Korach: Rabbi Abraham

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading (in Israel): KORACH, Numbers 16:1-18:32


In the account of the sin of the Ten Spies in the previous parshah of SHELACH LECHA, we learned about the painful consequences of distorted vision in man’s relation with G-d. The Spies and those who listened to them lacked faith in G-d’s promise to take them to the Land of Israel, allowing outward appearances deceive them into thinking they would be unable to conquer it. The sin could be rectified only through a protracted exile that comes to teach us that, in spite of outward appearances, G-d is in fact leading us to ultimate, complete possession of the Land.

The distortion of vision that is the theme of our present parshah of KORACH, a distortion which led to such dire consequences for Korach and those who listened to him, was of a different nature. In Korach’s case, the distortion lay in the way man views his fellow man: Korach could not bear to see another more prominent than himself. “Why is Moses the king, Aaron the high priest. and Korach just another Levite?”

The sin of vision of the spies is deeply rooted in the sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Just as the outer appearance of the fruit made Eve lose faith in what G-d said about not eating it, so too the spies wanted to see things for themselves and make their own decisions — and they lost their faith. Korach’s sin of vision, on the other hand, is rooted in Cain’s jealousy of Abel, whose offering (the prototype Temple sacrifice of Aaron) found favor in G-d’s eyes. “Why is Abel the priest?” Cain wanted the whole world for himself — so he killed Abel. So too Korach was envious of Aaron’s eternal role as the high priest of G-d’s Temple, and he tried to destroy him.

According to the Midrash, Korach’s “starting point” is to be found at the end of the previous parshah, giving the commandment of Tzitzis, where a single blue thread is tied with seven white threads as fringes on the four corners of our garments. [Issues relating to the use of white linen threads with the blue TECHEILES woolen thread are also bound up with Cain and Abel: the offering of the former was of linen, while the latter offered sheep.] The question that Korach asked was: “If a person is wearing a garment that is entirely TECHEILES, does it also require Tzitzis?” When Moses answered that it does, Korach ridiculed him: “If a single blue thread is enough to fulfill the duty of Tzitzis for a white garment, surely a garment that is entirely TECHEILES doesn’t need Tzitzis!”

Korach wanted a garment that was all TECHEILES, all kingship and grandeur. He did not want to be reminded that the only King is G-d, all around us, in all directions. Korach wanted the kingship and grandeur for himself: he was all TECHEILES, all GEVURAH. According to rabbinic tradition, Korach possessed amazing wealth. Everything was for himself, yet in rebelling against Moses and Aaron, Korach played the democrat, the people’s champion: “All the community, all of them are holy, and HASHEM is within them, and why do you lord it over the Assembly of HASHEM?”

Korach’s rebellion was against the authority of Moses (the rule of law), but he justified it with an appeal to people’s highest ideals: “Everyone is holy — so why do we need priests and rabbis?” Korach used his wealth and prestige to whip everyone up into a frenzy against Moses.

The first word of G-d’s command to Moses and Aaron — “SEPARATE yourselves from this assembly and I will consume them.” (Numbers 16:21) gave its name to a doctrine that was espoused by Rabbi Moses, the Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) leader of European Jewry in his time, in response to the proponents of religious and cultural assimilation. The doctrine is that of HISBADLUS, Separation. At a time when assimilationist thinking was spreading rapidly among the Jews of Europe, the Chasam Sofer urged his faithful co-religionists to separate themselves in every possible way from anyone who deviated from the Judaism of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Torah law.

Today, assimilation has become so universal that the Torah faithful have little option but to run after the assimilated and try to help them find their way back to G-d. Nevertheless, having an understanding of the origins of HISBADLUS may help us in trying to unravel the knots of MACHLOKET (conflict) in which our communities are so tied up. For HISBADLUS remains the key to the separatist attitudes shown by some in the observant community until today. The essence of HISBADLUS is to try to distance oneself from those who represent a culture and way of life that are in rebellion against G-d’s Torah as we have it from Moses.

The assimilation movement made rapid inroads among Jews everywhere from the 1800’s onwards because of the strength of its appeal to those who felt caged in by the centuries-old restrictions on Jewish social and economic life. While assimilation had its theorists and exponents (from Moses Mendelson onwards), what gave it such power and influence was the fact that it was sponsored by a clique of extremely wealthy Jewish sponsors (= Korach) who were themselves in flight from the Torah of Moses. They used their influence in the countries in which they lived to establish synagogues, educational and cultural institutions that deviated from the traditional pathway. Indeed, they have been so effective that they have succeeded in making what is essentially a deviation appear mainstream, whereas the authentic Torah of Moses appears purely marginal. What could be more of a distortion of vision?

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The punishment of Korach and his band was that “they went down alive to SHE-OL” (Numbers 16:30). The bible commentator OR HACHAYIM (Rabbi Chayim ben Attar) explains (ad loc.) the use of the word SHE-OL (which has the connotation of “borrow”) as a term for Hell. “The explanation is that the earth did not have power over them to kill them, but they were left alive, and the earth gave them as a deposit to Gehennom”.

Many seekers of the truth of the Torah are confused about what place She-ol, Gehennom or Hell really play in the Torah worldview. In the Bible, the word used for hell is, as in our parshah, SHE-OL (see also Genesis 42:38 and Deuteronomy 32:22).

Throughout the Talmud, the standard term referring to hell is Gehennom, but this does not appear in the Bible at all except as the name of a location just outside ancient Jerusalem — Gey Hennom, the “Valley of Sighs”. This was where there was an idolatrous temple to Molech, to whom children were dedicated by being passed over fire (making the children scream or “sigh”).

The confusion over what hell really is derives precisely from the fact that all false religions and cults use precisely this idea to strike such fear into the hearts of their led flocks that they will be psychologically locked into the cult all their lives. Going down to hell alive is precisely what is so frightening about the idea, as it means that death is not a refuge of unconsciousness from the threatened pains of hell. On the contrary, “hellfire and brimstone” preachers delight in reminding their audiences how, despite the excruciating pain of the threatened fire and freezing cold, etc., there is no death and no relief in hell, only more and more pain. all this as the punishment of those who dare stray from the cult!

In the Five Books of Moses, the prime sanction that is threatened for disobedience against the Torah is not hell, but rather the tribulations of This World (as in the curses in Leviticus chapter 26 and in Deuteronomy chapter 28). However, Hell is also threatened: “For a fire is kindled through my wrath and it will burn to the depths of SHE’OL.” (Deuteronomy 32:22). The Talmud teaches that unconsciousness and insensitivity provide no relieve in hell. “The worms of the grave are as hard to the dead person as a needle in living flesh” (Shabbos 13b). But the Torah also explicitly states that “When the wicked person turns from all his sins that he did and guards all My laws and practices justice and charity, he will surely live. All his sins that he did will not be remembered against him; through the righteousness that he practiced he will live” (Ezekiel 18:21-22).

The psychological power wielded by priests and cult-leaders over their hypnotized flocks lies in their implicit claim that it is they themselves who determine who will suffer in hell and for what crimes (i.e. betrayal of the cult). However, the Torah teaches that G-d alone determines what each one must suffer, and that a person suffers only for those actions for which he bears responsibility, and not for the crimes of others. (“It is the soul that sins that will die. A son will not bear the sin of a father and a father will not bear the sin of the son. The righteousness of the righteousness will be upon him and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon him” — Ezekiel 18:20).

The Torah view is that while hell is certainly painful, it is compassionate in the sense that the sinner pays for his sins in order to be cleansed of them and thus prepared for reconciliation and true communion with G-d. Thus the Torah teaches that there is a time-limit to hell, while the final reward is eternal.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov commented that while we believe in the eternal reward (Gan Eden), and while it MAY BE that Olam Ha-Zeh, “This world”, exists somewhere or other, the place we are in now would for many people appear to be Gehennom, in view of the terrible suffering many people go through here. May all that we may have suffered here be our atonement, and may G-d speedily grant relief from all our troubles and sorrows.

The Talmudic rabbi Rabbah bar bar Hannah relates (Bava Basra 74a) that he was taken by “an itinerant merchant” to a place in the wilderness where Korach and his band were swallowed up. There was a fissure in the crust of the earth from which smoke was rising, and the heat was so intense that some drenched cotton-wool lowered into it on the end of a spear was scorched immediately. The merchant asked him what he could hear. He heard voices crying out: “Moses and his Torah are true, while Korach and his band are deceivers.” The merchant told Rabbah that Korach and his band were rotating in the fire of hell like meat on a spit, and that every thirty days they would complete a circuit and could be heard saying the same thing: “Moses and his Torah are true.”. This fits in well with another teaching of Rabbi Nachman: that the essential pain of hell is not so much physical as the pain and shame at having been wrong all along. If we have been wrong, let’s admit it!

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The account of Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron is followed by the laws relating to the sacrificial parts and Terumah (gifts of grain, oil, wine and other produce) given to the priests in return for their service in the Sanctuary, and the tithes which the Levites received in return for theirs.

In Temple times, these gifts made up a substantial part of the livelihood of the priests and Levites, who were thus left free to pursue their work of going out among the people and teaching them the Torah. Since the study and teaching of the Torah are not per se economically productive activities (though they are the source of all blessing, spiritual and material), the only way they can be seriously pursued is when each member of the wider society takes a share in supporting them.

In the words of Rambam (Laws of Shemittah and Jubilee 13:12-13):

“The tribe of Levy did not have a share in the land of Israel or in war booty together with their brothers, because they were separated to serve HaShem and minister to Him and to teach His righteous ways and laws to the multitude. Accordingly they were separated from the ways of the world, they do not fight in war like other Israelites and they do not have a share in the land or attain material power. They are the army of G-d and G-d is their share and inheritance.

“And not only the tribe of Levy, but every single person from all the inhabitants of the world whose spirit encourages him and whose understanding leads him to separate himself to stand before G-d and serve Him, to know G-d and go on the straight path. G-d will remove from his neck the yoke of the “many calculations” that people seek for themselves. For this person has sanctified himself as a holy of holies, and HaShem will be his portion for ever and ever and G-d will provide him in this world with what suffices him, just as G-d provided the priests and the Levites with their livelihood. And thus King David said: HaShem is the portion of my share and my cup: You sustain my lot!”

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