Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Korach… separated himself They stood before Moshe with two hundred and fifty men from Bnei Yisrael, leaders of the assembly. (16:1,2)

The nature of a person is that the "eye sees and the heart desires." We tend to focus on the negative, the harmful, the desirous, despite all of the warning signs to stay away. Chazal laud the sons of Korach who repented and did not follow their father on the road to infamy. Originally, they were swayed by his words, but when the final decision had to be made, they knew that they could not rebel against their rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu. What is so praiseworthy about their actions? Why would anyone think that saying "no" to Korach was impressive? The man was a scoundrel, bent on disputing and destroying Moshe's leadership of Klal Yisrael. What good reason could there have been to listen to his demagoguery?

Apparently, Korach was very convincing, because he had an impressive following. An audience of two hundred fifty heads of the Sanhedrin is not to be dismissed. He knew how to present his arguments in a credible manner that would persuade such an august group of individuals. He did it with leitzanos, ridiculing, contempt, in a most presumptive and believable manner. He made it all sound reasonable and right: "Moshe had no right to take it all for himself. We also want to achieve a lofty plateau of leadership. We would also like to be closer to Hashem." When a son hears his father emphasizing the need to grow spiritually, presenting himself in the most convincing manner as seriously wanting spiritual distinction for no ulterior motive other than a greater and closer relationship with the Almighty - what should the son do? Why should he not believe his father? What father would mislead his son?

Korach's sons originally followed their father's directive because it all made sense to them. They had no reason to doubt their father's motives. How does one protect himself in such a case? How did Korach's sons ultimately save themselves from certain death in both worlds? Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, explains that the key is birur ha'middos, identifying the character traits, that are behind one's own actions, introspecting to find the true motive for his behavior. Was it kinaas sofrim, the envy of Torah scholars, each vying for greater spiritual ascendency, or was it plain old envy, the most destructive of character traits, the middah that is the cause for so many other negative traits within a person?

Being able to discern what makes a person "tick," what is truly behind the veneer of his actions requires a unique, perceptive individual. The Rosh Yeshivah relates that the Alter, zl, m'Novardok, was once visited by a distinguished rav who was a well-known talmid chacham, Torah scholar. During their conversation the rav intimated that some of the works of the contemporary "enlightened" scholars of the day, members of the infamous Haskalah movement, should be considered required reading by yeshivah students. It would give them a greater, more global focus on life, allowing them to grasp the issues confronting society from a more progressive perspective. Hearing this, the Alter began to scream, "Galach! Priest! Get out!" When the Alter screamed, his students came running and immediately "escorted" the "rav" from the room. The Alter explained that the man's flowing beard had concealed his true identity.

Rav Liebman quotes the often expressed phrase, V'taheir libeinu l'avdecha b'emes, "Purify our hearts (so that) (to) serve You with truth." The emphasis must be on the "truth." We serve Hashem often by going through the motions, without really applying ourselves to understanding what we are doing, and why we are doing it. Horav Yosef Leib Bloch, zl, would interpret the pasuk, Ki adam ein tzaddik b'aretz asher yaase tov v'lo yecheta, "There is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he (always) does good and never sins" (Koheles 7:20), to mean that even when he does good, when he performs a mitzvah or carries out a good deed, he is missing the proper kavanah, intention. His sin lays in the fact that he did not identify his motivation so that he could have the correct kavanah.

With all this in mind, the question becomes increasingly strong: Who would have been able to tell Korach, "You are not concerned about spiritual ascendency. You are simply jealous of Moshe?" Who was going to identify the motivations of Korach? His following had already been shlepped, sucked in. They had themselves lost all focus and were now following blindly. This made it even more difficult for Korach's sons. They were caught up in the maelstrom of the rebellion. They were fighting a "cause," surrounded by the most distinguished leaders of the judicial system of the Jewish People. The question now becomes: How did they get out? What brought them to their senses, to teshuvah?

I think the answer lies in the b'emes, "with truth." Perhaps when Korach's sons compared their father to their exalted rebbe, they perceived a glaring difference. They saw the truth. They did not see the envy of a Torah scholar. What appeared on their radar screen when they contrasted Korach with Moshe was: deceit, envy, insecurity, manipulation and all the other "good things" that scoundrels who act with demagoguery employ in their attempt to garner a following. When they saw that their father's motivations were not noble, they immediately applied the brakes to their rebellion and sided with their rebbe. It is very difficult for a student to side with his mentor when his own father is in disagreement. Sometimes, however, one must make a choice. He must choose the truth. It is not an easy choice to make, but then nothing worthwhile is easy to obtain.

