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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi separated himself. (16:1)

Rashi observes that in detailing Korach's lineage the Torah does not mention Yaakov Avinu. It stops at Levi He explains that Yaakov implored for mercy that the Torah not mention his name in regard to the dispute. Yaakov sought to distance himself as far as possible from any vestige of controversy. We must endeavor to understand this move. It is common knowledge that Levi is Yaakov's son. Therefore, when the Torah mentions Levi, it is clearly referring to Yaakov by extension. What did Yaakov accomplish by excluding specific mention of his name?

Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, explains that Yaakov's life had been marked by controversy. From birth, he was battling Eisav. The conflict with Lavan, followed by the anguish over his daughter, was only a continuation of a life of crusading against evil, confronting it head-on. Yaakov feared that people might err and think that Korach had assumed the mantle of crusader against evil, that he was following in the footsteps of his distinguished ancestor. Yaakov sought to dispel this notion. Korach did not seek to uproot evil, to battle l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, to elevate Hashem's Name. No! Korach was arrogant and insecure. He sought to undermine Moshe's leadership. He was not a crusader; he was not a warrior for the sake of Heaven. Korach was a baal-machlokes, a man who pursued dispute as a means of subverting Klal Yisrael's leadership. He was a demagogue who sought to destroy the inherent good that Moshe Rabbeinu infused in the people so that he could assume control. Yaakov could not relate to this type of machlokes. Thus, we can understand why he did not want to be included in Korach's lineage.

Korach, the son of Yitzchar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi separated himself. (16:1)

So begins one of the most tragic sagas in Jewish history, one that regrettably still plagues us to this very day. Machlokes, strife, controversy, dispute, political in-fighting: these are all words that describe the state of affairs which Korach and his followers have catalyzed in every generation. We can never free ourselves of dispute. At times, it is l'shem Shomayim, sincere, for the sake of Heaven: to promote observance, to stamp out religious incursion, to challenge those who would undermine and disgrace Torah and its disseminators. For the most part, however, it is petty, self-serving controversy. It is usually trivial, beginning with a desire for recognition and becoming an all-out fight for power. There are those who, as a result of their vested interests, expound Torah law in a self-serving manner, distorting its meaning and undermining its message, so that they can present themselves and their ignoble message in a positive light. Korach did just that.

Rashi cites Chazal, who explain Korach's critique of Moshe Rabbeinu. Korach claimed religious conviction; he questioned the law. He and his misguided followers came before Moshe dressed in cloaks made entirely of techeiles, a form of purple-dyed wool. According to the Torah, one of the strands of the tzitzis must be colored this way. They asked Moshe, "does a tallis that is kulo techeiles, entirely made of techeiles, require tzitzis or not?" Moshe responded in the affirmative, indicating that it would require tzitzis. They began to laugh, to scoff at him, " Is this possible? If a cloak is made of a different type of cloth, one thread of techeiles exempts it. Should not a cloak which is entirely of techeiles be exempted from this requirement?" This is how they began, using Torah to support their miscreancy. What was Korach's error? After all, he was no fool. Certainly, he was enough of a scholar to know that a tallis of techeiles would need tzitzis.

In the Be'er Moshe, the Ozrover Rebbe, zl, explains that Korach's mistake lay in his thinking that the tallis was exempted by virtue of being techeiles in color. He did not penetrate the underlying motif of this mitzvah. Hashem is not concerned with colors; He wants us to fulfill mitzvos which carry out His divine decree. Thus, a tallis of techeiles still needs tzitzis, because Hashem's command is that a four-cornered garment have tzitzis at its fringe, regardless of its color.

Korach questioned whether a house filled with seforim, religious books, needs a mezuzah? After all, the Hebrew parshios, or words which are contained within the mezuzah, are certainly written in the seforim throughout the house. Once again, Korach missed the point. The Torah enjoins us to have a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house to remind us to Whom the house really belongs. Hashem is the real owner of this home; He protects it and its inhabitants. The mezuzah is a constant reminder of this fact.

Consequently, the contents of the house are irrelevant to the requirement that a mezuzah be on the doorpost. Korach looked at the superficial and saw a color, a mezuzah. He did not use his G-d-given brain to delve into the rationale, to look beyond the surface. That is the precise problem that plagues so many who have alienated themselves from the Torah.

Moshe heard and fell on his face. (16:4)

What did Moshe hear that agitated him so? In the Talmud Sanhadrin 110a, Chazal say that he heard that rumors were being spread about him. They suspected him of infidelity, of having relations with an eishas ish, a married woman. Indeed, as Chazal continue, it was not just a married woman, it was many married women. Every man suspected his wife of being with Moshe. We must attempt to grasp this utter foolishness. How could intelligent human beings conjure up such an absurd claim against an individual whose devotion to them - whose piety, virtue and spiritual status are beyond characterization - with anything less than superlatives.

