It’s Hard Work to Keep Your Head on Straight

Parshas Korach 5779

Bamidbar 16:1

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן

And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi took, and Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On, son of Pellet, sons of Reuben.

This is one weird verse! What, exactly, did he (and they) take? This is a blatantly obvious problem with the verse, which virtually all of the mefarshim (explanations) address. But there is another issue which is a little less obvious: why the vav (and) at the very beginning of the verse? What does it signify?

There are three basic opinions of the mefarshim here:

  • Either he took himself, meaning he separated himself from the rest of the group (the Children of Israel) (Rashi and others, based on the translation of Onkelos);
  • Or he took other people, as the parsha goes on to speak about in the next verses (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and others);
  • Or he took his heart, meaning that this was the conclusion of a thought process which ended with him making a decision.

However, I wonder if the vav might be an important factor in understanding the issue.

Pardon me while I wax technical for a moment. Although the mefarshim seem to hold that this is a linguistic “double-negative” rule, meaning that the vav is there to convert the word from future tense (יקח as opposed to לקח) into a past tense, it still begs the question: why not just write ולקח and be done with it? After all, this is something that happened in the past, so why use the “double negative form” here? Unless it is coming to tell us that this issue is connected, as vavs tend to do, to an issue that we saw previously?

Apparently, there was something that happened to Korach that made him take himself aside. It wasn’t just middle-age crisis. Here the Torah is stressing that as a result of that thing Korach took a new direction in life, which led him into conflict with Moshe, our Teacher.

Both Rashi and the Ramban agree that this story is listed in chronological order, that it happened after the sin of the spies, so there can be no doubt that the ban on the generation of Egypt from entering the Land was certainly involved here. However, our sages ob”m tell us that it goes even deeper than that. In truth, Korach had more than one gripe about the leadership of Moses. He was upset that he wasn’t picked to be the leader of the house of Kehat, rather his nephew Eltzafan was chosen in his stead (see Rashi ad loc).

In my humble opinion, the explanations of Rashi and Ramban are not all that different from one another. The end result was that Korach instigated a rebellion, but like all rebellions, it begins somewhere. If we are to follow the simple understanding of the verse – it says as follows:

And Korach took himself/his heart. This is the beginning of the whole story. It all really begins with Korach alone. He is jealous of the honor and respect that the tribe accords his nephew, Eltzafan. He truly wants his position, but he cannot figure out how to get it that doesn’t sound self-serving and haughty[1]. So, what is one in his situation to do? Very simple, find a better argument that is less self-serving that also is connected to Moshe, have that topic over-ruled and along the way “pick up” the thing that you have really wanted all along!

The argument begins…

So, he then gathers together his core-anti-Moshe group. First, he connects to Datan and Aviram, two important men from the Tribe of Reuben who are the first to instigate problems for Moshe. Then he adds On, son of Pellet to the group. Now, that it isn’t just Korach by himself, the time has come. Viva la Revolution! Which brings us to verse 2.

וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָים נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם

And they got up in front of Moshe, and two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, (who were) princes of the congregation, who call the moadim (festivals), men of a name (stature).

The operational word in the verse is ויקמו, “and they got up.” As the saying goes “something gets lost in translation.” In this instance, it is a small bit of information that doesn’t translate well. The word ויקמו isn’t the singular of the verb (which is ויקם), it’s the plural form. They got up in Moshe’s face many times, and eventually, they were joined by an additional 250 men of importance: princes, Rabbi’s, men who had made names for themselves.

What was it that Korach said when he “got up?” What was it that rallied all of these great men to the camp of Korach? Our sages, ob”m, tell us that it was din Torah. Korach was a master politician, he knew what spoke to his constituents and he played them like a fiddle. Our sages, ob”m, also tell us that Korach was the guy that “had it all.” He was smart, he was rich[2], he had yichus (lineage). All that he lacked was that one little thing that wasn’t his to have, but he wanted it and felt that he deserved it because of all of the above, yet he was given the short stick. And he couldn’t get over it.

