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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Korach separated himself. (16:1)

Vayikach Korach, "Korach separated himself": two words that define what was to become one of the greatest tragedies of Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, the consequences of which we continue to live with to this very day. Dispute, controversy and machlokes have been present since Korach publicized the concept of dissent, taking it to an unprecedented nadir, which incurred previously unheard of punishment - unparalleled for its severity and finality. All of this happened because "Korach separated himself." Obviously, there is more than one meaning to Korach's separating himself. We will address the opinion of Rashi, because its simplicity is unusually profound, teaching a significant moral lesson.

Lokach es atzmo l'tzad echad liheyos nechelok mitoch ha'eidah l'orer al haKehunah. Korach "Took himself off to one side, to be separated from the assembly of Yisrael by raising objections to the Kehunah." Rashi adds that this is what Targum Onkeles means when he interprets Vayikach Korach as V'ispaleig, "And he separated himself." Rashi then adds how he separated himself - l'hachazik b'machlokes, "by sustaining a dispute." Rashi seems to imply that the critique against Korach was that he sustained the dispute. Apparently, its origins were not that blameworthy. It was continuing when he was proven wrong, when Moshe explained to him that he was making an egregious error.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, quotes the well-known Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:17), which distinguishes between a machlokes l'shem Shomayim, a dispute for the sake of Heaven, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven. The paradigm of controversy for the glory of Heaven is the dispute of Hillel and Shammai, two distinguished Tannaim, who disputed halachah a number of times; yet, each one permitted members of his individual household to marry one another. It was "friendly fire", with each disputant seeking one thing: to establish halachah, thereby glorifying Hashem's Name. The paradigmatic example of a machlokes which is not l'shem Shomayim is that of Korach and his followers.

Perusing this Mishnah makes one wonder. Is l'shem Shomayim the only area of divergence between Korach's dispute and the halachic debates of Hillel and Shammai? Is there no other area in which these two machlokos, disputes, differ? How can we even mention Korach's blatant mutiny, his rebellion against Hashem's designated leaders, and, by extension, against Hashem Himself, in the same breath as the holy names of Hillel and Shammai. Apparently, as Rav Yeruchem notes, there is a much deeper understanding of Korach's dispute with which we must reconcile ourselves. Korach was not out simply to usurp Moshe's leadership. It was not only about seeking honor, fame and glory. Korach initially wanted a higher position that meant greater closeness to Hashem. This is what he sought - initially.

Thus, at the very onset, Korach was truly no different than Hillel and Shammai. They had a religious agenda; so did Korach. The problem arose when Korach was proven wrong, when Moshe explained everything to him, when he revealed to him some of the rationale behind Hashem's "decisions." This is when Korach should have said, "Ok, I am wrong. I will no longer dispute the decision. Hashem has spoken." Sadly, he did not do that. He was machzik b'machlokes, continued to sustain the dispute, to transform a serious rational debate into an ugly battle. Korach's question was acceptable. His eschewing the answer, his inability to accept and acquiesce to a Higher Power, is what brought him down.

Korach's followers experienced a similar error. Perhaps they all had good intentions, but, when one is proven wrong; when one blatantly sees the folly of his ways, he must be a total imbecile to continue. This is what Moshe told them when they agreed to offer the incense: Rav lachem, Bnei Levi, "This is to you, sons of Levi!" (ibid 16:7). Rashi explains, "I have told you a serious matter. Were they not fools? For Moshe warned them in this manner. Yet, they still undertook to offer the incense." What prompted them to act so foolishly - basically rejecting their lives?

Rav Yeruchem quotes an analogy from Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl. A thirsty man who had been looking for water to soothe his parched throat finally chanced upon a keg of water. A large group of people assembled there confirmed that the water was fresh and perfectly drinkable. Nonetheless, if one person who appears deranged comes along and warns him not to drink from the water because there is poison in it, he will not drink. This is despite everyones' agreement that the water is fine. If one person - and one who is, at best, totally deranged - claims that the water is poisonous, no rational person will drink from it. That is the way it is.

Likewise, with yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. A person convinces himself that there is no one in charge. He can go about his daily endeavors as he sees fit. What should he worry about? But just in case they are wrong, and Hashem will punish you for your sin, will you still continue to drink the water? You will - if you are a fool. This is what Moshe was saying to them: "Gentlemen, you were at the funerals of Nadav and Avihu, where you observed the immediate devastating response to offering incense without being commanded to do so. Are you willing to risk your lives? Are you normal?"

They stood before Moshe with two hundred and fifty men from Bnei Yisrael, leaders of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of renown. (16:2)

The two hundred and fifty men that rallied with Korach were not ordinary people. They were from among Klal Yisrael's spiritual elite. This, of course, did not prevent them from making the mistake of their lives. Perhaps their distinguished position, thinking themselves infallible, might have led to the error which cost them their lives. No one should think that he is above reproach. One who does is in serious trouble. Who were these two hundred and fifty men? Rashi claims that they were all from the Tribe of Reuven. Ibn Ezra, however, contends that they were representatives of all of the tribes. He posits that when the bechorim, firstborn, were demoted and exchanged for Shevet Levi, some among them felt slighted. They were the ones who joined Korach's rebellion. The numbers, however, do not seem to correspond. Certainly, there were more than two hundred and fifty misplaced bechorim.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh says that during the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe Rabbeinu called Mi l'Hashem eilai, "Who is for Hashem, should stand by me!" all of Shevet Levi joined, and individual members of the other tribes also came forth. Applying the interpretation of the Ohr HaChaim, the nation understands why such a small group of bechorim joined the fray. Those who did not stand by Moshe felt that they did not deserve preferential treatment. They had been given their chance, and they chose to ignore it. The two hundred and fifty were those who had joined Shevet Levi in support of Moshe. They now wanted recognition for their valiant and dedicated efforts to stand up to the Golden Calf sinners. They were not a large group, but ones who felt they deserved a position of spiritual leadership.

Regardless of their earlier allegiance, their present support of Korach over Moshe cost them their lives. Where did they go wrong? Horav Moshe Tzvi Nariyah, zl, explains that it all reverts back to their attitude when they responded to Moshe's call. Mi l'Hashem - elai represents two statements: "Who is for Hashem?"; "should stand by me." These bechorim accepted the Mi l'Hashem; they were one with the Almighty. They were, however, not prepared to commit to the eilai, to "me." They were prepared to die for Hashem, to sacrifice their lives in order to demonstrate their devotion to Him. They were not yet prepared to accept Moshe as their leader. At that point, it did not present a glaring problem. At the nadir of the dispute, however, it revealed itself in all of its repugnance. When one makes a commitment, he must do so wholeheartedly; when he is "in," he should be completely in. Otherwise, later on, when challenges present themselves and the "going gets tough," his lack of full commitment will manifest itself in his downfall.

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

In his commentary to Sefer Yechezkel (18:6), Radak writes that once a Jew, always a Jew. "There is a covenant between Hashem and Klal Yisrael, stating that those who are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (who are of the Patriarchal lineage) will never cease their commitment to Judaism. Those, however, who, over time, apostatized themselves and reneged on their faith in Hashem had never been real descendants of the Patriarchs. They are the offspring of the asafsuf, those insincere individuals who attached themselves to the Jewish People."

In his Igeres Teiman, the Rambam makes a similar statement: "Those who stood at Har Sinai, experiencing the Revelation, will always believe in the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu. This applies to them, their children and their children's children, forever. For Hashem said to Moshe, 'And they will forever believe in you.' Therefore, one should know that anyone who turns away from the religion that was established at this gathering (the Revelation) is not a descendant of theirs." In other words, Rambam reiterates that one who eschews Judaism, who turns his back on Hashem, who becomes an apostate, is not mi'zera Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. He neither descended from the Patriarchal lineage, nor did his ancestors stand at Har Sinai.

The question is now quite obvious: What about Korach? He certainly did not descend from a newcomer to the Jewish faith. No one can dispute his illustrious lineage. Nonetheless, he disputed Moshe's leadership, claiming that Hashem did not choose him. Can there be any greater - more blatant - display of heresy than this? This question was posed to the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, zl, by his son-in-law.

The Rebbe replied that, indeed, Korach knew and believed in Hashem. He was, however, one who is considered a prime example of: yodea es Boro u'miskaven limrod Bo, "He knows and acknowledges his Creator, yet maliciously intends to rebel against Him." This is a new dimension in kefirah, heresy. One knows what he is doing. He is aware and believes in Hashem, but this does not affect him. He could care less. He will rebel against his Creator because he wants to! Korach sought kavod, glory. As long as Moshe stood at the helm of Jewish leadership, Korach was relegated to a secondary position. This was something this despot could not live with - even if it meant mutinying against the Almighty.

The Steipler Gaon, Horav Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky, zl, gives a different answer to this question. The Rambam's position that once a Jew, always a Jew (and a Jew that reneges his Judaism had never actually been a Jew by birth lineage) applies only when nothing is in his way, nothing to distort his belief, nothing to undermine his conviction. He, of his own volition, took a philosophical approach to Judaism. In accordance with his way of thinking, he feels that the religion is unjustifiable, and, therefore, he rejects it. He did not see the miracles and wonders which are recorded in the Torah. If he did not see it, and if he cannot understand it, then he does not believe it. Such a person is not one of us - period. A Jew, however, who has sinned and fallen under the malignant spell of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, and is thus led to heresy is nothing more than a Jewish sinner. He is one of us - a sorry case - but one of us nonetheless.

This was Korach. He could not deal with his envy. His jealousy over Moshe's position of leadership destroyed him, making him act in the reprehensible manner that he did. Korach was a Jewish renegade - but a Jew nonetheless.

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

Moshe Rabbeinu had heard it all. This was the final straw. As Rashi explains, She'kvar zeh b'yadam sirchon revii, "This was already the fourth foulness that the Jews had committed." They had worshipped the Golden Calf - after which Moshe prayed for them. They were misonenim, complained for no good reason, just for the sake of complaining; again, Moshe prayed for them. They heeded the false and slanderous reports of the meraglim, spies, and wept bitterly for no reason; Moshe again prayed for them. This was the fourth time that the nation had defied Hashem. It was too much. Moshe felt that he could no longer plead their case. They had gone too far. This can be compared to the son of the king who acted contemptuously, once, twice, and a third time. When the son disgraced himself and the king for a fourth time, the king's close friend who had interceded the previous three times felt that his ability had weakened: "How many times could he trouble the king? Perhaps he will no longer accept my placation?"

This all might be fine and well if there were no rhyme or reason to somehow justify the first three episodes of disgrace. As Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, observes, however, each sinful event presented itself with what Klal Yisrael might excuse as mitigating or extenuating circumstances. During the episode of the Golden Calf, the Satan played a leading role in confusing the nation, attempting to convince them by employing a convincing imagery of darkness and cloud, with Moshe's bier being carried through Heaven by the Angels. The complainers were victims of the eirav rav, mixed multitude, who joined the Jewish nation as they left Egypt. They were nothing but trouble. Once again, they succeeded in wrongly influencing the nation to complain for no reason. The spies were powerful leaders who had an overriding negative influence on an anxious and troubled nation. If they had an excuse for every episode, why should they now be censured because it is the fourth time? Why count the preceding three?

In his inimitable manner, Rav Galinsky takes a practical approach toward resolving this question. He recalls being Mashgiach in a yeshivah and questioning a student concerning his lack of attendance at davening, morning prayers. "Why were you not at davening this morning?" was his opening question. "I attended a wedding last night and returned quite late. I was exhausted, so I slept in," the student responded.

"That explains today - what happened yesterday that prevented you from joining us at davening?" Rav Galinsky asked. "Interestingly, yesterday I arose early and would surely have been on time, had I not been delayed by my stomach. I must have eaten something that disagreed with me" was the young man's reply.

"What about the day before yesterday?" he asked somewhat impatiently. "Yesterday is a different story. I woke up on time, but I noticed that my negel vasser, water for washing my hands upon arising, had been moved from my bed. Aware of the halachah that prohibits one from walking daled amos, four cubits, without removing the spiritual impurities caused by sleep, I felt that I should wait in bed until someone returning from davening would move the water to my bed." This was truly a creative excuse - but an excuse nonetheless.

Rav Galinsky told the young man, "Let us together study a passage in the Talmud Chagigah 3b. Perhaps we might gain insight into your davening issue and how your lack of attendance should be addressed. Chazal explain that the shoteh, imbecile, about whom halachah rules that he is patur, exempt from mitzvah performance, is defined by specific actions. To rule that one is a shoteh has strong ramifications: no mitzvos, no punishment for transgressions; his kinyan, acquisition, is not acceptable; what he sells is null and void. Thus, Chazal were specific in delineating the criteria for declaring one a shoteh. They are: he goes out alone at night, with no concern for his well-being; he sleeps alone in the cemetery; he tears his clothes. In other words, he exhibits strange behavior which indicates that he cares about neither himself nor his possessions.

"The Talmud explains that one who sleeps in the cemetery might actually be seeking an opportunity for a ruach ha'tumah, spirit of impurity, to rest upon him granting him the ability to practice witchcraft or other practices of the occult. One who goes out alone at night might need to get some cool air. Last, tearing clothes could suggest absentmindedness. Each one alone does not irrevocably indicate that one is a shoteh. All three together, however, demonstrate that this person has serious issues."

Chazal seem to imply that three occurrences, regardless of the excuses one presents, are an indication which connotes chazakah, status quo. Likewise, imagine a man who goes to the doctor complaining of a headache, high fever, and blisters all over his body. A foolish doctor will treat each symptom exclusive of the other, while an astute doctor will realize immediately that one illness, an infection, manifests all three symptoms.

Returning to Moshe Rabbeinu: True, each infraction could be justified, but three, one after another, constitutes a chazakah, indicating a deeper sickness, one which cannot be ignored. This was no longer opportunity for prayer. They had shown that their spiritual illness was of an extremely serious nature. It had to be expunged in such a manner that radical punishment was the only way to eradicate the spiritual infection that was destroying the nation.

And put fire in them and place incense upon them. Then the man whom Hashem will choose - he is the holy one. It is too much for you, O offspring of Levi. (16:7)

Rashi asks a simple, but piercing, question: Korach was far from a fool. Indeed, he was well-known as a pikeach, wise, intelligent man. If so, what did he see that motivated him to commit to such a foolish act? He knew that there could be only one winner. Offering Ketores, incense, was not child's play. It had to be done correctly by the right person, or else the person who offered it became history. Only a fool would risk so much. Korach certainly was no fool.

We wonder why Rashi asks this question with regard to the Ketores. Why not raise the issue of what prompted Korach to take on Moshe Rabbeinu immediately, at the beginning of the parsha when Korach initiated the dispute? What motivated Korach to act this way? He was numbered among the ones who carried the holy Aron HaKodesh. He was one of the most prominent citizens of Klal Yisrael. To act in this manner runs counter to everything that Korach represented and stood for. Indeed, it would make sense to ask the question of Korach right from the beginning, when a member of the nation's spiritual elite chose to defile himself by impugning Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen's leadership.

Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, explains with a simple answer, expressing a profound verity which sadly holds true today - more often than we care to admit. A tzaddik, righteous person, is not perfect. It is possible for a tzaddik to err. To err is human; to ignore one's error is unforgivable and indicates that one is witless. Korach could have made a mistake. He was envious of Moshe, and envy causes a person to do strange things - even sin reprehensibly. As long as Korach's actions could be defined as sinful, it could be "understood." It was when he acted insensate, like a fool driven by idiocy, that we ask, "How could he commit such shtus, foolishness?" He knew that all but one of the two hundred and fifty incense renderers would die; yet, he committed himself to the test anyway. This shows that Korach had become unhinged. He was acting without seichel, common sense. That is inexcusable! To paraphrase the Rosh Yeshivah, Veil di greste aveirah iz tzu zein a naar, "Because the greatest sin is to be a fool."

Now, some people cannot help themselves. They are born that way. When one is born with the gift of common sense, yet refuses to apply it, then his actions are unpardonable. We are blessed with a working mind for the purpose of using it. To act foolishly, ignoring the directive of common sense, may not be condoned.

