Korach: Some Are More Holy Than Others

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The survival of the Jewish people in the desert was a direct result and only possible because of Divine intervention: the splitting of the sea; water from a rock; living on manna from heaven; clothes that did not wear out; and snakes and scorpions being kept away. The Jewish people were passive recipients of Divine favour, with no worries about survival.

In many ways, life in the desert resembled life in Egypt, where all their needs were also taken care of. But such dependency is not what G-d wants for us. He took us out of Egypt so that we could form a self- reliant society with the Torah as our Constitution. In many ways, life in the desert—and in Egypt, for that matter—was easier. This helps to explain their constant desire to go back to Egypt (and why many chose not to leave in the first place) as well as their immediate acceptance of the negative report by the majority of the spies. They were loathe to undertake the hard work involved in settling a new land.

The transition to life in an independent state was a two-step process. Step one was receiving the Torah at Sinai, and thereby replacing slavery to Pharaoh with servitude to G-d. They were not yet ready to plant, harvest, and produce through their own efforts, relying instead on heaven for their sustenance (and even direction) in life. As the tragedy of the meraglim highlighted, it would take another generation until they were ready to work the land.

Step two would take place once the Jewish people were settled in the Land of Israel. Working the land, harvesting the brainpower of the Jewish people, they were tasked to become world leaders in science and technology (Devarim 6:4 and Shabbat 75a). This new Jew, so distant from his Egyptian forebears, would produce goods not as a slave, but as a loving servant of G-d. This Jew worked within the laws of nature, even as he understood that it is G-d who controls the natural process.

Korach’s rebellion is often seen as the story of a jealous cousin seizing an opportunistic moment to challenge the leadership of Moshe. As Rashi notes (Bamidbar 16:1), Korach was upset that his younger cousin, Elizaphan ben Uziel, was appointed to a position of leadership instead of himself. With the decree of death in the desert, if there was ever a time to challenge Moshe, it was right then and there.

Yet, perhaps Korach was more than a plotting politician, and actually had some noble—even holy—motives. Perhaps he truly and honestly believed that having to work the land was a lower level of service to G-d, that the greatest event of human history was Divine revelation at Sinai. Is it not greater to have G-d directly providing for our needs? The entire congregation is holy, Korach thundered. And there is more holiness, Korach argued, in dependence on G-d than in the work of man.

Korach gathered together n’shei ha’edah, leaders of the congregation; kri’ei mo’ed, those called to the tent of meeting, where Moshe would meet G-d; and anshei shem, men of great name. Korach had the spiritual elite on his side, those who yearned for closeness to G-d. They could not imagine life on the farm—or in a lab, for that matter— working long hours in a “secular” field. And as each individual in the nation is holy, all should be involved in a life of spiritual pursuits, to the exclusion of all else.

Like the meraglim before him, Korach and his followers were men of great potential. But that is not enough. They failed to understand the full nature of Torah, and lacked the broad vision necessary for nation-building.

“Do not be like Korach and his followers” (Bamidbar 17:5). We must not foment controversy and it is Korach who is the symbol of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven (Pirkei Avot 5:20)[1]. What Korach failed to realize is that there are many ways to worship G-d, and many paths to holiness. One can attain holiness on a farm – or in a lab – no less, and perhaps even more than in the Beit Midrash. All that is required is that one direct their heart to heaven.





 

 

 

 

[1] This teaching of the Sages would seem to undermine my argument that Korach may have acted for the sake of heaven. While that may be so, all too often (always?) arguments that begin for the sake of heaven degenerate into those that no longer are. I recall Rav Herschel Schachter quoting the view of one of the achronim, latter-day Sages, that there has not been a machloket for the sake of heaven for hundreds of years—something we would do well to remember and internalize.