“Not everything that Moses does is from HaShem!” he claimed. “He abuses his position, offering the most important positions in Am Yisroel to those who are close to him!” he shouted. “For example, the position of the Kohein Gadol he gave to his brother, Aharon, and his nephews!” This spoke to the upper echelons of the people, who had been given a taste of kavod (honor) and were ready for more. This spoke to the bechoros of the nation who were, originally, slated to be the kohanim of the nation, but lost that position because of the sin of the golden calf, and were always hoping beyond hope that they could somehow get that back. “Come with me,” said Korach “and I’ll prove it to you!”

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:2) says that he took all of his constituents, (the aforementioned group), dressed them up in talleisim (a 4 cornered overgarment) that were made entirely out of the color techeles (a blueish color) and they all walked into Moshe’s court. They didn’t go in with the tallis in hand, to ask the Rebbe, Moshe, whether this garment requires tzitzit (to tie strings on the corners, one of which should be a string of techeles, as mentioned at the end of last week’s parsha). They entered wearing them because they already “knew” the answer. “Does this garment require tzitzit, or not?” he asked of Moshe. “It requires tzitzit” was Moshe’s answer. At which point Korach began belittling Moshe’s ruling “How could it be? If by a regular four-cornered garment one string of techeles is enough, then even more-so if the garment is entirely made from techeles then no strings are required.” Following the same logic, he then asked Moshe a second question “A house which is full of sefarim (books of the Torah), does it require that one put a mezuzah on the doorpost or not?” Again, Moshe answered, “It requires a mezuzah.” To which Korach responded “How could that be? If a regular house is permitted by placing one parsha (chapter of the Torah that is written on it) on its doorpost, then this house which contains all of the parashios of the Torah in it, why should it require the one parsha?”

It cannot be said that there is no logic to Korach’s arguments. It’s not for a lack of logic that he is wrong. It’s because he didn’t want to accept that the strings of the tzitzit and the words of the mezuzah serve a different purpose. These arguments were made as the basis for Korach’s real point, which the Torah goes on to state in verse 3:

וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה’ וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה’

And that gathered together on Moshe and on Aharon, and they said to them “You have too much! For all of the congregation are holy, and HaShem dwells among them, and why should you raise yourselves above the congregation of HaShem?”

This reminds me of a story that I once heard (I believe from Rav Berel Wein) that took place around the time of the establishment of the state of Israel. The then Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, had his first meeting with the then president of the United States, FDR. At first, he gave the president a sefer Torah, which was the custom among many Ashkenazic Jews when meeting with great dignitaries. FDR is claimed to have looked at it with a surprised look (he probably had no idea what to do with it) and said “Thank you! I always wanted one of these!” The story goes, however, that during the course of their conversation Ben Gurion leaned over and allegedly said to FDR as follows. “Do you know, Mr. President, that I am truly envious of you!” “Is that so?” said FDR. “Yes, it is. Would you like to know why Mr. President? It’s because you have the merit to be the president of a country of two hundred million citizens, whereas I am the Prime Minister of a country with four million prime ministers!”

This is exactly what Korach was telling Moshe! Why should you be the leaders? What gave you the right to appoint yourselves? Ok! You, Moshe, I can’t really argue why you should be the leader. You did, after all, take us out of Egypt, led us through the Reed Sea, led us through the desert for all this time. You, I get. But you are not spreading around the power base well enough. You’re consolidating power within your family! Rav lachem (You are taking too much for yourselves)! Why should Aharon get to be the Kohein Gadol? (Why should your family “lord it up” over the nation?)

Learning point: It is based on this claim of Korach, coupled with the proximity to the parsha of tzitzit that our sages, ob”m, learned of Korach’s claims to Moshe in the Beit ha-Midrash. The claim of “if the entire people are holy why should we need leaders” is the same as “if the entire garment is techeles/full of books, why should we need the one string of techeles/mezuzah?”

Korach didn’t want to undermine Moshe as “King”, that was a position that he understood was necessary for the people to function as a nation and it was unquestionably Moshe’s by right. What he didn’t “understand” was why, in regards to holiness, to kedusha, there was a need for a singular “ruler” of the people? “We are all holy,” said Korach, “so why should you be the leaders regarding the matters of holiness as well?”

