Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17


Korach, Moses' mutinous cousin, earned the dubious distinction of father and prototype of all quarrelers and divisors. His very name became synonymous with disharmony and conflict. The Talmud goes so far as to proclaim: "Anyone who engages in divisiveness transgresses a Divine prohibition, as it is written: `And he shall not be as Korach and his company' when the Torah wishes to tell us not to agitate disputes and perpetuate disunity, it does so by saying: Don't be like Korach...."

But Korach was no ordinary rabble-rouser. He was a leading member of Kehotites, the most prestigious of the Levite families. Joining him in his mutiny against Moses and Aaron were "two hundred and fifty men of Israel leaders of the community, of those regularly called to assembly, men of renown." Korach's difference with Moses was an ideological one, motivated by the way in which he understood Israel's relationship with the Almighty and by the manner in which he felt the nation ought to be structured. And Korach went a lot further than engaging in divisive community politics. He rebelled against the authority of Moses and contested G d's appointment of Aaron as Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

So how is it that every petty squabbler is included in the prohibition ``not to be as Korach''? Obviously, there is something at the heart of Korach's contentions that is the essence of all disunity.

Often, the antithesis of a certain quality is superficially identical to it. This is especially so when it comes to the "root" of a matter: a hairline distinction between two seemingly similar concepts actually translates into all the difference in the world.

The same is true of "peace" and "divisiveness." The source of all divisiveness is something that misleadingly resembles true peace. It is this pseudo peace that lay at the heart of Korach's misguided vision and which ultimately led to his corruption and catastrophic end.

What Exactly Did Korach Want?

What is peace?

"Just as their faces are not alike, so, too, their minds and characters are not alike." Such is the nature of the human race: individuals and peoples differ from each other, divided by distinctions in outlook, emotional orientation, expertise, vocation, and the many other differences, great and small, which set them apart from each other.

Often, these differences give rise to animosity and conflict. And yet, at the core of the human soul is the yearning for peace. We intuitively sense that despite the tremendous (and apparently inherent) differences between us, a state of universal harmony is both desirable and attainable. But what exactly is peace? Is peace the obliteration of the differences between men and nations? Is it the creation of a "separate but equal" society in which differences are preserved but without any distinctions of "superior" and "inferior"? Or is it neither of the above?

But let us examine Korach's dispute. If we understand Korach, we will also understand the fine line that divides true peace from the essence of divisiveness.

What exactly did Korach want? His arguments against Moses and Aaron seem fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, he seems to challenge the very institution of the priesthood (kehunah), maintaining that "as the entire community is holy, and G d is within them, why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G d?" But from Moses' response we see that Korach actually desired the office of the Kohen Gadol for himself!

This paradox appears time and again in various accounts of Korach's mutiny, in the midrashim and the commentaries. Korach comes across a champion of equality, railing against a "class system" that categorizes levels of holiness within the community (Israelites, Levites, Priests and the High Priest). Yet, in the same breath, he contends that he is the more worthy candidate for the High Priesthood.

Heavenly Waters, Earthly Waters

In the Torah's account of G d's six day creation of the world, each day's work concludes with the statement: "And G d saw what He had created, and behold, it was good." Each day, that is, except the second day, the day that "G d made the firmament [of the heaven], and divided between the waters which are below the firmament and the waters which are above the firmament."

Explains the Midrash: "Why does it not say `it was good' on the second day? Because on that day divisiveness was created; as it is written `it shall divide between water and water.'" However, the Midrash then goes on to point out that on the third day the Torah says, "it was good" twice, because then "the work of the waters," begun on the second day, was completed. In other words, the division effected on the second day was a less than desirable phenomenon, but only because it was not yet complete; on the third day, this divisiveness itself is deemed "good."

Our sages tell us that G d's six days of creation correspond to the six millennia of human endeavor that follow. Therein lies the significance of the Midrash's words: in the third millennium of the world's existence, the element that resolves the conflicts created by diversity was introduced into our lives. This is the Torah, revealed to us at Sinai in the year 2448 from creation.

The Torah "was given to make peace in the world" : peace between the conflicting drives within the heart of man, peace between individuals, peace between peoples, and peace between the creation and its Creator.

The Midrash expresses the peacemaking quality of Torah with the following metaphor:

Once there was a king who decreed: "The people of Rome are forbidden to descend to Syria, and the people of Syria are forbidden to ascend to Rome." Likewise, when G d created the world He decreed and said: "The heavens are G d's, and the earth is given to man." But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded His original decree, and declared: "The lower realms may ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may descend to the lower realms."

The schism and decree to separate the heavenly from the earthly, effected by G d's "division of the waters" on the second day of creation, was thus alleviated on the third "day" of history with the revelation at Sinai. No longer were the material and the spiritual two irreconcilable realms. On that day, ``G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai,'' ``And to Moses He said, come up to G‑d.'' G d reached down to impart of His holiness to the world, and man was empowered to achieve a closeness to G d.

