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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)

What caused Korach, a distinguished leader in Klal Yisrael, to alienate himself to the degree that he fell to such a nadir of iniquity? The Bais Yisrael comments that these two words, Vayikach Korach, "Korach took," says it all. Korach's approach to life was defined by "taking." It was his goal; it was his raison d'etre. He took in gashmius, materialism, becoming one of Klal Yisrael's wealthiest men. He also wanted to take in ruchniyus, spirituality. He was an oveid Hashem, one who serves Hashem, with great diligence. Among the carriers of the Aron Hakodesh, he represented the spiritual elite of Klal Yisrael. He was, nonetheless, a "taker" - whatever he did was for himself. He did not serve Hashem - he served himself!

In this area, Korach was exactly the opposite of Moshe Rabbeinu. The quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael never took a thing for himself. Indeed, he was prepared to give up everything - both physically and spiritually - for the future of his people. Korach saw himself in every endeavor. Moshe saw Klal Yisrael. This idea is underscored by Rashi in his commentary to the pasuk, "Is it too much for you, O offspring of Levi (16:7)?" Korach was a wise man. How could he have acted so foolishly? Rashi explains that his "eye" caused him to err. He saw prophetically that among his offspring would be Shmuel HaNavi, who, during his tenure, was as great as Moshe and Aharon combined, as well as twenty-four groups of Leviim who would prophesize with the spirit of holiness. Seeing this, he was certain that he would triumph over Moshe and Aharon. How did his "eye" cause his downfall? One who serves Hashem with fidelity, abrogating his personal interests and subordinating "himself" only to Hashem, merits that Ein Hashem el yireiav, "Hashem's eye/looks out for His fearful ones." He becomes worthy of Hashem's perspective. He does not err because he views everything through a different spectrum. Korach took everything for himself. He, therefore, did not merit the ability to see with a spiritual perspective reserved only for the truly faithful. His eye misled him, just as he misled himself.

And On ben Peles. (16:1)

The Midrash teaches us that On ben Peles was saved as a result of listening to his wife. She asked him, "What do you gain by being involved in this dispute? Regardless who triumphs, you still emerge as the loser. If Aharon is selected as Kohein Gadol - you are his student. If Korach becomes the Kohein Gadol - you are still nothing more than a student. Why involve yourself in a 'no win' situation?" On's wife spoke with seichal, common sense. Is this a reason to praise her? Basically, she only did what any level-headed person would do.

Horav Nosson Vachtfogel, zl, offers a penetrating insight into the matter. He cites the Talmud in Megillah 13b where Rabbi Elazar claims that as reward for Rachel Imeinu's tznius, modesty, she merited that Shaul Hamelech be descended from her. When did she demonstrate such exemplary tznius? Chazal explain that when she gave her sister, Leah, the simanim, special signs, that Yaakov Avinu had given her, she acted with exemplary modesty. Rashi explains that her tznius lay in the fact that she never publicized her selfless act of devotion to her sister. She never divulged to Yaakov what she had done. She was prepared to give up that for which she had strived for so much - the opportunity to be the progenitor of the Shivtei Kah, tribes of Klal Yisrael. She did not once call attention to her exemplary act of kindness. This is tznius at its zenith.

Rav Nosson posits that included in the middah of tznius is the ability to maintain a shev v'al taaseh, status quo, attitude in regard to a situation in which one is unsure of what to do. He does not take a chance and plunge forward regardless of the consequences. No - tznius demands that one sit back and not act, rather than act rashly. Likewise, one who is a tzanua will not divulge a secret. If one is asked for information about someone and he does not know the person, it takes tznius to say, "I do not know." Regrettably, there are those who are quick to conjecture and state their own opinions about someone, even though they are baseless.

Rav Nosson remembers that, prior to being asked by Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, to become the first Mashgiach of the Beth Medrash Govohah, he was asked by a talmid, close student, of Rav Aharon regarding a controversial sefer that was on the table in one of the yeshivah's classrooms. The Mashgiach responded, "I do not know." This response prompted the talmid to approach Rav Aharon and suggest that Rav Nosson be appointed as Mashgiach of the yeshivah. It takes someone who possesses the strength of character to assert "I do not know" to be the Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshivah. This was the power of On ben Peles' wife. She had the ability to see and stress the shev v'al taaseh attitude: "If either way you will not be the victor, why bother involving yourself in the fray of the controversy? Stay at home and stay out of trouble." It takes tznius to act in such a manner. On was fortunate that his wife had the necessary character trait - and he had the wisdom to listen to her.

