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What Was Korach's "Pit-Fall"? (Parshas Korach)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 23, 2020



Two old friends met up for lunch one day. They were both extremely successful, with long, productive careers. Yosef was happy, always smiled from head to toe, and gave off an aura of energetic positivity. While Daniel was just as successful on the outside, his life was falling apart. His relationships had gone sour and his health was failing. He was bitter and unhappy.

When they finished catching each other up on the latest developments in their lives, they sat silently for a few moments. Then Daniel, with a sudden softness to his face, looked to Yosef. "Can I ask you a question? What happened to me? When did I become so bitter, so empty? We used to be the same, you and I, but somewhere along the line, things changed. You kept on heading up and I just fell apart. What happened".

Yosef had spent plenty of time thinking about this very question, but he never thought that Daniel would ask him about it. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, deciding how best to formulate his response.

"You and I were very similar growing up. We were both driven to achieve greatness in all areas of life: professionally, personally, and spiritually. But somewhere along the line, you decided that you were already perfect. You stopped growing, you stopped wanting more. A plant is what is, a dog is the same, but a human being has infinite potential. We are never finished, we are never perfect. I don't know if you stopped enjoying the process or if you thought you already finished, but you stopped trying to become more. You settled. You decided that you are perfect.

The one principle that I try to place at the center of my life is the fact that that there is always room to grow. It is in this very growth that I find my happiness, it is in the becoming itself I find my greatness.


Enigmatic Reversal


Have you ever felt on top of the world, energy pulsing through your veins, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way? Most people, at some point in their lives, have felt invincible, unstoppable, almost Godly. And yet, these very same people, at other points in their lives, have felt weak, incapable, deflated, and worthless. If we take a step outside ourselves, and realize that everyone experiences this, we are likely struck by how strange and paradoxical this experience is. How can we feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time [or maybe even simultaneously]? There is a fundamental truth that lies at the root of this experience, one that sheds light on the inner meaning of a strange event in Parshas Korach.


The Story of Korach


The story of Korach is often considered one of rebellion, but it can also be seen as a case of mistaken idealism, a philosophical challenge, or misplaced spiritual yearning. At the most basic level, it seems that Korach attempted a coup, rallying supporters from amongst Klal Yisrael in an attempt to overthrow Moshe and Aharon's leadership. However, Chazal add multiple mysterious layers to Korach's attempted rebellion that far surpass the idea of a typical attempt to seize power.


The Midrash[1] fills in the background behind Korach’s contentions, detailing the specific arguments that Korach brought to support his case. Korach challenged Moshe: “Should a room full of sefarim require a mezuzah on its doorpost?” In other words, should a room full of holy objects require the finishing touch of a mezuzah affixed upon its doorpost? Similarly, Korach asked: “Should a four-cornered garment made completely of techeiles require techeiles in its strings.” Meaning, if the garment itself is made completely of techeiles, why require additional techeiles in its strings? These questions set the stage for Korach’s main question: “If the entire Jewish Nation is holy and exalted, “kol he’edah kulam kedoshim”[2], why should you, Moshe and Aharon, hold uniquely exalted positions of power? In other words, why do we need you as spiritual leaders if we are all, in fact, spiritually perfect?


Although it is possible to find elements of truth in Korach's claims, his approach and arguments are critically flawed and ultimately lead to him being punished severely. The ground opens up, and, like a mouth, consumes Korach, his followers, and all their possessions. This punishment is unique, and strikingly so, a fact that is not coincidental.


As Moshe stands up to Korach's claims against his leadership, he specifically asks Hashem that Korach be punished in a new, unique, and unnatural way to prove that Moshe indeed acts only as a messenger of Hashem. Moshe says that if Korach dies a natural death, then Moshe was not sent by Hashem. If, however, Korach dies because "briyah yivrah Hashem" (Bamidbar 16:30) - Hashem created something out of the ordinary and the ground swallows them and their possessions up alive, it should stand as proof that Korach and his followers were in the wrong, acting against Hashem's will. 


The nature of this punishment is quite strange. Why does Moshe emphasize that Korach must be punished by something completely novel, and why is the ground swallowing them up the proper punishment for their crimes? In order to answer this question, we must delve into the depth behind Korach's argument to better understand where he went wrong.


Three Spiritual Perspectives of the Physical World


There are three main approaches to understanding the relationship between the spiritual and physical world. The first approach is that of monotheism, which centers around the concept of one God. Within this classical worldview, Hashem is both all-perfect and completely transcendent. He resides beyond the universe of space and time, completely detached from this physical world. 


