Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon HaKohane, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Gittel Malka bat Moshe, Alexander Leib ben Benyamin Yosef, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
In the context of his analysis of Korach’s rebellion, my rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, described Korach as “a demagogue motivated by selfish ambitions.” (Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought, p. 140) Therefore, even though he was blessed with a prodigious intellect (Rashi, Commentary on the Torah to Sefer Bamidbar 16:7), tremendous wealth (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim, 119a and Midrash Shemot Rabbah 31:2), and all that was associated with such brilliance and affluence, this was simply not enough for Korach. He wanted everything. As such, when he was denied leadership of the tribe of Levi, having been passed over in favor of his cousin, Elitzafon ben Uziel (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach I), his demagoguery knew no bounds.
The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270), in his Commentary on the Torah on our parasha, maintains that Korach did not immediately foment rebellion when he was denied leadership of the tribe of Levi. Instead, he strategically waited for the most auspicious time to begin his machinations. The Rav follows this interpretation of events, and notes:
The opportune moment arrived sooner than Korach anticipated. It was the incident of the spies, perhaps the most tragic incident in Moses’ life. The Almighty’s decree that all the adults would die in the desert was a hard blow to Moses’ prestige. For a short while, he lost his influence over the crowds…Suddenly all their hopes and dreams were dissipated and shattered. No land, no conquest, no rivers of milk and honey, no realizations of the promise were in sight — only many bleak and dreary years before Israel would set foot on the soil of Canaan. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses, David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler editors, page 192)
Many people generally familiar with Rav Soloveitchik’s thought are unaware that in 1924 he spent three semesters studying Political Theory and Science at the Free Polish University in Warsaw, Poland. This training provided him with the perfect background for understanding the nature and development of political movements. Little wonder, then, that he emphasizes the following notions in his analysis of Korach’s insurrection:
Any conspiracy or organized rebellion, no matter how egotistically motivated, must develop an ideology to succeed. Korach planned an anti-Moses movement, and such a movement cannot exist or make headway without developing an ideology. Every movement must have a motto, and Korach indeed provided the philosophy of the rebellion. (Vision and Leadership, page 194)
What exactly was the philosophical underpinning of Korach’s mutiny against Aharon and Moshe? The Torah underscores his position at the very beginning of our parasha:
Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the L-rd is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the L-rd's assembly?” (Sefer Bamidbar 16:1-3, translation, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
Korach’s ideological thesis appears to be entirely accurate. Beyond a doubt, the entire congregation of the Jewish people is holy and Hashem is in our midst. This has been the case ever since we stood shoulder to shoulder as one united and chosen nation at Har Sinai and received the Torah. As the Rav writes:
The basis of this challenge was very simple and, at first glance quite logical. No one can deny the assertion that the whole community is holy; it is the very essence of our choseness. Every Jew possesses intrinsic sanctity. As far as holiness is concerned, there is no distinction between Moses and a simple woodchopper. Hence, Korach asked, what right did Moses or Aaron have to lead, to guide, to rule? He charged them with seizing power illegitimately. He raised the millennial-old argument based on the equality of all people. (Vision and Leadership, p.194, underlining my own)
Yet, while “no one can deny the assertion that the whole community is holy; it is the very essence of our choseness,” it is only part of the story of the kedushah (holiness) of the Jewish people. There exists another, equally vital component of the sanctity of our nation, namely, the kedushah of the individual:
…Judaism was not satisfied with the social [i.e. collective] aspect of kedushah. If the community were the only source of sanctity, then the individual would be deprived of his creative role, his individual initiative, his originality and uniqueness. The outstanding person would not be able to develop into a great leader. Hence, the Torah says, there is a second resource of kedushah — the sanctity which the individual detects in the inner recesses of his personality…There is a separate kedushah attached to every individual. (Vision and Leadership, p.195, underlining and brackets my own)
Precisely because “there is a separate kedushah attached to every individual,” Am Yisrael is infused with “the countless kedushah experiences of the individual members of the community.” In effect, “the single person sanctifies the community.” (Vision and Leadership, p.195, underlining my own) Korach’s refusal to recognize this fundamental component of kedushat Yisrael (the sanctity of the Jewish people) is precisely why he had the unmitigated gall to ask Moshe and Aharon, “Why do you raise yourselves above the L-rd’s assembly?” Once again, we may turn to the Rav’s penetrating explication:
The statement by Korach that “All the community is holy” is correct as long as we are speaking of the community-rooted kedushah inherited from our ancestors. Indeed, “all the community,” the community as a whole is a source of holiness…However, if we shift our attention from the social aspect to the individual aspect of kedushah, the whole idea of equality turns into an absurdity. We must admit that the behirah [chosen nature] of Moses was above and beyond the behirah of the woodchopper or water-drawer. (Vision and Leadership, p.196, underlining my own)
May we, as a people, recognize both the “community-rooted kedushah inherited from our ancestors,” and the unique sanctity that each and every one of us has to bring to our nation. Then, with the Almighty’s help, may we fulfill the Torah’s words: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation” (Sefer Shemot 19:6), as we continue our sacred task l’takane ha’olam b’malchut Sha-dai—to perfect the world under the kingship of Hashem. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link: The Rav
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal