A Chronological Perspective

Our Sages1 relate that Korach’s abortive uprising against Moshe and Aharon took place after the spies returned with their negative report. This is reflected in the complaint of Dasan and Aviram:2 “You brought us out [of Egypt,] a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert... and you did not bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.” Obviously, they were speaking after the decree:3 “You will perish in this desert.”

The question arises: Why did Korach wait until then to stage his revolt? G‑d’s commandment to transfer the sacrificial service from the firstborn to Aharon and his sons came at the time of the giving of the Torah, or before the dedication of the Sanctuary.4 By the time the Sanctuary was dedicated, Aharon was serving as High Priest. The giving of the Torah took place on the sixth of Sivan. The Sanctuary was completed the following year, on the twenty-third Adar and dedicated on the first of Nissan.5 The spies did not return until after the ninth of Av. Why then did Korach delay his mutiny until then?

Many say that Korach’s rebellion was sparked by the appointment of Elitzafon ben Uziel as leader of the sons of Kehos,6 but this appointment also took place previously, at the time of the Levite census in Iyar. The fact that Korach waited until after the ninth of Av leads to the conclusion that his attempt to seize power was related to the story of the spies.

Korach’s Connection to the Spies

As mentioned,7 the spies wanted to avoid involvement in worldly matters. For this reason, they sought to remain in the desert so that worldly concerns would not disturb the nation’s Torah study and connection with G‑d. Moshe pointed out the flaw in this approach, for “deed is most essential,”8 and taught that the ultimate spiritual heights can be reached only through the observance of mitzvos on the material plane.

To develop this concept: The difference between the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos is that Torah study centers on intellectual comprehension. In the realm of intellect, there are differences between individuals according to their level of comprehension. With regard to the observance of mitzvos, however, there is no distinction between one Jew and another. Moshe Rabbeinu’s donning of tefillin is the same act as that performed by any simple person. Yes, there are differences with regard to the intent,but the actual deed is the same.

For this reason, Korach’s challenge came after the return of the spies. For Korach realized that with regard to the study of Torah, Moshe and Aharon were on a higher level than other Jews. After all, Moshe was the one who received the Torah from G‑d. He would study with Aharon, then with Aharon’s sons, and only afterwards with the entire nation.9 Moreover, the intent is not merely to say that Moshe and Aharon studied before the rest of the Jewish people, but that their study was on a higher spiritual level.

Accordingly, as long as the Divine service required from the Jews centered on the study of Torah, Korach did not protest the supremacy of Moshe and Aharon. The report of the spies, however, made it clear that “deed is most essential,” i.e., that the observance of mitzvos on the material plane is of primary importance. Since in this context all Jews share a fundamental equality, Korach protested to Moshe and Aharon: “Why do you set yourselves up as supreme over G‑d’s congregation?”10

To explain at greater length: The spies wanted the nation to remain in the desert, sequestered from involvement with material affairs so that the people could devote themselves to the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos.

Moshe had responded in G‑d’s name: The fundamental purpose of the exodus is to enter Eretz Yisrael and observe the mitzvos there on the material plane. For this reason, it is worthwhile to forgo the great spiritual heights that might be reached in the desert.

If so, Korach argued, “Why do you set yourself up as supreme?” The advantage possessed by Moshe and Aharon relates to spiritual matters. If, however, “deed is what is most essential,” and with regard to deed all are the same, why do Moshe and Aharon claim special distinction?11

Relative and Absolute Leadership

Based on the above, it is possible to answer another question: How was it possible for Korach and “the 250 princes of the people” who followed him to protest against Moshe and Aharon holding positions of leadership? They held positions of leadership themselves, being “princes of the people.” Similarly, the entire tribe of Levi was given an elevated status, one which Korach and his followers were not willing to relinquish. (For nowhere does it say that Korach was prepared to give up his position. On the contrary, as evident from Moshe’s reply to him, he was seeking priesthood — an even greater position.12 )

How then could Korach make a claim which contradicted his own position?

We must conclude that Korach did not want to destroy the concept of leadership entirely; he was merely opposed to the type of leadership manifested by Moshe, who was equivalent to a king.13

Korach claimed: It is true that there are different levels among the Jewish people, and those on a higher level can — and should — employ their superior potential in positions of leadership. Nevertheless, since “the entire congregation is holy,” all these levels are comparable. Moreover, as explained above, the differences between one person and another apply only with regard to their spiritual comprehension, which is secondary to the actual performance of the mitzvos, in which all Jews are equal. Therefore Korach’s group objected to Moshe Rabbeinu serving with the absolute authority of a king.14

Korach understood that all Jews are not the same, and that these differences would manifest themselves in different levels of authority. He objected, however, to one person (Moshe) being incomparably higher than all others.15

The Core of Kingship

Korach had another motive for challenging Moshe’s sovereignty. For the bond between a king and his subjects is different from other relationships such as that between student and master. The connection a student shares with his master concerns only the teachings which he receives from him. The connection between subjects and their king, by contrast, involves the totality of their being; their entire existence is dependent on the king.16

To illustrate this concept: Our Sages teach that if a person makes a gesture to a colleague in the presence of the king, he is liable to death for rebelling against the sovereign.17

Why? Because he thereby shows that he has remained conscious of his individual identity. Though such consciousness may not affect the functioning of the kingdom or undermine the king’s authority, it is considered rebellious.

