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The Korach argument exposed

Written by d fine

The bulk of this week’s sedra is about the rebellion of Korach and his followers. Now, when one learns the sedra as a child, one thinks ‘Korach is a baddy’ and Moshe is the ‘goody’ and Korach wanted power and was stopped. Whilst one must start somewhere in order to progress, and later learning builds upon that base, one needs to examine exactly what Korach’s argument was, where it came from, and what was wrong with it? Let’s see…
First question; the sedra starts with the words ‘and Korach took.’ What did he take? The Targum explains that Korach took himself aside, in order to start his machlokes. The Torah does not tell us insignificant things. It never says ‘Moshe breathed,’ even though he did! Why is it significant to tell us that Korach ‘took himself aside?’
Another interesting thing here is that Korach says (pasuk 3) ‘the entire people is holy and HaShem is amongst them so why do you assume leadership.’ Following the words, Korach is simply claiming that because all Bnei Yisrael are holy, there is no need for any leaders. But Moshe replies (5) that ‘tomorrow HaShem will choose who He wants.’ Hold on a minute, Moshe is not responding to Korach at all; Korach said that there should not be any leaders, so why is Moshe saying tomorrow HaShem will choose, as if Korach said that he should be the leader – Surely Korach is not challenging the leader, he is challenging the concept of leadership? This is key to what Korach is really saying and why…

The gemarra (Psachim 119a) says that Korach’s problem was that he was too rich and haughty. Moshe knew that Korach really wanted leadership for himself (Rashi 16;1), but just hid behind the excuse of challenging the concept of leadership. Therefore, Moshe was actually responding to Korach, for he knew what Korach really wanted and why Korach was really saying what he was saying. It is interesting that, upon closer examination, one can see Korach’s true motivations in his choice of words (perhaps this is how Moshe knew). First, he says ‘rav lachem’ ie you have too much, implying he is challenging Moshe and Aharon personally and not the existence of their positions. Korach also says ‘the nation are holy and HaShem is amongst them,’ whilst if Korach really intends to act for the good of the people, and not just assume leadership for himself, he should say ‘amongst us.’ Lastly, Korach says ‘kulam kedoshim’ meaning everyone is (present tense) holy, whilst when HaShem relates this concept to us, He says ’Kenosha tihiyu’ (vayikra 19;2) – you will be holy (future tense). Korach says everyone is holy, and there is no need to grow any more, but HaShem warns ‘you will be holy,’ I.e. do not sit back and think ‘I am holy,’ but rather always strive to become holy. Thus, Korach’s name is related to the word ‘ice’ (kerach) since ice/freezing keeps things the way they are, but no improvement, and korcha means a bald spot (Dvarim 14;1) – again, where nothing grows (R’ Feiner).

The idea is that Korach wanted a leadership where (him being the leader) the leader would be separate/distant from the people; thus everyone would be static, since he would not influence the people. But Moshe knew that a leader is to be part of the people, with everyone growing together as a result. It is only after Bnei Yisrael sinned at the golden calf that Moshe took his tent and separated himself from the people (Shemos 33;7) – this shows the point perfectly. Since leader and people are interconnected and have a real relationship, what one party does will affect the proximity of the relationship. The worst thing is that whatever one party of a relationship does, the other one is unaffected – that shows that there is no relationship at all. The worst judgement on Yom Kippur is no judgement at all; when HaShem says ‘do what you like, I don’t care’ (keveyachol). [R’Tatz] This is perhaps why the Torah tells us that Korach separated himself from the people, since this is the type of leadership he envisaged; he wanted a leadership in which he, the leader, would be separate from the people.

This helps us answer a lovely question in Pirkei Avos (5;20). The Mishnah says that a machlokes leshem shamayim (a dispute for the sake of Heaven) will endure, whilst a machlokes not leshem shamayim will not. What is an example of the former? The machlokes between Hillel and Shamai. And the latter; between Korach and his followers.’ That’s the gist of the mishnah. There are two giant questions to ask here; what sort of bracha is it that a machlokes leshem shamayim should last – don’t we want a machlokes to stop soon and the truth to be one simple way? And secondly, just like it says the two disputants Hillel and Shamai, it should say the two sides of the Korach dispute; Korach and Moshe – why give the example of Korach and his followers – they were all on the same side? There are many great answers to these questions, but I would like to relay one in particular…

The word machlokes has two meanings. It can mean an argument, but it can also mean division (eg Rambam hil. Shevuos 1;4). Let’s suggest that the meaning here is a division. The idea is that there are two types of division amongst a group of people; one constructive and the other destructive. The constructive one is where everyone has different roles but ultimately is working for the same goal – their different roles are necessary for achieving that goal. For example, a football team with five strikers will not be very good (despite what Spurs seemed to think during the mid 90s!), nor will a team with no strikers; there must be eleven players playing different roles for the good of the team. And the key is that they all have the same aim/goal; that the team progress. The destructive type of division is when people do not have the same goals at all. Thus, now the mishna reads that a division leshem shamayim will last forever – since it is constructive, and that’s a bracha, since everyone will continue to contribute in their unique way to the good of the whole. Whilst divisions not leshem shamayim will fall away over time. So too, Hillel and Shami are mentioned, since they together tried to create divisions leshem shamayim. And Korach and his followers are mentioned, since they wanted to create divisions not leshem shamayim amongst Bnei Yisrael, eg a leadership separate from the people, their rebellion, etc. Moshe is simply not mentioned since he did not want to have any part in such a plan for the Bnei Yisrael.
And some say that there is a negative commandment not to be like Korach and his followers; that all are divisions should be constructive and with true goals leshem shamayim.

Have a great Shabbes,

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