A Torah leader, or anyone, for that matter, who possesses seichal hayashar, straight, common sense, has no excuse for making nonsensical mistakes - especially if his mindlessness hurts others. Torah scholarship is important, commendable and is to be respected. If one possesses everything but common sense, however, he - and everyone connected with him - is in serious trouble.

The Torah teaches that when Moshe was judging the entire nation by himself, his father-in-law, Yisro, suggested that he set up leaders over various groups. Yisro suggested four attributes that would qualify the one who possessed them for leadership: anshei chayil, men of means, who have no need to flatter or show recognition; yirei Elokim, G-d-fearing people; anshei emes, men of truth, who inspire confidence and whose words are worthy of being relied upon; sonei betza, people who despise money who hate to have their money in litigation, willing to part with their money, rather than go to court to argue over what is truthfully and rightfully theirs. Apparently, these traits were indicative of highly, upstanding individuals; it was a tall list of attributes to all fit one person. The Torah tells us that, in the end, Moshe chose anshei chayil, men of accomplishment, men of means, as his judges. Ostensibly, when he had to choose among all four attributes, the one that was most important was anshei chayil. This does not mean that the judges did not possess the other qualities. It only means that they did not exemplify them. Thus, when Moshe had to make the decision, he felt that anshei chayil was the most crucial characteristic for a judge and a leader.

The definition of anshei chayil which was rendered above, men of means, follows Rashi. Sforno, however, adds to this definition, suggesting that anshei chayil means more than being able to transcend the need to impress and flatter, to curry favor from people. Anshei chayil is the quality of mevin davar mitoch davar, someone who is able to discern the veracity of a matter and bring it to a definitive conclusion. They were chosen even over those who were G-d-fearing, but they were not "able men."

Sforno views "ability" as the most important quality which a leader/judge should possess. It is vital that he be well-versed in the law, astute and capable of rendering a decision. The anshei chayil were scholars who were knowledgeable and of a strong character, although lacking in some of the other qualities which Yisro felt a leader should possess. Apparently, if they could not have it all, they settled for what was crucial - men of ability, who could think through a problem and render a decision.

In the Shiurei Daas, Horav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, zl, develops this idea further. He posits that to serve Hashem properly, one must be astute, developing a profundity of the mitzvos and the manner in which a Jew should serve Hashem. A "thinking" Jewish scholar, who is knowledgeable and understands the depth and veracity, the wisdom and sagacity of Torah - who fears Hashem out of a sense of perception and intelligence - is greater than he who is extremely meticulous and follows the letter of the law with care and fear, but without insight and depth. The chacham, wise man, who is capable of developing insight into the verities of Torah, who achieves Heavenly fear through a depth of understanding of before Whom he stands, has a greater potential for spiritual growth than he who fears, but lacks intellectual perfection. To put it in the simple vernacular: common sense is a critical, indispensable requisite for life, without which one is incapable of rendering a decision. A leader who is lacking in this most basic quality is not only personally in a precarious position, but he may also present a serious danger to all.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'limadetem osam es b'neichem. And you shall teach it to your sons.

The Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 50:3) writes that one who studies Torah without understanding what he is studying does not fulfill the mitzvah of limud haTorah. The principle of Torah study requires that one understands what he learns. No cognition - no mitzvah. In his Pirkei Torah, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, quotes his son-in-law, Horav Ephraim Eisenberger, zl, who questioned this halachah because of its inconsistency with a statement made by Chazal in Meseches Succah. They say that as soon as a child is able to articulate words, his father should commence his Torah studies. He begins with the pasuk: Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, "The Torah which Moshe commanded us" (Devarim 33:4). Clearly, such a young child has no sense of understanding. How can his father be commanded to teach him Torah?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that teaching one's son Torah is part of the mitzvah of chinuch, educating one's child. This mitzvah imperes one to see to it that his child become proficient in the mitzvah by getting used to it. Practice makes perfect. In order for the child to become familiar with the mitzvah, he must practice it, make it user friendly. Cogency applies later on when he begins to study Torah as part of the mitzvah of limud haTorah.

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