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

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 09, 2021




Two old friends met up for lunch one day. They were both extremely successful, with long, productive careers. Yosef was happy, always smiling 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 updating each other up on the latest developments in their lives, they sat silently for a few moments. Then Daniel, with a sudden vulnerability in his face, looked at 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 moving 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 directly. 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 every day, 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.”

Yosef paused a moment, and with a sparkle in his eye and conviction in his voice, said: “The one principle that I try to place at the center of my life is the fact that there is always room to grow. It is in this very growth that I find my happiness, it is in the becoming itself that 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, at other times, these very same people 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 phenomenon 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 idea 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, 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.” After all, if the garment itself is made completely of techeiles, why should it require additional techeiles in its strings?
  • These questions preface 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 spiritually perfect?


Although there may be 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 to punish Korach 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” - Hashem creates something out of the ordinary and the ground swallows them alive, along with their possessions - it should stand as proof that Korach and his followers were in the wrong, acting against Hashem's will.[3]

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 these questions, we must delve into Korach's argument and better understand where he went wrong.


Three Spiritual Perspectives of the Physical World


There are three main approaches to the relationship between the spiritual and the physical world. The first approach is that of monotheism, which centers around the concept of one God. Within this classical worldview, Hashem is both completely perfect and completely transcendent. He exists 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.[4] This is a completely immanent perspective of Hashem. What results from this theory is actually quite startling; if Hashem is the world, and He is “nature”, then humanity literally is 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, positing that Hashem is nothing more than the universe itself. Furthermore, this breaks down the concept of boundaries, and consequently, challenges the validity of 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 distinction and difference. 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 a deeper, more holistic form of monotheism, a synthesis of these first two polar extremes. This is the worldview of most Kabbalistic and mystical thinkers. According to this view, Hashem is both transcendent, as in traditional 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 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. It differs from pantheism, because while it sees the physical world as a manifestation of Hashem, Hashem Himself is completely beyond the physical world.[5] In essence, it is a deeper and more holistic form of monotheism.[6]


Korach's Sin


As many Jewish thinkers explain, 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 entire 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 assertions a reflection of this? 

As we previously discussed[7], the purpose of techeiles and tzitzis is to straighten the bent path and help connect us back to Hashem, our 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 and bends 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 you knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path, directly back to the Source of the world. However, when Adam sinned, the entire world fell. [8] 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 clearly and loyally reflects its Godliness.[9]

Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment.[10] It is only when the edge of the garment 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, tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path.[11]

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. Korach claimed that a four-cornered garment made up of techeiles is already spiritual, and therefore does not require additional strings of techeiles. 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.[12] 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.


Rejecting Our Mission


This was Korach's sin: Korach claimed that a room full of sefarim (holy Jewish 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 beyond the physical world - there can be nothing new that comes into the world. Once the system is fundamentally and inherently limited to what it already is, with no higher outside force that can affect it, 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 disproved through his punishment. He claimed that there is nothing outside the limited framework of the physical world, that 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?


Korach’s Pitfall


Korach's sin can be most clearly defined as gayvah (haughtiness). In essence, Korach claimed that he, and all of Klal Yisrael, were no different from Hashem. 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 distorted this principle and took it to the extreme.

This is why Korach's punishment was so appropriate. 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.[13]


Always a Chance for Redemption


The pasuk in Tehillim[14] says, "Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach"- the righteous will bloom like palm trees. The last letters from each of these words spell Korach.[15] While Korach was swallowed up by the earth, he was like a planted seed that would later sprout fruits. As a matter of fact, Chazal[16] state that Korach's children survived Korach's punishment, as 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 need to change and grow, but we can't. Something that is perfect cannot change or grow, it must remain static.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]


Becoming Perfect


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.[20] 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.

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.


[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3.

[2] Bamidbar 16:3.

[3] Bamidbar 16:30.

[4] 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.

[5] A more technical term for this approach is “Panentheism”. Pantheism means “all is God”. Pan means “all” and theism means “God”. Panentheismmeans “all is within God”. Pan “all”, en “is in”, theism “God”.

[6] For more on this topic, see chapter on Parshas Va’eschanan, section: “Hashem as the Makom of the World”.

[7] See last week’s chapter on Parshas Shelach. See also chapter on Parshas Va’eira.

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

[9] Instead, we see we see a physical world of multiplicity and twoness. For more on the topic of twoness and its relationship to oneness, see chapter on Parshas Balak.

[10] Four-cornered garment.

[11] The details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea. The tzitzis strings are techeiles, dyed a beautiful ocean blue color. This reminds us of the sea, which reminds us of the sky, which then reminds us of the Kisei Ha'kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately helps us trace ourselves back to Hashem Himself. The gematria (numerical value) of the word “tzitzis” is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots, you get a total of 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvos we use to connect ourselves to Hashem. [Food for thought: the copper snake (bent) on the mateh (straight) in the midbar which overcame the plague connects to this topic as well.]

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

[13] 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.

[14] Perek 92.

[15] קרח = צַדִיק כַּתָמָר יִפְרָח

[16] See Bamidbar 26:11, Megillah 14a, Sanhedrin 110a.

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

[18] See chapter on Parshas Re’eh for a deeper analysis of teshuva.

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

[20] For more on this topic, see chapter on Parshas Masei.


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