According to Rashi (verse 6) Moshe, in principle agreed with Korach’s argument. However, and this is the important part, Moshe understood that this is not something that is based on human logic. While Moshe, himself might agree, HaShem established it as a chok (a law for which no reason was given, or asked for) that in the service of HaShem there can be only one Kohein Gadol. He, therefore, informed all of the people who wanted to be Kohein Gadol that at the end of the “contest” there would be only one Kohein Gadol standing. He also tells them that it’s going to be the one who is already sanctified (i.e. Aharon).

As I mentioned concerning last week’s parsha, Shelach, the Kohein Gadol was the only one who was capable of wearing on his forehead the gold tzitz, upon which were written in bold words “Holy unto HaShem” (קדוש לה’), whereas the average man, not even the average Kohein could do so. This was because the job of the Kohein Gadol was the worship of HaShem on a daily basis, all day, every day, whereas the average man could not be as involved. It was for this reason that the average person would wear tzitzit (the little tzitz), which is a constant reminder that he, also has the potential to be holy. But there is only one Kohein Gadol at a time.

However, this doesn’t mean that the average person cannot strive for greatness and achieve it. Our sages, ob”m tell us that there are three crowns in the world (Avos 4:13) the crown of kings, the crown of priests, and the crown of Torah. However, the crowns of Kings and of Priests have already been taken and therefore are not available to just anyone (except for the descendants of David (kings) and Aharon (priests)), however the crown of Torah rests “in the corner” and anyone who wants to wear it may do so if they are willing to make the effort to be worthy of it. However, the Mishna states that there is a fourth crown olah al gabeihem “that fits well on any of the other ones” and that is the crown of a good name.

Another explanation of olah al gabeihem is that the crown of a good name is more important than any of the other three crowns. In the explanation of Rabbi Ovadiah mi’Bartenurah he states clearly that the meaning of the Mishna, the reason that it used this ambiguous statement in describing the crown of a good name is that the crown of a good name means both of the above explanations.

“Even though the Torah doesn’t ascribe to one who has achieved the crown of a good name (i.e. that people who know him only have good things to say of him due to his good deeds) that one must award him honor,  it is more important (in many ways) than the other three crowns, for the other three crowns, require it. For if he is a talmid chacham (one who has made the effort and acquired the crown of Torah, yet he hasn’t acquired the crown of a good name), and his deeds are spiteful it is permissible to be derisive of him. And if he is the Kohein Gadol (and yet lacks the crown of a good name)… [(I’m paraphrasing here) the people will give no respect to one who doesn’t act like a child of Aharon]. And if he is the king (and doesn’t have the crown of a good name) concerning him, the verse says (Shemos 22) “and a prince in your nation you shall not curse” as long as he behaves as one of your nation.”

The above are all positions of power and respect in Am Yisroel, but just because they have the position doesn’t mean that they deserve the “awards” of the positions. To deserve the awards of the positions you have to deserve them because of your work on your middos. Or in other words, it’s not the title that conveys the honor, but rather the middos of the title bearer that do.

There are many, many lessons here that need to be conveyed from the portion of Korach, but I would like to focus on a few:

  1. Don’t trust yourself until the day that you die (Tractate Berachos 28a)
  2. Work on one’s middos must be done consistently, every day. For on the days that we don’t work on our middos we slide.
  3. Don’t think too much of yourself. Despite it all, you’re really not all that great.
  4. Even if you have Torah, if you don’t constantly remember the above and work to internalize them, all of your Torah won’t save you.

A little bit of explanation:

  1. Don’t trust yourself until the day that you die

Korach was, despite his great wealth and the respect that he had, a great man. It wasn’t for a lack of greatness that he became what he became. As we mentioned earlier, he became what he became as the result of many things that happened in his “recent” past. Yet that was enough to lose it all.

He was not alone in this regard. There were a number of great individuals who lost everything despite the greatness, the sacrifice, and the effort that they had previously invested in themselves. Yerovam Ben Navat is a prime example of this, although there were many others throughout history.

  • Work on one’s middos must be done consistently, every day. For on the days that we don’t work on our middos we slide.

