leadership was so vital to the service of Hashem that they could even justify an unfit offering, the very same error that was made by Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu.

The “ר” represents those among Korach’s people who argued that no action is necessary, that all G‑d requires of us is the heart; since we are all inherently holy anyway, no particular prescribed behavior is necessary. This is why the leg of action is missing entirely. This attitude is alluded to by the sages when they say that Korach argued that a garment that is entirely dyed with [blue] tekhelet dye should be exempt from tzitzit [ritual fringes], and that a house filled with Torah scrolls should be exempt from a mezuzah scroll on its door.7 We are all inherently holy, he argued, so that no mitzvah performance is necessary.

The “ח” represents those who argued that people of action are as spiritually holy and connected as those who dedicate their lives through thought and speech for G‑d, that is, the scholarly Torah community. While it is true that people of action are doing G‑d’s work, doing so may affect their spiritual level by taking them away from focused Torah study. Part of Korach’s argument was, to the contrary, that the “every man” of the Jewish people (i.e., those who are not immersed in Torah study) was just as holy as Moshe and Aharon, “for all the nation is holy and G‑d is among them.”8 The mistake is in thinking that the left leg of the heh is just as connected to spiritual sources as the “thought” and “speech,” and this is represented by the left leg of the heh reaching all the way up to the top to make a “ח”.

It seems clear to me that when the Rebbe was delivering this talk in the very early days of his leadership as Rebbe, he was speaking to his shluchim, his emissaries who were just starting to spread Chabad chassidus throughout the world. He cautioned them not only to remember how bad machloket is, but to also remember that in your holy efforts, remember not to cut corners, and also remember that your holy work of “action” never trumps the need to return periodically to the Beit Midrash to recharge your “thoughts” and “speech” with new infusions of Torah. And indeed, the Rebbe’s inspiring words have resonated into the hearts and souls of thousands of his shluchim throughout the years.

But the message speaks to all of us. It’s a universal message of the need to remember who you are, and that no matter how right and holy you believe your endeavor to be, you can never allow yourself to lose your truth and fealty to the Torah in your very efforts to glorify G‑d and to elevate the Jewish people. As the Kotzker Rebbe once said: “Everything must be done for the sake of Heaven, even [actions done] for the sake of Heaven.”

I’ll finish with a story:9 Rabbi Chaim Shneor Nissenbaum is a Chabad shliach in Paris. In 1972 he was serving as an emissary of the Rebbe.

“I feel bad about it,” he once said to the Rebbe, “I don’t know if I have enough Ahavat Yisrael [love of a fellow Jew] to do this work. I’m afraid I’m growing in ga’avah [arrogance]… maybe someone else can do this job better.”

The Rebbe responded in French: “You have to do all the things which are good”--meaning, don’t overthink the issue based on your insecurities and feelings. If you see something is good, do it. “From that time,” said the rabbi, “I can never refuse to do something good when asked. Regarding Ahavas Yisrael, the Rebbe told me to learn the section in Tanya that deals with this issue, and you’ll see people in a completely different way. I learned it three times, and the Rebbe was right; I see people differently.”

In other words, put the left leg of the “ה” in its proper perspective. Make sure you stay loyal to halakhah, but be a person of action so that the leg of the “ה” will always be prominent.

May we all be driven by seeing something good to do in the world, taking the bull by the horns and doing it. May the Rebbe’s teachings continue to inspire millions of people throughout the world, until the coming of the Redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.