The second approach is that of pantheism, which asserts that the entirety of the physical universe is itself God. In other words, there is nothing that transcends this world.[3] This is a completely immanent perspective of Hashem. What results from this theory is actually quite startling; if Hashem isthe world, and He is“nature”, then humanity is actually part of Hashem. The common understanding of pantheism is that Hashem is the “soul” of the universe, the physical world is the expression of Hashem, and there is nothing more of Hashem than what we see expressed in the universe. The problem with this perspective is that it places limitations on Hashem, as positing that Hashem is nothing more than the universe itself. Furthermore, this breaks down the concept of boundaries, and consequently, Halacha (Jewish law). If one is part of Hashem, then one can easily claim that whatever he or she does is the will of Hashem! Lastly, with pantheism comes a complete breakdown of boundaries. There is no difference between you and another human being, or between you and this rock, or even between you and Hashem; after all, we are all Hashem anyways.


The third approach is that of panentheism, which is a synthesis of these first two extremes. Most Kabbalistic and mystical thinkers hold a Panentheistic view of the world[4]. According to this view, Hashem is both transcendent, as in monotheism, and immanent, as in pantheism. While at root, Hashem is transcendent and infinite, He also manifests and expresses Himself in the physical world. This differs from pantheism, because while it sees the physical world as a manifestation of Hashem, Hashem Himself is completely beyond the world as well. It differs from traditional monotheism, as it posits that Hashem is not only transcendent, but rather that the physical world itself is also connected to and an aspect of Hashem, that Hashem manifests and expresses Himself within this world.[5] In essence, it is a deeper and more wholistic form of monotheism.


Korach's Sin


As many Jewish thinkers explain[6], Korach's sin lay in his pantheistic view. He believed that the physical world, as well as all the people within it, are part of Hashem Himself, and therefore already spiritually perfect.Korach says, "kol ha'edah kulam kedoshim"- the whole nation is holy. There is no difference between me and Moshe, or me and Aharon, or the Jewish People and their leaders. Everything is Hashem, everything is one. Within pantheism, there are no boundaries or distinctions, and nothing higher to connect to. Hashem is only connected to the here and now, and therefore we do not need to look for anything transcendent, higher, or beyond this physical world.


Straightening the Bent Path


If Korach's mistake indeed lay in his pantheistic worldview, how were his questions and proofs a reflection of this? As we previously discussed[7], the purpose of techeiles and tzitzis is to straighten the bent path, and help connect you back to Hashem, your source. Let us briefly recall the parable we mentioned:


Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see exactly where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn, bending off its straight course, then if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, and it is no longer clear where we come from. When we look around. we no longer see a universe that loyally reflects its Godliness.[8]


Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment. It is only when the garment ends, and begins to bend, that we are obligated to attach tzitzis to the corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, the tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path. The different details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea.We wear techeiles, strings dyed a beautiful ocean blue color,to trace ourselves back to sea, then to the sky, then to the kisei ha'kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately to Hashem Himself. The gematria of tzitzis is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots you get 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvoswe use to connect ourselves to Hashem.[9]


Korach claimed that a four-cornered garment made up of techeiles is already spiritual, and therefore does not require additional strings of techeiles. Halacha dictates that once the garment bends (once the physical world no longer perfectly reflects its spiritual root), we must straighten the bent path with strings of techeiles, helping us source ourselves back to Hashem, and thereby straighten the bent path. Essentially, Korach claimed that spirituality can be self-contained, confined only to the garment (the physical world) itself, without any need to connect to a higher source beyond the physical world.


Similarly, the purpose of a mezuzah is to connect your physical makom, your physical room, back to its spiritual source, Hashem Himself.[10] Whenever you enter a room, and pass a mezuzah, you are immediately reminded to source yourself back to Hashem. Fascinatingly, the mezuzah is placed on a slanted, bent angle on top of the doorpost. While this may appear to contradict the principle we just presented, about straightening the bent path, it actually adds another layer of depth to it. While the mezuzah may appear to be crooked, this is only according to our limited perception. In reality, the world itself is crooked, a fallen vestige of a world that once fully and loyally reflected Hashem. We are mistaken if we assume that our current, limited perception of the world is objective truth. Instead, we must learn to realign ourselves and our perception with the truth, instead of trying to align the truth (the straight path) with our crooked and bent perception. Rather than bending the truth to fit our world view, we must learn to fit ourselves into the truth.


This was Korach's sin: Korach claimed that a room full of sefarim (spiritual books) was already a spiritual room, and therefore did not require a mezuzah. It did not need to be connected back to any outside spiritual source, as it was already perfect. This represents Korach’s claim that the physical world itself is already independently spiritual and perfect and does not require a connection to any higher spiritual source. Essentially, Korach rejected the idea that we must straighten the bent path, claiming instead that the physical world is already straight, free of any need to be further straightened.


This is what Korach meant by "kol ha'edah kulam kedoshim"- all of the Jewish People are already perfect, and as a result, Moshe and Aharon had no right to maintain any form of leadership. A leader is only necessary if a nation needs direction, but a nation which is perfect does not require any hierarchy or leadership.