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

Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, the venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Baranowitz, presented the following question to the Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Imrei Emes: In his commentary to Sefer Yechezkel 18:6, the Radak writes that any Jew throughout the generations who abandons the faith of his ancestors indicates by his actions that he is not of the Patriarchal seed of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. He is the offspring of those who converted to our nation for ulterior motives. This is a powerful statement, corroborated by the Rambam in his Igeres Taiman, where he writes: "The Creator has ensured us as a guarantor assures his friend that, concerning anyone who stood at Har Sinai and witnessed Revelation, he and his descendants will never renege their belief in Moshe Rabbeinu and his prophecy. This is consistent with Hashem's statement in Shemos 19:9, "Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever. Therefore, anyone who turns away from the faith that was established by this holy convocation is not from the progeny of these people."

Bearing the above in mind, how is it that Korach denied Divine authority? The Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek, Halacha 1, states that when Korach impugned Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, he said, "Torah is not from Heaven; Moshe is not a Navi; Aharon is not a Kohen Gadol." He was attributing the concept of Divine Authorship of the Torah to a ruse thought up by Moshe. How is this possible? Korach surely was pedigreed, descending from a most illustrious lineage. According to Radak and Rambam, individuals whose ancestors stood at the foot of Har Sinai and witnessed Revelation and the Giving of the Torah cannot possibly be guilty of denying Hashem. Korach's behavior seems to dispute this hypothesis.

The Imrei Emes explained to Rav Elchanan that indeed Korach did believe that Moshe was Hashem's chosen Navi. Korach knew and fully understood what he was doing. This was no error on the part of some lost, wandering individual with no ties to the Jewish community. This was Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehas ben Levi! And we all know who was the father of Levi. Korach knew fully well what he was doing. He had no excuses. He simply did not care. With malice and forethought, Korach blatantly denied Hashem as G-d.

What we derive from the Gerrer Rebbe's reply is that all of those pedigreed Jews, leaders of movements that denied Torah min Ha'Shomayim, Divine Authorship of the Torah, were like Korach: rebels and sinners, who broke with our People and rejected Hashem as G-d.

In 1975, this question was presented to the Steipler Rav, zl, and Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl. They each issued their individual response. The Steipler explained that the Rambam's statement that one who doubts Hashem's existence is not of Jewish lineage is applied under specific circumstances. This is only if the person has no external reason, nothing that might sway his belief. Such an individual is like the philosophers of old, who established their beliefs upon perverted logic. They "determined" that Hashem had not caused all of the miracles that have been transmitted to us through the generations, and they repudiated the Mesorah, tradition, of generations of believing Jews heralding back to Sinai. Such a person has no excuse for his behavior. Such unmitigated behavior indicates that this individual is not of Jewish extraction. His ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai.

An individual whose actions are nothing more than an excuse to justify an overactive and insatiable yetzer hora, evil-inclination, whose life is one long chain of sinful behavior and moral bankruptcy, is not considered an apikores, apostate. He is a baal taaveh, morally repugnant person, seeking a way to qualify a life of abandon. This was Korach. A morally weak person, he was plagued by jealousy. His money, pedigree and distinction were not sufficient. He had to undermine Moshe and Aharon's leadership. In order to achieve this goal, he misled himself and others, all as a way to validate his mutiny. Korach was a scoundrel, a sinner who was a smart man who made a total fool out of himself. He was all these, but he was not a kofer. He was well aware of his actions. He just did not care.

Rav Shach took a different approach. Although Hashem gave His "word" that a Jew remains a Jew with conviction, it does not preclude his freedom of choice. The promise was that, under normal circumstances, a Jew will continue to retain his convictions. Those, however, such as Korach and his followers, who decide to renege Sinai, to repudiate Torah and the Mesorah - it is their choice. Indeed, it is specifically because they stood at Sinai that their yetzer hora to sin is greater. The greater an individual, the stronger is his inclination to sin. Thus, his battle to conquer the yetzer hora increases in difficulty and intensity.