On the surface, this is a far lesser crime than a student rendering a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher, for the student is dealing in an area in which he has received direct influence from his teacher. And yet making a gesture is considered a more serious act because the king’s sovereignty should encompass the entire existence of his subjects, including even the casual motion of their hands.

The same concept applies with regard to Moshe our teacher. His supreme authority was the source, not only of the Jews’ appreciation of elevated spiritual ideas, but of even the most simple matters.18 The same concept applies with regard to “the extension of Moshe in every generation,”19 the Nesi’im, or heads of the Jewish people.20 Every Jew21 receives his vitality from the Nassi of that generation.22

On this basis, we can understand Korach’s challenge: “The entire congregation is holy;” i.e., with regard to the observance of mitzvos, in which the holiness of the Jewish people is expressed without distinction. And so, “Why do you set yourselves up as supreme”?23 Why with regard to such matters must the Jews be dependent on Moshe’s influence?

Waiting for Daybreak

To Korach’s challenge, Moshe answered:24 “In the morning, G‑d will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will bring him close.” Rashi explains that “who is His” refers to those chosen for service as Levites, while “who is holy,” refers to those chosen for the priesthood.

Rashi25 explains further that Moshe had two reasons for postponing the trial until morning:

a) so that Korach and his followers could do teshuvah;

b) to show that just as the distinction G‑d established between day and night cannot be nullified, so too one cannot nullify the distinction conveyed upon Aharon, as it is written:26 “And Aharon was distinguished, to be sanctified as most holy.”

Both rationales require explanation: According to the first, it is necessary to explain why the nation had to wait an entire night. Teshuvah, after all,requires only a moment. If the only intent was to grant a greater opportunity for repentance, there is no end to the matter; some are capable of teshuvah immediately. others will need to wait until morning, and still others will require even more time.

Even according to the second rationale, it remains difficult to understand why it was necessary to wait. The confrontation could have occurred after sunset,27 at which time the division between day and night is also apparent.

Also, we must understand how Moshe’s instructions to “Take incense-burners” serves as a reply to Korach’s claim: “Why set yourselves up as supreme [since] the entire congregation is holy.”

Through the confrontation, Moshe proved that Korach was wrong, and that everything Moshe had done was in response to G‑d’s command. The confrontation did not, however, show why Korach was wrong.

(Moreover, the use of an incense offering related more directly to Korach’s objection to Aharon’s High Priesthood, and not to his claim against Moshe’s assumption of absolute authority.)

Thus we may infer that by saying the confrontation would take place in the morning, Moshe was alluding to an explanation which refutes the basis for Korach’s argument.

Polishing Gems

Our Sages use the expression:28Teshuvah and good deeds” and not “teshuvah and mitzvos.” In explanation, the Alter Rebbe states29 that it is possible that a person will perform mitzvos, but that their light will not shine forth. Teshuvah, however,transforms mitzvos into “good deeds which shine.”

To illustrate with an analogy: There are times when a person possesses gems, but the gems are dirty. The stones remain gems, and have the potential to shine. Nevertheless, as long as they are covered with grime, this potential remains hidden.

Similarly, the purpose of the mitzvos is to increase G‑dly light in the world. There are times, however, when they serve an opposite end. When a wicked person studies Torah or performs mitzvos, not only does he not add light to the world, he increases its darkness; his deeds augment the forces of kelipah.30 Moreover, this applies not only to the Torah and mitzvos of a wicked person, but to any observance of the Torah and its mitzvos performed without the proper intent, or for one’s own motives.31

As we can see, when the proper motives are lacking, observance can lead to self-concern and pride.32 A person may feel haughty because he was able to overcome the difficulties preventing him from observing the mitzvos. This is especially true if he observes the mitzvos behiddur, in a beautiful and careful manner.

These feelings of self-concern are the direct opposite of what a mitzvah is intended to evoke. The very word mitzvah relates to the word tzavsa, meaning “connection” or “bond,”33 for the mitzvos enable us to establish a connection with G‑d. Self-concern and pride, by contrast, tear one away from G‑d. For with regard to a haughty person, it is said:34 “He and I (G‑d) cannot dwell in the same place.”

With regard to the inner spiritual nature of the person and the world at large, the positive dimension of the Torah and its mitzvos always retains its integrity. Therefore Torah law35 requires even a wicked person to study and observe, although the immediate effect of his deeds will be to augment the forces of kelipah. Ultimately, when he repents — and he will certainly repent, for “none will remain estranged from You”36 — the sparks of holiness created by his observance will be liberated from kelipah, and will begin to produce light. Until then, however, his study and observanceis like a gem covered in mud.