A New Punishment


We can now understand why Moshe asked Hashem to create a "chiddush"- a completely novel punishment for Korach. From a Pantheistic viewpoint, everything in this world is already perfect, as it is Hashem. Consequently, there can be no chiddush, there can be absolutely nothing new. The logic behind this is simple: If there is nothing outside the system, no transcendent force outside the physical world, there can also be nothing new that comes into the world. For example, if there is nothing more to music than the seven notes on the musical scale, a new note cannot be created. Once you limit the system to what it already is, nothing new can be added.


Therefore, Moshe asked Hashem to add something new to the world, a novel phenomenon, thereby punishing Korach midah kineged midah (measure for measure). His very claim would be undone through his punishment. He claimed that there is nothing outside the limited framework of the physical world, nothing new can be added; as a result, Hashem created a new punishment just for him. We must still ask though, why did Hashem specifically choose to have the earth swallow Korach up? Is there a deeper meaning to this specific punishment?


Why the Earth Swallowed Him Up


Korach's sin can be most potently defined as gayvah (haughtiness). In essence, Korach claimed that he, and all of Klal Yisrael, were no different from Hashem Himself. Korach single-handedly raised himself up to the level of perfection, of Godliness. While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, as we are all created bi'tzelem Elokim- in the image of Hashem, Korach corrupted this principle and took it to the extreme.


This is why Korach's punishment was so fitting. He claimed that he was perfect, and in so doing- raised himself up to infinite heights. As a consequence, Hashem opened up the earth, swallowing Korach and sending him to the very lowest of depths imaginable. Korach's ego and haughtiness sunk him, quite literally, to the lowest, most insignificant level possible.[11]


Always a Chance for Redemption


The pasuk in Tehillim[12] says, "TzaddiKatamaYifrach"- the righteous will bloom like palm trees. The last letter of each of these words spells Korach. In other words, while Korach himself was swallowed up by the earth, he was like a planted seed that would later sprout fruits.


As a matter of fact, Chazal[13] say that Korach's children survived Korach's punishment because they did teshuva as they were being swallowed up. Can you think of anything more profound and inspiring than this? Korach's entire claim lay in his belief that humans are equal to Hashem, and are therefore already perfect. Since we are perfect, we not only don't needto change and grow, but we can't. Something that is perfect cannot change or grow, it must remain static.[14] The children of Korach survived by doing teshuva. Teshuva is the ultimate expression of the human ability to change, to grow, to transform from one state of being to another.[15] The seed was planted, and the righteous palm trees sprouted. It is no surprise that many years later, Shmuel Ha'Navi came from the seed of Korach, a tzaddik who devoted his life to ascending the spiritual ladder of growth and traveled across Eretz Yisrael inspiring others to do the same.[16]


Korach’s pitfall resulted in his actual “pit-fall”. May we be inspired to learn from Korach’s mistake and harness the beauty of being human. Our humanity is our unique Godliness. We have the ability to grow, to become, to change, to evolve, to actualize more and more of our tzelem Elokim, and achieve our destiny in this world. We aren’t perfect, we are becoming perfect. This is why we can feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time. We aren’t perfect, we are on a journey of becoming, of actualizing our fullest potential. Sometimes we feel and fully embrace the Godliness within us, sometimes we feel the void, realizing our shortcomings, and yearn to become more. We aren’t Hashem, but we are meant to strive every day to come closer and closer to Him.


[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3

[2] Bamidbar 16:3

[3] Whether this view asserts that God is the laws of physics and nature, or is the actual physical universe itself, or both, is a matter of dispute.

[4] Mystical thinkers referenced in this sefer include, but are not limited to: The Ramban, Arizal Maharal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, R’ Chaim Volozhin, R’ Tzaddok, and R’ Eliyahu Dessler.

[5] Pantheism means “all is God”. Pan means “all” and theism means “God”. Panentheism means “all is withinGod”. Pan “all”, en “is in”, theism “God”. See chapter on Parshas Va’eschanan, section: “Hashem as the Makom of the World”.

[6] Such as Rav Moshe Shapiro tz”l

[7] See last week’s article on Parshas Shelach.

[8] See article on Parshas Mikeitz, section: “Adam Ha’Rishon”.

[9] Food for thought: Moshe’s straight mateh which turned into a bent snake, the mitzvah of mezuza (which lies benton the doorpost), and the copper snake on the straight mateh which overcame the plague in the midbar are all connected to this topic, but are beyond the scope of this chapter.

[10] See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mezuzah 6:13

[11] There is a blatant contradiction in Korach’s arguement. On the one hand, he argues against Moshe and Aharon’s right to leadership, claiming that no one has a right to rule over a nation that is already perfect. On the other hand, he tries to grab this leadership role for himself. This is the twisted logic of a ba’al gayvah, one blinded by his own ego.

[12] Perek 92

[13] See Bamidbar 26:11, Megilah 14a, Sanhedrin 110a.

[14] See article on Parshas Masei for a more nuanced understanding of perfection. See section, “Two Forms of Perfection”.

[15] See article on Parshas Re’eh for a deeper analysis of teshuva.

[16] See Bamidbar Rabbah 3:11. Both Shmuel and Korach came from Kehas.


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