After all is said and done, we see one thing: those who sin do so out of weakness. Their perverted philosophies are the result of this deficiency and are employed only to validate their actions and conceal their imperfections.

Do this: Take for yourself firepans - Korach and his entire assembly… then the man whom Hashem will choose - he is the holy one. (15:6,7)

Korach was nobody's fool. In fact, the Midrash calls him a pikeach, a wise and astute man. Moshe Rabbeimu implied to him that only one will emerge alive from the "debate" of the firepans. Yet, Korach continued down his path of rebellion. Did he really think that he would emerge victorious over Aharon HaKohen? Could he really have thought that he would succeed and live? The Midrash asks this question and replies: Eino hi'taaso, "His eye misled them." He saw prophetically that among his future descendants would be Shmuel HaNavi, who was as great in his time as Moshe and Aharon combined, and twenty-four groups of Leviim who would prophecy with the spirit of holiness. Seeing all of this greatness descending from him, Korach was certain that he would triumph over Moshe and Aharon. So, where did he go wrong? After all, one cannot ignore such impressive offspring. He did not see, however, that his own sons would repent at the very last moment and survive. He disappeared into oblivion, but his children lived on.

The first lesson from the above Midrash is quite clear: one sees what one wants to see. Korach was looking for a reason to proceed, something that would tell him that he would succeed. Once he had that, he did not look any further. Like so many others after him: eino hitaaso, his eye misleads him. There has to be a deeper lesson to Chazal's words. Korach was no fool. Surely, he must have thought something was amiss. Shmuel HaNavi would descend from him? How could that be? Perhaps his children would repent? Is it possible? Not in Korach's eyes. He did not believe that teshuvah, repentance, could bring one to such a lofty plateau to become the progenitor of Shmuel and twenty-four groups of Leviim. This, explains Sichos Mussar/Bais Sholom Mordechai, was Korach's mistake. He underestimated the power of teshuvah. Moshe had declared that all of the dissenters in Korach's assembly would die. This was the prophecy of Klal Yisrael's leader. Korach did not believe that teshuvah had the capacity to contradict Moshe's prophecy. Therefore, how could his children live - even if they repented? Obviously, he would be the victor. This was his error.

A similar concept may be derived from a passage in the Talmud Taanis 30b. Chazal state that there were not festive days for the Jewish People like Yom Kippur and the Tu B'Av, the fifteenth day of Av. Yom Kippur is understandably a day of joy because of its atonement powers that are effected on that day. In addition, it was the day that Hashem gave Klal Yisrael the second set of Luchos, Tablets, containing the Ten Commandments. Chazal go on to enumerate a number of reasons for Tu B'Av achieving such joyful significance. One of these reasons is that on Tu B'Av of the fortieth year of the Jews' sojourn in the wilderness, the decree heralding back to the ill-fated night when the spies returned from their reconnoiter of Eretz Yisrael was annulled. Hashem had said that all males who were over the age of twenty when they left Egypt would die in the desert, and they did - for thirty-nine years. Every year, on Erev Tisha B'Av, the men would dig their graves and lie down in them. The next morning, the call would go out, "All those alive, rise up!" This went on every year, until the fortieth year, when the last group lay down in what was supposed to be their graves. The next morning, lo and behold, they were alive! They could not understand why, unless they had erred in calculating the day of the month. This continued on until the fifteenth of the month when they saw the moon in its fullness. They now knew that the date had been correct. Hashem had revoked His decree.

What happened? The decree was for all of the yotzei Mitzrayim, Jews who left Egypt. Why were these remaining fifteen thousand Jews not part of that decree? Why were they permitted to live? Hashem keeps His word. For thirty-nine years, fifteen thousand Jews died each and every year. Now, on the fortieth year, suddenly the "rules" changed. What effected this change?

Sichos Mussar explains that while every year when the Jews would lay down in their grave they repented for their sins, this year it was a different form of teshuvah. It was a perfect teshuvah. Every year, when they repented, they figured that they might die. What does a person do when he is lying on his bed on the night before he might die? He repents. He harbors a slight hope, however, that he might live. Thus, his teshuvah is not perfect. He might live another year. He still has a chance that he is not yet going to meet his Maker.