A person might think: What difference does it make whether my mitzvos produce light immediately? Darkness and light apply only to the revealed dimensions of G‑dliness. By performing the mitzvos, G‑d’s essence is drawn down, making this world His dwelling. Torah law requires a Jew to observe the mitzvos whatever his present state. Therefore, such a person will continue his observance. The fact that he is temporarily augmenting the forces of kelipah is not of importance to him. He has one purpose, as the Mishnah teaches:37 “I was created solely to serve my Creator,” to carry out G‑d’s will. And G‑d’s will is for him to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, regardless of the immediate outcome.

The response is that G‑d desires not only the actual observance of the mitzvos, but that the mitzvos be observed with the proper intent. There are two elements to the mission of making a dwelling for G‑d in this world:38 a) that it become a dwelling for G‑d’s essence, and b) that G‑d’s essence be revealed, causing the dwelling to shine brightly.

For the dwelling to be “bright,” it must be fashioned with shining mitzvos, mitzvos that refine both the person who observes them and his environment.

What is Necessary for Mitzvos to Shine

This was the answer which Moshe gave Korach and his followers: Yes, “deed is most essential.” But one’s deeds must be permeated by the glow of morning; the mitzvos must shine. In this manner, “G‑d will make known,” and the world will be permeated by the knowledge39 and revelation of G‑dliness. It is possible for mitzvos to be observed without the proper intent, but then theydo not shine, nor do they lead the world to the knowledge of G‑dliness.

Allusion to this concept is found in the two reasons Rashi gives for postponing the confrontation with Korach.

The first reason is that Moshe wanted to provide Korach and his followers with the opportunity to repent. Waiting until morning was not necessary, for as mentioned above, one can turn to G‑d in a moment. Instead, Moshe was alluding to the idea that their teshuvah should shine with G‑dly light. Teshuvah of this nature adds light to one’s observance of the mitzvos.

Even when teshuvah is motivated by fear of punishment, the person’s sins are wiped away; the sinner, however, remains unrefined, for his fundamental self-concern persists. For teshuvah to be complete, it has to be permeated by light.

When teshuvah is motivated by love for G‑d, one’s willful transgressions are transformed into merits.40 Surely such teshuvah has an effect on one’s good deeds as well, enabling the positive nature of those good deeds which were exiled in the realm of kelipah to be revealed and shine forth.

The second reason Rashi gives is that Moshe was alluding to the fact that G‑d had established fixed distinctions within the world. By mentioning the distinction between morning and evening, Moshe was also alluding to the advantage of mitzvos which shine over mitzvos which are in exile in kelipah. For although both day and night are creations of G‑d, and a complete day includes them both,41 the night is dark, and the day, bright.

Similarly, whether or not one has the proper intent, the mitzvos one performs are G‑dly acts. Nevertheless, with the proper intent, these acts radiate light; without the proper intent, they are dark.

This also lets us appreciate Moshe’s response to Korach’s claims: “Why do you hold yourself supreme, [since] the entire congregation is holy, and G‑d is in their midst.” Every Jew is holy. Moreover, this holiness affects not only the souls of the people, but also their bodies. As a result, they have the ability to draw down G‑d’s essence through the physical observance of mitzvos.

The intent of the mitzvos is that they produce light. In this context, there is a great — indeed, an incomparable — advantage to the observance of the mitzvos by Moshe over their observance by the Jewish people as a whole.

Moshe’s Divine service, however, is not insular. We receive all our influence from Moshe — and “the extension of Moshe in every generation.” This applies not only to our intellectual and emotional service, but also to our observance of the mitzvos.42 In particular, the connection to Moshe enables our deeds to radiate light.

A Twofold Mission

On this basis, we can derive a lesson from the parshiyos Shelach and Korach. There are those who think that the actual observance of mitzvos is not that important; that what’s most important is having a Jewish heart. And they bring proof from our Sages, who say:43 “G‑d desires the heart.”

In contrast, there are those who say that all that matters is the actual performance of mitzvos; that the study of Chassidus and the pursuit of inner refinement is not critical; after all, “deed is most essential.”

With these two parshiyos, the Torah refutes the narrowness in both approaches. Parshas Shelach stresses that the approach of the spies, who sought to remain isolated within the spiritual realm, is undesirable. And Parshas Korach shows that the performance of mitzvos in and of itself is also insufficient.

A fusion of both approaches is necessary. This was epitomized in the conduct of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, who dedicated himself to both purposes. On one hand, he devoted his greatest energies, even risking his life, to ensure that a Jewish child should study the alef-beis, that another Jew should observe even one mitzvah. This applies even to Jews who were far from appreciating the intent of the mitzvos or the inner refinement which they are intended to achieve.

Even so, my revered father-in-law sacrificed himself so that such people would observe even one mitzvah. Simultaneously, however, he sacrificed himself to spread the study of Torah, and particularly the study of P’nimiyus HaTorah, the Torah’s mystic secrets. Furthermore, he encouraged his followers to devote themselves to prayer.

This is the path which my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, blazed for all who desire to follow him. Both thrusts are important. Just as we must realize that “deed is most essential,” we must also realize that our performance of the mitzvos must be refined and pure. This is accomplished through the study of P’nimiyus HaTorah, and through prayerful service within our hearts.

Through these twofold efforts, we will fashion a dwelling for G‑d in this lower realm, and His essence will shine therein.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Korach, 5722)