Horav Yechiel zl, m'Ozrov cites the Sabba Kadisha zl, m'Shpol'e who derives a profound remez, allusion, from the last of the Aseres Ha'dibros, Ten Commandments. We are admonished, "Lo sachmod eishas reiacha" "You shall not covet your fellow's wife." Eishas means "the wife of." It also means "the fire of," since eish means fire. The Sabba interpreted this pasuk as an enjoinment against being envious of and coveting the eish, fire and spiritual passion, that our friend is able to expend in his service to the Almighty. What our friend has merited to be granted from Heaven is the result of his spiritual ascension. When we apply ourselves as well, when we devote ourselves to our spiritual quest with as much devotion as our friend, we will also be the recipient of the fiery passion that is his hallmark.

This explains the underlying meaning of "they suspected Moshe of being with an eishas ish." Korach was under the erroneous impression that Moshe's spiritual distinction was due to his role as leader of Klal Yisrael. To this end, he claimed that the source of the "eish" within Moshe was the people. As leader, he was "living off" the people's inherent kedushah. His mistake was, as the pasuk previously states: (12:3), "The man Moshe was exceedingly humble." Moshe's distinction was his own. He took nothing from others. He was "the man," Moshe. He was an ish, man, in his own right.

This idea is to be understood from Moshe's response to Korach (16:7): "Then the man whom Hashem will choose, he is the holy one." True distinction is to be found by he who is chosen by Hashem as a result of his own inherent character and quality - not in the merit derived from others. Aharon was the man selected by Hashem to be the Kohen Gadol. Moshe was the man chosen to be the quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael. Korach was not selected. This misunderstanding was at the root of his error.

Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness. (16:13)

Korach was not a fool. Yet, everything that he asserted could not be the words of a smart man. To attempt to usurp Klal Yisrael's leadership - is audacious and foolish. To malign Moshe and Aharon - constitutes brazen disrespect. To refer to a land that was the source of so much suffering, persecution and death as a land flowing with milk and honey - is downright insane! Korach was neither foolish nor insane. He was mistaken. He misled himself. Where did he go wrong? What led him to act in a way so inconsistent with his own character? Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, explains that the stimulus for his behavior was negios, personal, vested interests. When someone is subject to negios, he neither perceives accurately nor acts normally. Indeed, as Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, observes, Korach was an enigma, his behavior paradoxical. On the one hand, he sought to ascend to a loftier spiritual plateau, to become closer to Hashem. On the other hand, he did not care how he achieved his goal. He did not care whom he stepped on, whom he destroyed - even himself - so great was his obsession to perform a greater spiritual service for the Almighty.

Horav Dessler cites a powerful, penetrating analogy which is related by Rav Hai Gaon that clearly demonstrates this idea. It once happened that a lion who was hunting for food came upon a fox. As the lion was about to eat the fox for dinner, the fox spoke up, "Why would you want to eat me? I am nothing more that skin and bones. Let me show you a hefty man whose flesh is more than sufficient to provide a satisfying meal for you." The lion listened and proceeded to follow the fox to a place where there was man sitting in a clearing, right next to a hole in the ground, which was covered with branches and leaves. This trap was there to protect the man from any harmful animals that might strike him - like the lion. When the lion saw the man, he turned to the fox and said, "I am afraid to attack the man because of his ability to pray. His prayers will prevent my successful attack and will probably harm me." "Do not worry," said the fox. "His prayers will have no immediate effect you. They will, however, affect your descendants two generations in the future."

The lion listened to the fox and made a running leap for the unsuspecting man sitting peacefully in front of him. As expected, the lion fell into the trap and was severely injured. He looked at the fox and exclaimed, "You told me that the man's prayers would have no effect on me. They would only affect my grandchildren, but look what happened. Apparently, you were wrong."

The fox, using his natural guile, responded, "It appears to me, my dear lion, that you are being punished for your grandfather's sin. You forget that you are someone's grandson." The lion looked at the fox with questioning eyes and exclaimed, "Why should I be held responsible for the sins of my ancestors?" The fox turned to the lion and with a dead-pan look said to him, "Why did you not care about your descendants?"

This narrative's message is clear and simple: when the lion was not personally involved, when he had no negios, he did not care if others would pay for his sins. Now that he is the one that is paying, the entire perspective is altered.

Korach was a wise, erudite man until it affected him personally. He then became a fool. When someone wears blue glasses, everything he sees is blue. The spectacles of vested interests distort a person's vision - regardless of the individual's stature. A truly great person is able to transcend his personal negios in order to avoid becoming a victim of the resulting myopia.