But the Torah does not come to blur the distinction between the holy and the mundane. Nor does it endeavor to create a uniform world society. This would hardly qualify as a state of "peace" any more than a single-hued painting or a symphony composed entirely of identical notes could be said to be a "harmonious" creation.

The Torah makes peace in the world by defining the differing roles (man and woman, Jew and non Jew, Israelite, Levite and Kohen, scholar and layman) to comprise the overall mission of humanity.

This is why the Torah is associated with the number three: a single entity or collection of identical entities can spell unanimity but not peace. If "one" represents singularity and "two" connotes divisiveness, then "three" expresses the concept of peace: the existence of two different or even polar entities, but with the addition of a third, unifying element that embraces and pervades them both, containing their differences as diverse but harmonious components of a greater whole.

The "third day" does not undo the divisions of the second. Rather, it introduces a "third" all transcendent element that they all apply their own unique qualities to serve. And it is this introduction of harmony to diversity that "completes" it and renders it "good."

Back To Korach

In light of this, Korach felt, how can we speak of "higher" and "lower" roles in G d's world? How can one say that the High Priest is loftier than the common laborer? True, the Kohen Gadol's life is wholly devoted to spiritual pursuits while the "ordinary" Israelite must contend with the mundanity of the marketplace. But "within them is G d" they serve the Divine purpose no less in the fulfillment of their role than does the Kohen Gadol in the fulfillment of his.

Korach was not opposed to division of the community by vocation, nor to the distinction between spiritual and material. On the contrary, he himself yearned for the spiritual path of the High Priesthood, to serve the Almighty utterly disinvolved from worldly affairs. What he did contest was the way in which Moses defined the division of roles within the people.

"Why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G d?," he argued. Why this "ladder" of spirituality on which the Moseses and Aarons of the generation occupy a higher rung than the farmer who works his land or the merchant engrossed in his accounts? Why is the "ordinary" Jew told to see Aaron as the one who represents him in the Sanctuary and who facilitates his relationship with G d? Is G d closer to heaven than to earth? Is serving Him by transcending the material more important a part of humanity's mission than utilizing the material existence to fulfill His will? Give me the High Priesthood, said Korach, and I will eliminate the connotations of "leadership" and "superiority" that Moses and Aaron have given it. To me, the most spiritual and the most material bond of lifestyles, and all gradations between, are all distinct but parallel paths in our endeavor to serve the Almighty.

Korach's vision seems the paragon of harmony: diverse elements unified by a common goal. And yet, in neglecting to incorporate a crucial aspect of the Torah's conception of peace, it became the source of all divisiveness and discord.

Korach's "separate but equal" world may unite its various components in that they all serve the same overall goal, but it fails to provide for any connection between them. The paths may converge at the destination, but they are separated by walls which isolate and divide them. And without a give and take relationship between them, without any sense of where they stand vis-a-vis each other, their separateness will inevitably disintegrate into factionalism and conflict.

If we refer back to the Midrash's parable of the Romans and the Syrians, we can see where Korach's vision departs from with the Torah's definition of peace. The distinction between the two realms (the material and the spiritual) is preserved, but there is movement and interrelation between them. And their relationship is defined in terms of "higher" and "lower": the heavenly descends to earth and the earthly ascends to heaven.

As seen by Torah, the gradations of spirituality among the various segments of the people does take the form of a "ladder", a ladder on which the material bound individual looks up to his more spiritual brother, and the more spiritual reaches down to provide direction and inspiration to the material bound. The farmer gives of his produce to the Kohen; he regards this gift as the holiest part of his yield, as it represents the spiritual focus of all his endeavors. The businessman looks to the scholar as the ideal; he feels trapped and stifled by the demands of his vocation and lives for the daily few minutes which he manages to devote to study.

And the spiritual leader descends to uplift his community. G d defines Aaron's role as one who "raises the lamps" : in addition to (and because of) his "personal" spiritual service of the Almighty, Aaron is the flame which ignites the "soul of man a lamp of G‑d" calling forth its luminary potential.

All this is not because those who fill the more spiritual roles are more important to the Divine purpose than those who serve it through their involvement with the material. On the contrary, G d's purpose in creation, say our sages, is that ``He desired a dwelling in the lowly realms'' - that the lower realm of the material be transformed into an environment that is hospitable and receptive to His being. In carrying this out, those on the "lowest rung" must play the most central and crucial role. But their specialty lies precisely in that they deal with the lowest elements of creation (that is, those which least express the reality of G d in any manifest way) and direct them towards the higher purpose of serving their Creator.

The moment the material bound individual begins to feel comfortable in his environment, the moment he ceases his striving to escape the material, then, no longer can he truly sublimate it he is now part of it. Only by seeing himself on the bottom looking up, only when his involvement with the mundane is forced by the call of duty as his soul yearns for a more spiritual existence, is he in the position to truly elevate his environment.

Interestingly enough, although Korach disavowed this "vertical" connection between matter and spirit, he himself was a prime example of it. Korach's desire for the High Priesthood, his yearning upward for a rung on the ladder more spiritual than his own, was a positive ambition and the ultimate refutation of his own divisive "peace."