Parshat Korach

Torah Reading for Week of June 2-8, 2013

“Unholy Arguments”
By Elisabeth Kesten, AJRCA Rabbinic Student


How can we judge arguments?

Pirkey Avot 5:17: All arguments for the sake of heaven will in the end be perpetuated, and those not for the sake of heaven are destined not to be perpetuated. What are arguments that are pursued for the sake of heaven?  The controversies of Hillel and Shammai.  And what are the ones that are not pursued for a heavenly cause? The controversy of Korach and his congregation.

The Rabbis say here that arguments that serve unselfish ends have a Divine purpose, but those of Korach, which served personal advancement and gain, are deemed selfish.  ‘Korach and his congregation’ stand together against Moses and Aaron, but they seem to be ready to fight each other any minute.

Malbim says that Korach was interested in the High Priesthood, since he contended that Amram had received the firstborn share as the eldest son of Kohat, and that Moses his son had been appointed leader and king over the people. It was therefore the right thing, so Korach claimed, that the High Priesthood be given to himself as the son of Yitzhar, the next in line of succession.  Dathan, Abiram and On ben Pellet, on the other hand, were animated by other grievances. They belonged to the tribe of Reuben who was Jacob’s firstborn, and entitled to the highest office of spiritual and political leadership.  Ibn Ezra suggests that the 250 rebels were all firstborns who considered that the priesthood was their natural privilege.

This is why Malbim, analyzing Pirkey Avot, notes that it doesn’t say the ‘controversy of Korach and Moses.’  Instead we find ‘controversy of Korach and his congregation.’ This shows they were not even united amongst themselves, let alone for unselfish reasons.

The fact that the 250 were ready to be in a trial by ordeal shows that they were totally sincere in their beliefs.  Sincerity is a neutral character-trait, neither positive nor negative. Sincere Egyptian slave masters and baby killers thought they were doing something good for Egypt and their god-king, Pharaoh.  Sincerity can be compared to a knife. With a knife you can murder, or you can cut a sacrifice into pieces to share and eat it. We can be sincerely devoted to an evil goal as easily as to a good one.  Only the right values give those character traits a direction and a goal. 

And what is the direction and goal of Korach and the other rebels?

“You take too much upon you, while the whole congregation are holy are holy, and the LORD is among them: Why do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?”

Nechama Leibowitz points out that it does not say: ‘all the congregation is holy’ but it says: all the congregation – they are holy, meaning every one of them, individually. They are saying, we are all equal, we are all holy, and nobody is different.  Who is Moses to think that he is holier than we?  They think that they are holy, without any merit or any effort on their side. This is not an argument “for the sake of heaven”; it is about their own advancement.

The problem is that only G-d is holy!  With people, holiness is not a state of being; it is an effort, a goal, a lifelong process to do G-d’s will.

Also, i­n matters of attaining spirituality there is no comparison of one to another.  Each person is on his/her own path towards a relationship with G-d, and everybody is responsible for his/her own growth and spiritual progress.  People don’t start out the same; they have different character-traits from birth, becoming even more different through upbringing, life experiences, joys and tragedies.  It’s important not to judge, or to think we are better or closer to G-d than others, when in reality only G-d knows who makes the biggest effort; G-d alone can give us credit for our good intentions.

Shabbat Shalom

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