They stood before Moshe. (16:2)

Targum Yonasan adds, V'kamu bechutzpah, "They arose with insolence." How does the pasuk imply that they acted with chutzpah, impudence, towards Moshe Rabbeinu? On the contrary, the pasuk clearly states that they arose for him. Maharitz gives a pragmatic explanation, one that teaches us a profound lesson of the definition of chutzpah. He explains that knowing that Moshe was coming, they arose before he came, so that they would not have to get up for him. They refused to demonstrate any derech eretz, respect, for Moshe, so they were standing when Moshe came. This is considered standing up with chutzpah.

In an alternative explanation, they looked in Moshe's face, indicating that they were neither in awe of him, nor of the Karnei Hod, Rays of Glory, that shone from Moshe. This is the meaning of Vayakumu lifnei Moshe, the word lifnei being derived from panim, face. They did not fear facing Moshe.

It was this chutzpah that defined their dispute. It "happens" that people do not see eye to eye on an issue. There is a way, however, to discuss the area of controversy. When the dialogue becomes a forum for insolence and disparaging remarks, it is indicative of a machlokes, dispute, shelo l'shem Shomayim, not for the sake of Heaven.

And it (the earth) swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach. (16:32)

Korach's sons repented at the very last moment, so they did not die. They were originally involved in the dispute, but they later saw the light. Korach, however, was too embroiled, too involved in himself, to be saved. He went down in infamy. Yet, I think there is something to be derived from this thought: Korach could not have been all that bad. Apparently, if his children repented, then there had to have been a value system at home that was spiritually correct. They had to have been raised correctly. Horav Avigdor HaLevi Nebentzhal, Shlita, cites the Arizal, who takes the last letters of the words, Tzaddik katamar yifrach, "A righteous person blooms like a palm tree," kuf, raish, ches. These letters spell out the name Korach and imply that, in the future, Korach will be judged favorably. His claim of "the entire nation is holy" might have had some validity to it. It is just that, in this world, society can exist only through one leader who possesses attributes and virtues not found in any one other person. He leads; he makes the decisions; he inspires the generation with holiness. He is the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation.

In addition, Korach's shelo l'shem Shomayim dispute, not intended for the sake of Heaven, was "off" by a hair. Chazal have designated the controversy of Korach as paradigmatic of the machlokes shelo l'shem Shomayim. When Chazal intend to teach us a lesson, they select an example from something that just goes just over the line. What chiddush, novelty, is there about Korach's dispute, if it was "very much" shelo l'shem Shomayim? Clearly, Korach's controversy contained only a miniscule of vested interest. Basically, his intention and goal were noble. Yet, since they veered ever so slightly from the standard of l'shem Shomayim, demanded by the Torah, it was iniquitous and serves as the prototype of machlokes.

We now understand why Korach's sons repented. They were raised in a Torah home with Torah values. Their father tragically erred. Although he imparted lofty Torah values in his home, he regrettably erred in implementing his goal. I recently read an incredible story about the powerful long-term effect an ancestor can have on his descendant.

The story takes place in Yerushalayim, as a young man, whom we will call Dan, was leaving shul Friday night. He quickly scanned the remaining congregants to see if anyone needed a place to eat. He saw a young fellow, with dark skin and curly black hair, wearing dungarees and carrying the "traditional" backpack over his shoulder. He looked like a Sephardic Jew, perhaps from Morocco.

"Good Shabbos, my name is Dan. Perhaps I could invite you to my house for the Shabbos meal."

"Yeah, thanks. My name is Machi. I would really like to join you." Quick invitation - quick response, and they left shul together on their way to a memorable meal.

They arrived at home and immediately after the introductions, Dan began to sing Shalom Aleichem. Dan sang, and Machi smiled. He was either shy or did not know the tune. They washed and sat down to eat the meal. Dan commented on the parsha. After some small talk, he asked Machi if he had a zemirah, song, he would like to sing.

Machi's face lit up, "Yes, I would like to sing the Dodi song that they sang tonight in the synagogue."

"Well," Dan said, "it is not usually sung during the meal, but I am sure we can make an exception. Children, we are going to sing the Lecha Dodi hymn in honor of our guest."

