‘Force Field’ Parashat Korach / Shelach 5779

It takes a very long time to put down Korach’s rebellion. First, a group of Korach’s henchmen are burned alive by a heavenly fire as they attempt to offer incense. Then, another group is killed when they are swallowed alive by the earth. Then the Jewish People accuse Moses and Aharon [Bemidbar 17:6] “You have killed the people of G-d”. 14,700 people die in an ensuing that plague. Finally, G-d tells Moses to gather the staffs of all of the Princes of the Tribes and to place them [Bemidbar 17:22] “before G-d in the Tent of the Testimony”. The next morning, Moses comes to the Tent of Testimony and the staff of Aharon – and only the staff of Aharon – has blossomed and borne fruit. With this incontrovertible proof that Moses and Aharon are the Divinely-chosen leaders, the rebellion has officially run its course.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, offers a Hassidic explanation to the “Old Blooming Staff Trick”. The Rebbe suggests that even though Aharon’s staff was a inanimate wooden staff, the fact that it was placed in front of the Tent of Meeting imbued it with holiness. The proximity of the staff to the Divine made it come alive and bear fruit. The Rebbe explains that even though the Tent of Meeting, as personified by the Beit HaMikdash, has been destroyed, our world is still infused with a certain amount of G-dliness that is accessible to all. “The lesson from Aharon’s staff is that everything in the world should be made to blossom and become beautiful with the light of Judaism, to the extent that it produces fruit.”

There seems to be a problem with the Rebbe’s logic and that problem is Korach. The Torah clearly states that Korach and his co-conspirators [Bemidbar 16:2] “stood before Moses”. Moses was a spiritual giant. Standing in front of Moses should have had the same effect as standing before G-d. The level of holiness Korach experienced at that meeting must have been no less than the level of holiness experienced in front of the Tent of Meeting, and yet Moses’s holiness had no effect whatsoever on Korach. This is doubly problematic. Not only does it stand opposed to the Rebbe’s explanation, it also stands opposed to an explanation given by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik. Let me explain.

Rabbi Soloveichik notes that after Moses had spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai learning Torah directly from G-d, forty days and forty nights in which he did not eat, drink, or sleep, he entered an existential realm that was inhabited by no other human. Moses had attained an unparalleled level of holiness. But there was another element to Moses’s uniqueness. When G-d chose Moses to take the Jewish People out of Egypt, He did not choose Moses because he was a good diplomat or a crafty general. His ability or inability to interact with Pharaoh was irrelevant. G-d chose Moses because there was no other person in the world who would be able to teach the Jewish People Torah better than Moses[1]. His ability to connect with them on a spiritual level was unrivaled. He attained the role of “omen” – the nursing parent[2]: “When the teacher instructs his disciple, the disciple very seldom becomes a part of him. When the mother teaches the baby, the baby becomes a part of her. When she rears the baby, the mother has but one calling, one purpose: to protect the baby. The omen forgoes personal life, the omen belongs to the infant[3]. Moses discovered that teaching is not enough for a leader of Israel. His job is nursing, carrying the baby in his arms, watching every step, guessing the baby’s needs, feeling pain when the baby cries and being happy when the baby is cheerful… He became the mother nurse of the Jewish People with no family of his own”. Not only was Moses’ spirituality unrivalled, so was his ability to spiritually connect with the Jewish People. Why, then, when Korach stands before Moses, is he unaffected? Why does something not click inside his head? Why does he not turn around, walk away, and cancel his rebellion, right there, right then?

I suggest that the answer has to do with the way in which Korach approached Moses. The verse introducing Korach begins with a very strange word [Bemidbar 16:1]: “Va’yikach Korach”, literally, “Korach took”. The Torah does not specify exactly what Korach took[4]. The Aramaic translation of Onkelos[5] translates the phrase as “v’itpelig” – “Korach argued”. In other words, Korach took himself – he took himself away from the rest of the Jewish People. The ArtScroll Stone Chumash captures this theme beautifully, translating the phrase as “Korach separated himself”. Korach separates himself not only from the rest of the Jewish People, but primarily from Moses. Korach knows that Moses is special. Korach is fully aware that if he stands “in front” of Moses, he will be swayed. But Korach does not want to be swayed and so he puts himself behind a force field to which holiness is impermeable. Had Korach powered down his force field for even a split second, he would have willingly conceded.

Compare the way Korach approaches Moses to the way in which the daughters of Tzlofchad approach Moses. The four daughters of Tzlofchad feel that the Torah is being unfair in limiting land to being inherited only by males. Their father has died and they must stand at the wayside as his portion in the Land of Israel is inherited by their uncles. And so they approach Moses and lodge a complaint. The Torah begins its description of their actions with the word [Bemidbar 27:1] “Va’tikravna” – they “came close”. They knew that Moses could answer their question, that he could address their complaint in a way that would make perfect sense. They wanted to hear his answer[6]. They wanted to be influenced by his holiness. They wanted to come as close as they could to Moses. Korach, on the other hand, wanted no part of Moses or his holiness. While he is standing inches away from Moses, spiritually he remains light-years apart.

Let’s go down this road a bit further. Recall what the Rebbe taught: that there is residual holiness in the world – holiness that was born in the “Big Bang” at Mount Sinai – and that this holiness can change our lives, shining light and warmth, making the dead blossom and bear fruit. The Zohar, the “bible” of Jewish mysticism, refers to this residue as “sparks”. The contrast between Korach’s separation and the daughters of Tzlofchad’s drawing near teaches us that in order to be affected by this holiness – by these sparks – we must lower our force fields. This means first and foremost that we must acknowledge that the universe is imbued with holiness, even if, for the moment, we cannot feel its presence. We must concede that we are not condemned to live a life that is spiritually dry and unfulfilling[7].

We must leave ourselves room for the possibility of spiritual growth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Moshe David ben Gisha.

[1] Moses did not understand this at first. This misunderstanding can shine a powerful light on his protracted conversation with G-d at the burning bush in which G-d tries to convince him to serve as his agent to free the Jews from their bondage.

[2] See Bemidbar [11:12].

[3] On a personal note, when my married children complain to me that their infants do not let them sleep at night, I smile because I know they are connecting with their children in the deepest way. Of course this does not preclude commiseration, which is what my children are looking for.

[4] The translation on Sefaria, now my go-to site for anything Torah-related, translates the phrase as “Korach betook”. Not much of a help here…

[5] The two primary Aramaic translations of the Torah are by Onkelos and by Yonatan ben Uziel. Both of these translations are about two thousand years old.

[6] Indeed, G-d tells Moses that the daughters of Tzlofchad have a valid complaint and He opens the door to inheritance by females.

[7] People can pray three prayers a day, learn daf yomi (daily page of Talmud), send their children to Hebrew Day Schools, and visit Israel three times a year (or even live there) and still live lives that are spiritually dry and unfulfilling. Enough said.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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