Horav A. A. Mishkovsky, zl, Rosh HaYeshiva of Knesses Chizkiyahu, was such a unique individual. He distinguished himself in his ability to see beyond himself and maintain the lucidity needed to advise others, even if the decision would have an adverse effect upon him personally. There was once a student in the yeshivah whom the administration had decided was not living up to the standard of the institution. They decided that it would be best to ask him to leave. They elected to allow him to complete the zman, term, before notifying him of their decision. Meanwhile, unknowingly, this student made an appointment with the Rosh HaYeshivah to determine if it was best for him to remain in the yeshivah, suggesting that perhaps it would be better for him to pursue other areas of endeavor. The Rosh HaYeshivah, being a man of uncompromising integrity, told him that it was best for him to remain within the yeshivah environment.

When his colleagues in the administration heard of this incident, they were taken aback. "Why didn't you tell him to leave? It would have saved us a big headache if he had left on his own," they asked him. "He asked me what was best for him - not what was best for the yeshivah," said Horav Mishkovsky, "and I gave him the correct advice." This is an example of why he was a gadol - a Torah giant. It is the small people who are restrained as a result of their vested interests. Greatness is determined by one's ability to rise over one's pettiness.

It is an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem. (18:19)

Rashi explains that Hashem entered into a covenant with Aharon HaKohen. He called it by the name of something which is healthy - meaning it does not spoil - and which makes others healthy - meaning it preserves other things from spoiling. Salt's unique properties; its own "health," and ability to preserve the "health" of others make it the symbol of the covenant.

It is a well-known and accepted fact that the study of Torah has a lasting effect on a person. The question that, regrettably, has been the source of contention is: does the study of Torah influence others in its proximity? Does a yeshivah or kollel in a community raise the spiritual and moral consciousness of that community? Or, is the effect exclusively centered upon the lomed, learner, himself? Horav Chizkiyahu Mishikovski, Shlita, relates the following incident that occurred between Horav Arye Leib Shteinman, Shlita, and a wealthy philanthropist that sheds light on the above question.

The philanthropist asked Horav Shteinman the following shailah, halachic query: "For many years, I have been supporting a number of yeshivos in America, yeshivos in which the students are engrossed in all-day Torah study in the tradition of old. Recently, I have been approached by the leadership of a number of reputable kiruv, outreach, yeshivos to lend my financial support to their institutions. Shall I diminish my annual contributions to the "mainstream" yeshivos, so that I can support the kiruv yeshivos or not? After all, if I decide to diminish my yearly contribution to the regular yeshivos, it will not have an effect on their learning. Their spiritual development will continue unabated. If anything, their physical state of affairs might change, but their learning will not change. If I contribute to the kiruv yeshivos, however, I might reach those who would otherwise not be reached. I will be saving young Jewish men from spiritual extinction. What should I do?"

Horav Shteinman responded with the following powerful statement: "Do you think that the unparalleled surge of young people returning to the fold is a gift from Heaven? No! It is because there are young men studying unpretentiously in yeshivos throughout the world. The merit of their Torah study has brought about a resurgence of desire for spiritual development among our people. If you decrease your contribution to the yeshivos, you will cause a reduction in the number of baalei teshuvah, those who are returning to Torah Judaism."

We may add that Horav Shteinman was not addressing someone who was distant from Torah, but one who was a ben Torah himself. It is regrettable that we do not appreciate the value and far-reaching effect of our learning. Perhaps, if we did, our diligence in Torah study would increase, and so would our pride in this endeavor.

Vignettes on the Parsha
Korach… separated himself. (16:1)

Horav Meir zl, m'Premishlan abhorred machlokes, controversy. He would say that in a machlokes both parties are guilty. The mere fact that two people are involved creates the machlokes. After all, one person alone does not fight with himself. He added that two people embroiled in dispute are similar to two people pulling a rope in a tug-of-war. Each person pulls with all his might to overpower his adversary. If one of them lets go of the rope, the other one will fall. Likewise, if one eases his stance in a dispute, he will remain standing while the other one falls.


So why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem? (16:3)

The commentators explain that Korach was disputing the claim that Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth. Indeed, Korach said that Moshe was, in effect, arrogant compared to him. Moshe was al pnei ho'adamah, more humble than anyone on the face of the earth, while Korach's humility was even greater - it was b'adamah, in the earth. Imagine, Korach's chutzpah. This is why the earth swallowed him up, granting him the place that he felt was his - in the earth.


I have not taken a donkey of anyone of them, nor have I wronged even one of them. (16:16)

What would have changed had Moshe taken a donkey or wronged any of them? Does that vindicate their evil? Noam Elimelech explains that one who benefits a tzaddik from his material possessions, even if he turns away from the Torah way, will never sink to the point of being a rasha gamur, totally evil. This same idea applies if the tzaddik scolds or curses a person. Moshe was saying to Hashem that the people who had rebelled should not be held in contempt, since had he at least taken something from them, or had he scolded or reproved them harshly, they would never have resorted to such evil. Therefore, they should not receive such a grave punishment.


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