The Sidra of Korach concerns the revolt of Korach and his followers against the Priesthood of Aaron and his sons. But what exactly was Korach’s aim? On the one hand, he voiced protest against the whole institution of priesthood or at least against its carrying any special status. On the other, it is clear from the narrative that he was seeking the High Priesthood for himself. Can we make sense of his apparently contradictory aims? This is the central point of the Sicha’s inquiry. And as a result of its analysis we can understand two further difficulties: Why “Korach,” the name of an inciter to dissent, is eternalized by making it the name of one of the sections of the Torah, and why this one Sidra contains two such seemingly opposite themes: Korach’s revolt, and the conferring of the “twenty-four Gifts of Priesthood” on Aaron.

1. Themes and Oppositions

Each of the 53 Sidrot of the Five Books of Moses has a central theme: One that is carried through each of its verses, from first to last, and which is suggested in the name it bears.1 This connecting motif is so strong, that the thematic link between the first and last verses of a Sidra is stronger than that between the ending of one Sidra and the beginning of the next, even though it may continue what appears to be the same narrative. In fact, the very existence of a break between two Sidrot indicates that there is some discontinuity between them sometimes going so far as to point out an opposition: As we see in the ending of Behaalotecha, where Miriam was punished for her evil report against Moses; and the beginning of Shelach, where the spies about to be sent to Israel saw the punishment and did not take heed of it, ultimately to repeat the sin.2

On the face of it, this general rule seems hard to apply to the Sidra of Korach, which begins with the accusation of Korach and his followers against Aaron and the priesthood: And ends with G‑d giving the “twenty-four Gifts of Priesthood.” The initial accusation and the ultimate validation seem to stand as opposites to one another; and yet it is not merely that the latter is the outcome of the former. Rather, we must search for a way in which the “Gifts of Priesthood” are an integral part of the story of Korach. For the Sidra is called by his name—and this is where the core of the Sidra lies.

But the search is beset by this problem: The insurrection of Korach was an opposition to the priesthood, as it stood in the hands of Aaron; while the “twenty-four Gifts” were, as Rashi says, a way of “writing and sealing and recording in the court” the gift of priesthood to him.

2. The Name of Korach

There is an additional difficulty. How came the Sidra to be called Korach in the first place? For, on the verse3 “The name of the wicked shall rot” the Talmud4 comments, “Their names shall decay for we do not mention (the wicked) by name.” If we should not mention the wicked by name in ordinary conversation, still less should a Sidra of the Torah benamed after one of them, for this is a way of perpetuating a name.

And there is no saving grace in Korach, for though, as Rashi tells us, his sons repented, he himself did not. In the name itself there is no hint of righteousness: It means a bald spot,5 and as the Midrash6 explains, it has the connotation of making divisions—creating a bald spot between two factions where previously there had been unity.

Rambam writes7 that the Torah “was given to make peace in the world.” How then should a portion of it be called by a name that suggests divisiveness?

3. Korach’s Claim

And finally, there is an apparent inconsistency in the very claim that Korach made. On the one hand it appears that he was set against the very institution of the priesthood, or at least its special status, for he said:8 “For all the congregation is holy, and the L-rd dwells in their midst; and why therefore do you elevate yourselves above the congregation of the L-rd?” On the other hand, it was apparent that Korach and his followers sought the priesthood for themselves, as Moses explicitly says to them.9

One explanation is that they did not want the status of the priesthood to be abolished, merely that they did not want it confined to Aaron. They wanted many High Priests; they sought to be included in that rank. And yet it is clear from Rashi’s commentary10 that Korach sought the High Priesthood for himself alone: He thought that he alone would be vindicated in the trial that the accusers were to undergo. If he had this ambition, why then did he say, “Why do you elevate yourselves?”—for he had reason to wish to see the priesthood elevated.

4. The Firmament Which Divides the Waters

The opening words of our Sidra, “And Korach took,” are translated in the Targum as “And Korach divided,” and in the book Noam Elimelech, Rabbi Elimelech of Liszensk compares Korach’s dissension to the firmament which G‑d created on the second day to divide between the higher and lower waters.

What is the analogy? One difference between the priests and the rest of the children of Israel was that the priests were withdrawn from the affairs of the world and entirely taken up with their holy office. Especially the High Priest (against whom Korach’s accusation was primarily intended), of whom it is written11 that “he shall not depart from the Sanctuary.”

But despite this, he was not uninvolved with the rest of the people: On the contrary, he exercised his influence over them all, drawing them up to his own level of holiness. This was symbolized by the kindling of the seven branches of the Menorah.12 Aaron’s special attribute was “Great, or everlasting Love”—and he drew the people near to this service.

But Korach did not see this. He saw only the separation between priest and people. And viewed in this light, he saw that just as the priests had their special role, so too did the people, in enacting G‑d’s will in the practical world, which was, indeed, the whole purpose of the Torah. Seen as separate entities, the people had at least as much right to honor and elevation as the priests.

And this removes the inconsistency from his claim. He sought the priesthood, but as an office entirely remote from the people. Hence his accusation, “Why do you elevate yourselves?” In his eyes, the two groups, utterly distinct, each had their special status.

In this way Korach was like the firmament: His aim was to divide the people, like the waters, and sever the connection between the Sanctuary and the ordinary world.

5. Division and Peace

On the second day of creation we find that G‑d did not say: “And it was Good.” The Rabbis explain13 that this was because division (the firmament) was created on that day. It was not until the third day that this judgment was pronounced and repeated, once for the creation of that day, and once for the firmament,14 which was purified and its division healed.15 Thus we learn that in the Divine scheme, there has to be a division between the things of heaven and those of earth, but that its consummation is in their re-uniting. And just as on the third day, so too in the third millennium Torah was given to bring together heaven and earth, G‑d descending and Israel ascending to union.16

The same applies to the children of Israel. Although there are those who are totally involved in holy service and “do not depart from the Sanctuary,” and those whose service is in the practical world (“In all your ways, know Him”17); the one must not be separate from the other, but the former must lead the latter, in the manner of Aaron, ever closer to G‑d. This the man of the world, the businessman etc., reaches through setting regular times for study of Torah. And this study should be of such intense concentration, that he is, at that time, as one who never departs from the Sanctuary!

And just as the work of the second day was consummated on the third, so did G‑d allow the division caused by Korach, so that it would reach its fulfillment in the “twenty-four Gifts of Priesthood.” For the priesthood was established as an everlasting covenant in a way that could not have happened had Korach not raised dissent about it previously. This is the connection between the beginning and the end of our Sidra. The dissension, although it seems on the face of it to be opposed to the covenant of priesthood, was in fact a precondition of it.

And this is why the name of Korach is perpetuated by standing as the name of the Sidra. Even though Korach represents division and Torah represents peace, the peace and union which Torah brings comes not merely in spite of, but through, the medium of division: That though there is a heaven and an earth, worship and service bring them together until G‑d Himself dwells in our midst.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII pp. 114-9)