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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Korach took (separated himself). (16:1)

Korach was not the first person to complain, to rebel, to question Klal Yisrael's leadership. In fact, he followed a line of insurrection that had more than once threatened to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu's stewardship of Hashem's nation. Immediately following their departure from Egypt, the Jewish People expressed fear of their pursuing masters. They questioned and complained. A bit later, when there was no water to drink, they complained. It was better in Egypt, or so they said. They quarreled with Moshe time and again. The sin of the Golden Calf was catalyzed by fear of a loss of leadership. They needed someone - something to which they could relate. They reacted by rebelling. They just could not handle the pressure, so they deferred to their anxiety.

Was Korach any different? Yes! His rebellion was not precipitated by impulse. There was no hunger, no Egyptians, no missing leader. There was, however, something else: something more dangerous than pursuing Egyptians; something more virulent even than capricious idolatry based on fear. Korach's insurrection was not impulsive; it was planned sedition. Korach's rebellion was a well-thought out conspiracy whose goal was to destroy Torah leadership. It was founded in pure envy. Korach's insatiable thirst for power was not consistent with Hashem's selection of Moshe and Aharon as Klal Yisrael's preeminent leadership. He was a smart man whose pursuit of glory led to demagoguery and apostasy. He was a smart man who acted like an utter fool.

Korach took great pains to prepare an agenda to which Klal Yisrael's intelligentsia would relate. He did not reach out to the common man; rather, he sought the intellectual, the aristocrat - others like himself, who had a difficult time being number two. He cleverly presented the type of arguments in which these individuals delighted. He sought to undermine Moshe's authority by manipulating those who themselves had significant roles. "When one has a hundred (dollars), he seeks two hundred." Korach's assembly were people who were "up there." Once they had taken an authoritative position, they wanted more.

Korach's rebellion was different. One can deal with impulse based upon fear. Planned subversion with an intrinsic desire to destroy authority must be crushed in the manner with which Hashem dealt with Korach. Regrettably, through this very day we are plagued by individuals like Korach, manifesting his style of seditious undermining of Torah leadership.

Korach took (separated himself). (16:1)

Korach had it all: wisdom, family background and wealth. Unfortunately, he threw it away. In the end, nothing helped him, neither his vast riches nor his illustrious lineage. His wisdom seemed to backfire on him, since he did not act wisely. What happened? Chazal teach us in Meseches Avos, 4:1: "Ben Zoma says, 'Who is wise? He who learns from every person…Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclination… Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot…Who is honored? He who honors others'." Horav Yaakov Kaminetzky, zl, says that the source for this Mishnah is two pesukim in Yirmiyah 9:22, 23: "Let not the wise man glorify himself with his wisdom, and let not the strong man glorify himself with his strength; let not the rich man glorify himself in his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself: contemplating and knowing Me, for I am Hashem Who does kindness, justice and righteousness…"

It is clear from these pesukim that wisdom, strength and riches are not reasons for one to glorify himself. This, however, is not consistent with Chazal's statement in the Talmud Nedarim 38a which states that Hashem rests His Shechinah only on one who is strong, wise, wealthy and humble. This is derived from Moshe who was extremely wealthy. When this question was asked of Ben Zoma, he offered a new perspective on the definition of the ashir, rich man, gibor, strong man, etc. The pasuk is merely teaching us that the wise man should not allow his wisdom to go to his "head," acting as if the wisdom was really his own. The rich man should, likewise, not get carried away with his wealth. They must realize that whatever they have is a gift from Hashem. When a person recognizes the source of his talents and gifts, they become something of value. Without this awareness, they are nothing.

Rav Yaakov views the Korach mutiny as paradigmatic of this rule. Korach was certainly a wise man. Otherwise, he would never have considered himself worthy of the Kehunah Gedolah, High Priesthood. In fact, not only did he consider himself worthy, he even considered himself to be more suitable than Aharon. What motivated him to think that he was so smart? His incredible wealth went to his head. He was so incredibly wealthy that he thought he was capable of anything.