As soon as they completed the song, Machi resumed his silence until after the soup. When Dan asked him, "Which song do you want to sing now?" "Lecha Dodi, please," Machi answered. This happened again after the chicken course was completed. Machi only wanted to sing Lecha Dodi.

"Are you sure you do not want to sing something else?" Dan asked. "No, only Lecha Dodi." "Well, we will have to sing it a little lower this time. It is not your usual Friday night Zemiros. The neighbors might think we are a little strange." By the time they were ready to bench, they had sung Lecha Dodi nine times!

Machi was an enigma. Who was he, and why was he so into Lecha Dodi? Dan figured that the easiest way to find out was to ask. So, he did. The story is incredible.

"I come from the city of Ramallah. Yes, the large Arab city on the West Bank. My full name is Machmud Ibn-es-Sharif, but, I am a Jew. Let me explain: I was born and grew up in Ramallah. I was taught from birth to despise my Jewish oppressors. The teaching bothered me. Should I not love my neighbors as I love myself? Why were the Jews different?

"These questions got me in trouble. My father threw me out of the house with nothing but the clothes on my back. My mind was now made up. I was going to run away and live with the Jews. I snuck back into the house at night to retrieve my clothes. My mother caught me in the middle of packing. She appeared pale and upset, but she was quite gentle with me. She understood my travail.

"When I told her I was going to live with the Jews, she became very still and pale and said, "You do not have to convert to Judaism. You are already a Jew. In Judaism, the religion follows the mother. I am Jewish, so you are also Jewish. I made a terrible mistake by marrying an Arab, one for which I have paid for my whole married life.

"She went and found my birth certificate and her old Israeli ID card, so that I could prove that she was a Jew. She also gave me an old picture of her grandparents, which was taken when they went up North looking for the grave of a great ancestor of ours. That is when the picture was taken."

"Do you have the picture with you?" asked Dan, hopeful that the picture would lend some closure to the mystery surrounding Machi's roots.

"Sure," Machi responded. "I always carry it with me." He reached into his backpack and produced a tattered envelope from which he extracted a picture. It showed an old Sephardic family at the turn of the century. He then focused on the grave. When he read the inscription, he nearly dropped the photo. He rubbed his eye to make sure! There was no mistake. This was a grave in the old cemetery of Tzfas, and the inscription on the grave identified it as the grave of the great mekubal and tzaddik, Rav Shlomo Alkabetz - the author of Lecha Dodi!

Dan's voice shook with excitement as he related to Machmud who his great ancestor was. It all made sense now. Machmud was drawn to the song of Lecha Dodi because it was composed by his great-grandfather. Tears flowed down Machmud's cheeks as Dan stretched out his arms and said, "Welcome home, Machmud. Now, how about choosing a new name for yourself?"

Why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of Hashem. (16:3)

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, says that this is the pattern that is followed by all controversy. When people take it upon themselves to dispute a tzaddik, righteous person, they will invariably claim that he is guilty of some outlandish sin. It was no different with Moshe Rabbeinu - the man whom the Torah attests was the humblest person on the face of the earth. Yet, Korach and his followers could not find anything else to say about Moshe, other than the fact that he was arrogant and power hungry. Some things just never change.

Horav Naftali, zl, M'Ropshitz descended from a distinguished lineage. He was sitting at his table surrounded by chasidim as he related his yichus, pedigree. After a while, one chasid said, "With all due respect, my yichus is greater than the Rebbe's." "Indeed," said the Rebbe, "how is this?" "Well," said the chasid, "In my family, I am the only one who puts on Tallis and Tefillin daily." When the Rebbe heard this, he said, "You are truly right. You are a bigger yachson than I. You have certainly earned your pedigree."

Chazal wonder how someone as bright as Korach could make such a foolish mistake as to dispute Klal Yisrael's leadership. The Chasam Sofer, zl, wonders why Chazal ask this question only about Korach. What about his two hundred and fifty followers - they did not seem to exhibit any signs of great wisdom either. He explains that Korach's followers had nothing to lose since the decree against Klal Yisrael catalyzed by the sin of the Meraglim, spies, was already in effect. They knew that they were destined to die in the desert. Human nature determines that one who is disgusted with life will often do something foolish. Korach, however, was a Levi and, therefore, excluded from the decree. He had everything to lose. What possessed him to act so irrationally?

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