On the fortieth year, the scenario changed drastically. This was the last group of fifteen thousand Jews. They had to die. They had no way out. When they repented, it was for real. Tomorrow their neshamos, souls, were going to stand before the Heavenly Tribunal to answer for their sins. They cried out to Hashem with perfect faith from the depths of their heart, expressing remorse and asking for forgiveness. This teshuvah was unlike any other repentance from earlier years. Previously, Klal Yisrael had always held that glimmer of hope: maybe not this year; maybe I will live one more year. This time, it was the year. Their repentance was so pristine that it was accepted, and Hashem revoked the decree against them. This is the power of teshuvah.

A pikeach is a wise man. A wise man is not supposed to err. How did it happen that a pikeach, such as Korach, made a mistake that cost him his life, his everlasting reputation, and had a similar deleterious effect on his two hundred and fifty followers? He underestimated the power of teshuvah. A wise man has the ability to understand concepts that are within the realm of human cognition. Teshuvah is l'maalah min ha'seichal, above the realm of logic. It simply does not make sense. How is it possible for one to correct a sin after the fact? How can one cause the act of murder, adultery, etc, to vanish as if it never occurred? That is the power of teshuvah.

In his magnum opus, Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal writes that teshuvah was given to sinners as a complete act of Divine chesed, loving-kindness. "Through the act of teshuvah, one recognizes his sin, admits it, reflects on the wrong that he committed, sincerely wishes that he had never committed the act, genuinely agonizes over it, and takes steps to prevent its recurrence. Then the sin is totally erased… This is clearly a function of G-d's loving-kindness, since absolute justice does not provide for this." The will to sin that had existed within the sinner is now replaced with the will to erase, to abrogate his original actions. Teshuvah creates this opportunity. It applies restitution in a situation in which it could not logically occur. Genuine teshuvah extirpates the sin. This is a concept that the wisest of men cannot fathom, because it transcends logic.

Korach viewed everything through the perspective of logic. If it made sense, it was right. He saw his future descendents. There was only one logical explanation for this phenomenon. He refused to think "outside the box." He saw things from one dimension. This was his fatal mistake.

And Behold! The staff of Aharon… had blossomed; it brought forth a blossom, sprouted a bud and almonds ripened. (17:23)

When we peruse the text, we may note that the blossoms on Aharon's staff also remained. Otherwise, it would not have been known that there had previously been blossoms and small fruit. Furthermore, in the Talmud Yoma 52b, Chazal state that Aharon's staff-- with its almonds and its blossoms-- was later concealed with the Aron HaKodesh. Clearly, there is some significance to this. Indeed, in their commentary to the Talmud, Tosfos Yeshanim assert that, usually, once the fruit is evident, no blossoms remain. Apparently, an important lesson is to be derived from the miracle of Aharon's staff.

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, suggests a powerful lesson to be derived from here: the blossoms of kedushah, sanctity, do not decompose. The fruit of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself. The preparations leading up to the kiyum ha'mitzvah, fulfillment of the mitzvah; the labor and toil involved; the angst of making sure everything works out properly - these are the blossoms. The preparations and everything involved in the mitzvah, all remain etched in the Heavenly scroll of mitzvah performance. All that a person must endure in his quest to achieve proficiency in Torah knowledge is recorded. No effort is wasted. It all counts, unlike material objects for which a person only pays for the actual fruit or whatever he his purchasing. The toil involved in preparing it and bringing it to market is not included in the price. Not so in the realm of the spirit. Everything is calculated on the Heavenly computer. The blossoms are an inherent part of the fruit.

The Rosh Yeshivah quotes the Talmud Berachos 17a, "Fortunate is he whose toil is in Torah." The reason for this is as mentioned: toil is of greatest significance. Effort exerted in mundane matters does not earn one rewards. It is the final achievement, the finished product, that counts. How it arrived there has no effect on the reward. People work hard to earn a livelihood and often accumulate great wealth from the labor they expended, but is it a source of pleasure to them? Surely, if they could earn a living without toil, they would be most happy to oblige. Who wants to struggle?