Regrettably, he was not aware of Ben Zoma's teaching: "Who is wise? He who learns from every person." A wise man loves to learn. He never wastes an opportunity to learn something new, to ratify and elucidate something which he already knows. He does not care about the source of wisdom - as long as it is "kosher," it may be derived from a young child or a wisened,old sage. As long as an individual knows more than he does in a specific area, he can be his mentor. If it is emes, he wants to absorb it in his being. Korach's "wealth" and "wisdom" were the source of his downfall. He thought he was smarter than everyone else. He certainly did not act in this manner.

Korach took (separated himself). (16:1)

Chazal offer Korach's insurrection as the example of a machlokes she'lo l'shem Shomayim, dispute not for the sake of Heaven. They say in Pirkei Avos 5:20, "Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; one that is not for the sake of Heaven, however, will not have a constructive outcome. What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shamai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his entire assembly." We wonder why the Tanna cites the episode of Korach as the antithesis of the dispute between Hillel and Shamai, when we would understand on our own that any controversy which does not follow the criteria established by Hillel and Shamai is a dispute not for the sake of Heaven. Obviously, the Tanna chooses to emphasize the machlokes of Korach for a reason.

We submit that the Tanna is teaching us that there is no gray area in the realm of controversy: it is either l'shem Shomayim, or it is Korach. There is no middle road. Only one form of dispute is appropriate: that of Hillel and Shamai. Anything else falls under the purview of Korach and his assembly. I was fortunate to discover support for this idea from a teshuvah, halachic response, of the Teshuvah Me'Ahavah. He writes the following: "I have made for myself a stringent rule never to render a halachic reply in a community where there is already a halachic authority, unless the rabbi himself - in his humility and virtue - seeks to avail himself of the word of Hashem as halachah. So, how can I break my own fence?" "Moreover, I, in my sins, fail to see a controversy that is wholly for the sake of Heaven.

"I am in the habit of repeating Chazal's dictum, What controversy is for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Hillel and Shamai. And what is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his entire assembly.

"Which controversy is totally for the sake of Heaven, without any ulterior motive whatsoever? Only that of Hillel and Shamai, for all their thoughts and intentions had one focus: the glory of Heaven. They were pure and straightforward in their hearts. And what was not for the sake of Heaven? This means that which did not have any thought for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach. Aside from these two examples, all other controversies are a mixture of both; none are really pure.

"All controversies have a mixture of impurities, vested interests, tainted motives, self-centered agendas and desires, and inappropriate ideas that undermine whatever benefit one has to gain. While there are some disputes founded in self-interest, they still maintain some grain of good, they are equally abhorred by Hashem. If a sanctuary of Hashem is to be built through controversy, better it not be built at all."

For the entire assembly - all of them - is holy, and Hashem is among them. (16:3)

Korach orchestrated the first "movement" to attempt to revise the Torah of our People. Throughout history, he has had his "dedicated" followers who have sought to undermine and abrogate Toras Hashem. They have only succeeded in producing a sterile version of Judaism whose followers pay lip-service to the term "Jew" and whose future as faithful, committed Jews is bleak. These people have the audacity -- and perhaps even foolishness -- to deny Revelation, the reality that Hashem gave the Torah to our ancestors. Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, teaches us that Korach, the father of controversy to undermine Torah values and beliefs, did not deny that Hashem gave the Torah. After all, how could he? Together with his "distinguished" cohorts, he stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah - together with all of Klal Yisrael. No, Korach had other intentions. Korach attempted to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu's authority. He posited that since they had all been together at the giving of the Torah, and had all heard Hashem speak at Har Sinai, each individual Jew should be free to interpret the Torah himself. They were all equally holy. Why divide them into different classes? Korach's view that each individual has the ability and the right to determine how and when the Torah should apply to him has become the precedent by which many of history's Korachs have attempted to usurp the authority of the Torah.

This is a serious error. Torah is complex and intricate. To the unschooled, it can be perplexing. It is for this reason that those who are not fully engrossed in its teachings can easily distort it. Furthermore, the nature of Torah is different than that of any other body of knowledge. It has kedushah, sanctity, because its author is Hashem. Consequently, the individual who interprets the Torah's message must himself be of a holy and pure nature. A genius may be able to interpret a difficult scientific problem due to his extraordinary acumen. Torah is not responsive to acumen. If the one who interprets the Torah is not "spiritually correct," his elucidation will be similarly inaccurate. We must therefore, rely on the spiritual leadership of each generation to explain properly and to apply the Torah's message to each era.

For it is a wage for you in exchange for your service. (18:31)

The toil that one expends in pursuit of his goal determines the reward. This is especially true of spiritual pursuits. The reward is commensurate with the toil. Otzar Meshalim cites an insightful analogy that underscores this idea. A king - who was in the process of redecorating his palace, decided that he wanted the vestibule that led into his palace to be most beautiful and impressive. He chose four of the greatest artists in the land, commissioning each one to draw a beautiful mural which would be placed on each of the four walls of the room. He figured that, in this manner, the room's beauty would be unparalleled. The king instructed the artists to exert their full effort to enhance the beauty of his palace. Their reward would, likewise, be impressive.

Three of the artists immediately set to work. They used their imaginations and talents to produce their greatest portraits. The fourth artist was lazy. He had an idea that would not only help him circumvent the work; it would also produce the most beautiful portrait. In fact, he thought that his idea was so novel that the king would reward him handsomely for his brilliance.

He waited until each of the three artists hung his painting on the wall. Then, he brought in his contribution for the fourth wall: a mirror. He had purchased a large mirror that covered the entire wall. The mirror captured the breathtaking view of the other three paintings, melding them all into one beautiful portrait.

Everything was set for the king to enter and view the exceptional work of the artists. He entered the room and slowly lifted the drape that covered each portrait. Greatly impressed, the king declared that the next day he would return to reward each artist accordingly.

The king returned the next day and gave each artist a sealed envelope with his compensation inside. Each one took his envelope and eagerly opened it. The first three each found an incredible amount of money in his envelope. They all looked curiously at the fourth artist to see what he had received for his "idea." The fourth artist opened his envelope and found a note from the king: "I concede to your idea of hanging a mirror, so that I could see a conglomerate of the portraits painted by the other artists. Since your mirror works so well, you probably also saw how I rewarded each one of your colleagues. Hence, the image will be restitution for your efforts. "

The lesson is simple, but compelling. Without effort, there is no reward. One does not achieve a high spiritual plateau without expending effort. Similarly, one does not obtain his spiritual reward unless he has worked for it. Some receive the ultimate reward, while others just catch a fleeting glimpse, a mirror-image of the transaction.

Questions & Answers

1) In the chronology of Klal Yisrael's exodus and sojourn in the wilderness, when did Korach's rebellion take place?

2) According to Rashi, this was the ____ time that Klal Yisrael had defied Hashem. What were the other times?

3) Why was it necessary that Korach's wealth also be swallowed up into the ground?

4) What is the analogy to salt in regard to the bris-melach, salt-like covenant that Hashem makes unto the Kohanim?

5) Why does the Torah refer to the Levi's Maaser as Terumah?


1) The rebellion occurred about a year after they left Egypt. Ibn Ezra contends that it took place right after the chanukas, inauguration, of the Mishkan. Ramban disputes this and says that it happened after the incident of the meraglim, spies.

2) Fourth rebellion. 1.) Egel ha'zahav, Golden Calf, 2.) misonnenim, complainers, 3) meraglim, spies.

3) If it would not have been swallowed up, Korach's righteous children, or other worthy people, might have benefited from it. Korach did not deserve the merit of his property being a source of benefit for others (Sforno).

4) Since salt never spoils, it is a symbol of indestructibility. Hashem's covenant unto the Kohanim is eternal (Rashi).

5) The Maaser bears a similarity to Terumah. The Levi may not partake of his Maaser until he has given the Terumah part of it to the Kohen (Rashi).


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