(HaShem shouldn’t test me!) Had Korach been working on his middos, he would have understood that everything that HaShem decides for him is for the best. If HaShem decided not to give him the position of the nassi – it was the best possible thing that could happen to him. I could think of two reasons, off the top of my head why this is true. First of all, because of what our sage, ob”m, say in Tractate Avos that jealousy, desire and kavod (honor) remove a person from this world. But even more so, as our sages teach us that public service shortens the lifespan of a man.

This is, of course, easier said than done. One prime example of just how difficult this is we learn from the story of Chonyo and his brother Istrabulous. These two were brothers, kohanim and great men; however, everyone knew that Chonyo was the greater of the two. When their father, the Kohein Gadol passed away the Kohanim wanted to appoint Chonyo as the new Kohen Gadol, but out of humility, he deferred to his older brother Israbulous. However, after the appointment, the desire for the position and the honor accorded to his brother as the Kohein Gadol became overbearing to Chonyo, and he began to try to get his brother ousted from the Beit haMikdash. To make the story short: Chonyo’s machinations were discovered and had to flee Israel for his life. So, obviously, even if you do the right thing it requires constant work on oneself and one’s emunah in order to stand up to the test, especially the test of kavod.

  • Don’t think too much of yourself. Despite it all, you’re really not all that great.

This is a prime directive in all of a person’s avodas HaShem. Beginning with our father Avraham, who said concerning himself (Bereshis 18:27) אנכי עפר ואפר, “I am as dust and soot” and going down through all of the great men of Israel, the rule is that as great as you are – you’re still not all that great!

The issue is not that a person should have an inferiority complex, but rather that I should understand that I really don’t have all that much to take pride in! If I am wealthy, despite all of my desire to think otherwise the truth is that I am that way because HaShem decided I was to be wealthy. If I am smart, I might have honed my wits, but I got the smart from HaShem! If I am strong, I might have worked at making myself stronger, but I get it from HaShem. Everything that I have in life I get as a gift. Even if I have become a great talmid chacham, guess what? In tractate Avos, our sages ob”m say “If you have learned a lot of Torah don’t hold yourself as “good” for this is what you were created for.” And if you are a talmid chacham and yet you have no yiras shamayim (fear of heaven) concerning you our sages say (Vayikra Rabbah 1:15) “a rotting corpse is better than you.”

The polar opposite of this is true, as our sages ob”m teach us (Tractate Chagiga 16b) “If your Rebbe is like an Angel of HaShem, the Lord of Hosts, then you should seek out Torah from him.”

One of the most fundamental works of mussar that is printed in virtually every siddur (prayer book) is the Igerret ha’Ramban (The Letter from the Ramban, which he wrote to his son, who was in Spain, after his forced exile to the Holy Land). One of the things that the Ramban specifies is that whenever you meet someone – you should treat everyone with respect and consider them to be your superior. Not because you don’t recognize your own capabilities, skills, and accomplishments, but rather because you recognize that you still have what to work on and that in G-d’s eyes perhaps this other person is greater than you.

  • Even if you have Torah, if you don’t constantly remember the above and work to internalize them, all of your Torah won’t save you.

That is the main lesson of Korach. If you let your self-importance get to your head, if you feel that you are more important than you are, if you demand respect of others then you are using the “clothing” of The King, as the verse says “HaShem is King, and He wears geyut (the language of respect)” (See Igeret ha’Ramban for more on this). And as our sages ob”m say in Tractate Avos (1:13) “One who (mis)uses the Crown (of Torah) will disappear.”

With HaShem’s help, topics like this and many others will be developed in my upcoming book, Core Emunah 3 “Me & My G-d”


[1] If one pays close attention to the words of Rashi on verse 19, where the Torah says that Korach gathered together the entire people and was speaking to them all night, saying “Do you think that I am doing this only for my sake? No! I’m doing it for your sakes! These people (Moshe and Aharon) are taking all of the power positions in the nation for themselves…”

[2] In Hebrew when one wants to say about someone that they are really wealthy, the saying always was “He’s rich, like Korach!” (עשיר כקורח). Our sages, ob”m, tell us that he became wealthy after discovering one of the hidden treasure stashes of Yosef, from the times of the famine, when Egypt supplied the entire known world with food (at a price).

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