The toil involved in Torah study and mitzvah performance is inherently good and provides good fortune for the person. Thus, the blossoms were concealed together with the fruit, because they are all important. Aharon HaKohen expended effort in achieving success with the fruits of the staff. This success, however, did not occur overnight. Aharon merited Kehunah because of all of his good deeds. All of his toil and labor were tallied, and nothing was superfluous. It was all needed to create the finished fruit. As it did for Aharon, it applies for anyone who studies Torah. Every bit of toil will be counted as they enable him to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Let us take this idea to the next level. In a comparison between Torah knowledge and secular knowledge, effort quite possibly stands out most prominently as a point of divergence. Secular knowledge does not concern itself with how one acquires the knowledge. Effort and means are irrelevant. It is the finished product which counts. In Torah knowledge, cardinal significance is given to the effort expended, the strain, toil, and even pain exerted in achieving the end result. Indeed, the actual accumulation is secondary. Some of our most brilliant Torah leaders, such as Horav Aharon Kotler, were known for their legendary ameilus, toil, in studying Torah. Their effort was the result of an almost unquenchable thirst and extraordinary love for Torah.

While this is clearly an indication of one's love for the Torah, we also acknowledge a practical aspect to the importance of effort in Torah study. Prior to the birth of a child, an angel teaches the fetus the entire Torah. Then, as he is about to emerge in the world, that same angel causes him to forget it all. Thus, one goes through life "relearning" what he once knew, with his previous Torah knowledge serving as a sort of support and foundation to facilitate the eventual acquisition of Torah knowledge through study. Knowledge was the primary objective; the angel could have spared us all the effort and not have made us forget what we had originally learned. While we have many opportunities available today for studying Torah, from the simple aids to the most advanced online teaching adjuncts, they cannot replace simple effort. It is the effort which Hashem wants from us, and it is that effort that is so much a part of Torah wisdom.

The Sochatchover Rebbe, zl, was an illui, brilliant child prodigy. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, was concerned lest the child's incredible power of prayer might affect his Torah study. We should all be blessed with such a problem, but the Kotzker felt that there was reason for concern. He explained that the young boy once had a watch that had stopped working. Today, we either replace the battery or purchase a new one. It was difficult in "those" days. Since the child had no idea where to go to have it repaired, he tearfully prayed to Hashem to please fix the watch. Hashem listened, and the watch came back to life! When the boy saw how effective his prayers were, he began to implement them to Torah study. Whenever he came across a difficult passage in the Talmud, he turned to Hashem and prayed. Therefore, instead of exerting himself in Torah study, he was praying to Hashem for the answers. The Kotzker disapproved of this "method" of Torah study, since Torah knowledge must be the result of one's expended effort, rather than of Divine illumination. If I may add, the end result is always derived through Divine enlightenment, but it should be the result of effort - not prayer. The mitzvah is to study Torah - not, merely, to know Torah. Knowledge is the end result -- or byproduct-- of a Jew's effort in the field of Torah.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'ha'osher v'ha'kavod milfanecha v'atah mosheil ba'kol.
Wealth and honor come from You. And You rule everything.

The Raavan explains the use of kavod, honor, in connection with osher, wealth. Indeed, there are those who gain wealth in an unscrupulous manner. This is certainly not b'kavodick, honorable. Osher v'kavod refers to wealth gained honorably. I think that the emphasis is on the "wealth and honor," indicating that these are two very distinct attributes. This is unlike those whose honor is derived exclusively from their wealth. Perhaps they derive their wealth scrupulously, but this is all they have.

The Arizal had the custom to give tzedakah when he recited the words V'atah mosheil bakol, "And You rule everything." V'yifgah Ba'makom explains that these pesukim detail the great contributions that David Hamelech and Klal Yisrael gave towards the building of the Bais Hamikdash. Those contributions exemplify the essence of lishmah, for its sake, charity given selflessly for no other reason other than to build the Bais Hamikdash. David knew that he would not see the finished edifice. What greater example of lishmah can there be? This is why it is an appropriate time to give tzedakah. In addition, the Ozrover Rebbe, zl, explains that when one declares, "And You rule everything," he is intimating that the tzedakah he is giving actually belongs to Hashem, Who has "deposited" it with him, so that he can have the wherewithal to support the poor. He is just executing his function for Hashem.

Mazel tov and best wishes
Rabbi and Mrs. Simcha Z. Dessler
Rabbi and Mrs. Aaron Kotler
upon the marriage of their children,

With a special Mazel Tov to the distinguished grandparents shlita
May the union of these two families continue the legacy of their illustrious lineage.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel