Have you ever felt on top of the world, energy pulsating through your veins, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way? Most people, at some point in their lives, have felt invincible, unstoppable, almost Godly. And yet, these very same people have, at other points in their lives, felt weak, incapable, deflated, and worthless. If we take a step outside ourselves, and realize that everyone experiences this, we are likely struck by how strange and paradoxical this is. How can we feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time [or maybe even simultaneously]? There is a fundamental truth that lies at the root of this experience, one that sheds light on the inner meaning of a strange event in this week’s parsha, Parshas Korach.
The Story of Korach
The story of Korach is often classified as one of rebellion, but it can also be seen as mistaken idealism, a philosophical challenge, or misplaced spiritual yearning. On the surface level, it seems that Korach attempted a coup, rallying supporters from amongst Klal Yisrael in an attempt to overthrow Moshe and Aharon’s leadership.
However, Chazal add multiple mysterious layers to Korach’s attempted rebellion that far surpass the idea of a typical attempt to seize power. The Midrash fills in the background behind Korach’s argument, explaining the specific contentions that Korach brought to support his case. Korach challenged Moshe: “Should a room full of sefarim require a mezuzah on its doorpost?” In other words, should a room full of holy objects require the finishing touch of a mezuzah affixed upon its doorpost? Similarly, Korach asked: “Should a four-cornered garment made completely of techeiles require techeiles in its strings.” Meaning, if the garment itself is made of techeiles, why require additional techeiles in its strings? These questions simply led up to Korach’s main question: “If the entire Jewish Nation is holy and exalted, “kol he’edah kulam kedoshim” (Bamidbar 16:3), why should you, Moshe and Aharon, hold uniquely exalted positions of power? In other words, why do we need you as spiritual leaders if we are all, in fact, spiritually perfect?
Although one could possibly find elements of truth in Korach’s claims, his approach and arguments are critically flawed and ultimately lead to him being punished severely. The ground itself opens up, and, like a mouth, consumes Korach, his followers, and all their possessions. This punishment is strikingly unique, a fact that is not merely coincidental.
As Moshe stands up to Korach’s claims against his leadership, he specifically asks Hashem that Korach be punished in a new, unique, and unnatural way to prove that Moshe indeed acts only as a messenger of Hashem. Moshe says that if Korach dies a natural death, then Moshe was not sent by Hashem. If, however, Korach dies because “briyah yivrah Hashem” (Bamidbar 16:30) – Hashem created something out of the ordinary and the ground swallows them and their possessions up alive, it should stand as proof that Korach and his followers were in the wrong, acting against Hashem’s will.
The nature of this punishment is quite strange. Why does Moshe emphasize that Korach must be punished by something completely novel, and why is the ground swallowing them up the proper punishment for their crimes? In order to answer this question, we must delve into the depth behind Korach’s argument to better understand where he went wrong.
Three Spiritual Perspectives of the Physical World
- Traditional Monotheism
There are three main approaches in understanding the relationship between the physical world and spirituality. The first approach is that of Monotheism, which centers around the concept of one God. Within this worldview, Hashem is both all-perfect and completely transcendent. He resides beyond the universe of space and time, almost detached from this physical world.
The second approach is that of Pantheism, which asserts that the world we live in is itself God. In other words, there is nothing that transcends this world; this is a completely immanent perspective of Hashem. What results from this theory is actually quite startling; if Hashem is the world and “nature”, then humanity is actually part of Hashem. The common understanding of Pantheism is that Hashem is the “soul” of the universe, the physical world is the expression of Hashem, and there is nothing more of Hashem than what we see expressed in the universe. The problem with this perspective is that it puts limitation on Hashem; for Hashem is nothing more than the universe itself. Furthermore, this breaks down the concept of halacha and boundaries. If one is part of Hashem, then one can easily claim that whatever he or she does is, in fact, the will of Hashem! Lastly, with Pantheism comes a complete breakdown of boundaries. There is no difference between me and you, or between me and this rock, or even between me and Hashem, because after all, we are all Hashem anyways.
The third approach is that of Panentheism, which is a synthesis of these first two extremes, and is the perspective of most kabbalistic and mystical thinkers. According to Panentheism, Hashem is both transcendent, as in Monotheism, and immanent, as in Pantheism. In other words, while at root, Hashem is transcendent and infinite, He also manifests and expresses Himself in the physical world. This differs from Pantheism, because it posits that Hashem is completely beyond the world as well. It differs from traditional Monotheism, as it posits that Hashem is not only transcendent, but rather that the physical world itself is also connected to and an aspect of Hashem, that Hashem manifests and expresses Himself into this world.
As many Jewish thinkers- such as Rav Moshe Shapiro- explain, Korach sinned in having a Pantheistic view. He believed that the physical world, as well as all the people within it, are part of Hashem Himself, and therefore already spiritually perfect. Korach says, “kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim”- the whole nation is holy. There is no difference between me and Moshe, or me and Aharon, or the Jewish People and their leaders. Within pantheism, there are no boundaries or distinctions, and nothing higher to connect to. Hashem is only connected to the here and now, and therefore we do not need to look for anything transcendent, higher, beyond this physical world.
Straightening a Bent Path
If Korach’s mistake indeed lay in his pantheistic worldview, how were his questions and proofs a reflection of that? As we discussed last week, the purpose of techeiles and tzitzis is to straighten the bent path, and help connect you back to Hashem, your source. Let us briefly recall the parable we mentioned last week:
Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see where you came from. However, say that the path suddenly takes a sharp turn, bending away from its straight course. Now, if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, whereby it is no longer clear where we came from- when we look around we no longer see a universe that loyally reflects its Godliness.
Tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment. It is only when the garment ends, and begins to bend, that we are obligated to put tzitzis on those corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, the tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path. The many details of tzitzis beautifully reflect this idea. We wear techeiles, strings dyed a rich ocean blue color, to trace ourselves back to sea, then to the heavens, then to the kisei ha’kavod (Hashem’s throne), and ultimately to Hashem Himself. Additionally, the gematria of tzitzis is 600, and when you add the eight strings and the five knots you get 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvos that we use to connect ourselves to Hashem.
Korach claimed that four cornered garments made up of techeiles was already spiritual, and didn’t require additional strings of techeiles. In other words, he claimed that spirituality can be self-contained, confined only to the garment itself, without any need to connect to a higher source beyond the physical world.
In the same sense, the purpose of a mezuzah is to connect your physical makom- your physical room- back to its spiritual source- Hashem Himself. Thus, whenever you enter a room, you are immediately reminded to source yourself back to Hashem. Fascinatingly, the mezuzah is placed on a slanted, bent angle on top of the doorpost. While this may appear to contradict the principle we just presented, it actually comes to add another layer of depth. It is only according to our limited perception that the mezuzah is crooked. In reality, the world itself is crooked.
It is only when we assume that our current and limited perception of the world is objective truth, that we will force the reality outside ourselves to conform to that perspective. Instead, we must learn to realign ourselves and our perception with the truth, instead of trying to align the truth, the straight path, with our crooked and bent perception. In other words, we can’t fit the truth into our world view, we must learn to fit ourselves into the truth.
This was Korach’s sin: Korach claimed that a room full of sefarim- spiritual books- was already a spiritual room- and didn’t need a mezuzah- it didn’t need to be connected back to any outside spiritual source, since the physical world can be self-contained and independently spiritual. In other words, Korach rejected the idea that we must straighten the bent path. He claimed that the physical world was already straight, and therefore doesn’t require any more straightening.
This is what he meant by “kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim”, he asserted that all of the Jewish people were already perfect, and as a result, Moshe and Aharon had no right to maintain any form of leadership. A leader is only necessary if a people need direction, but a people who are perfect do not require any hierarchy or leadership.
A New Punishment
We can now understand why Moshe asked Hashem to create a “chiddush”- a new punishment for Korach. From a Pantheistic viewpoint, everything in this world is perfect, as it already is Hashem. As a result of this, there can be no chiddush- nothing new. The logic behind this is simple: If there is nothing outside the system, no transcendent force outside the physical world, there can also be nothing new that comes into the world. For example, if there is nothing other than the seven notes in the musical scale, a new note cannot be created. Once you limit the system to what is, nothing new can be added.
Therefore, Moshe asked Hashem to add something new to the world, to add a new punishment, thereby punishing Korach midah kineged midah. The very claim he made would become his punishment. He claimed that there is nothing outside the limited framework of the physical world, nothing new can be added; so as a result, Hashem created a new punishment just for him. We must still ask, why specifically did Hashem choose to have the earth swallow Korach up? Is there a deeper meaning behind this specific punishment?
Why The Earth Swallowed Him Up
We can now take this one step further, and see the true beauty behind Korach’s punishment. Korach’s sin was most potently defined as gayvah- haughtiness. In essence, Korach claimed that he, and all of Klal Yisrael, were no different than Hashem Himself. Korach single-handedly raised himself up to the level of perfection, of Godliness. While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, as we are all created bi’tzelem Elokim- in the image of Hashem, Korach corrupted this principle and took it to the extreme.
This is why Korach’s punishment was so fitting. He claimed that he was perfect, and in so doing- raised himself up to infinite heights. As a consequence, Hashem opened up the earth, swallowing Korach and sending him to the very lowest of lows imaginable. Korach’s ego and haughtiness sunk to the deepest and most insignificant level possible.
Always a Chance for Redemption
In perek 92 of Tehilim, the pasuk says: “Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach”– the righteous will grow like palm trees. The last letter of each of these words spells out Korach. In other words, while Korach himself was destroyed, and swallowed up by the earth, he was like a seed that was planted and would later sprout fruits.
As a matter of fact, Rashi quotes Chazal who say that Korach’s children survived Korach’s punishment because they did teshuva as they were being swallowed up. Can you think of anything more profound and inspiring than this? Korach’s entire claim lay in his belief that humans are already perfect, and are therefore Godly. In other words, since we are perfect, we not only don’t need to change and grow, but we can’t, it’s impossible. Something that is already perfect cannot change, cannot grow; it must remain static. The children of Korach survived by doing teshuva, the ultimate expression and embodiment of the human ability to change, to grow, to transform from one state of being to another. The seed was planted, and the righteous palm trees sprouted. It is no surprise that many years later, Shmuel Ha’Navi came from the seed of Korach, a tzaddik who devoted his life to climbing the spiritual ladder of growth and traveled across Eretz Yisrael inspiring others to do the same.
Korach’s pitfall resulted in his actual “pit-fall”. May we be inspired to learn from Korach’s mistake and harness the beauty of being human. Our humanity is our unique Godliness. We have the ability to grow, to become, to change, to evolve, to actualize more and more of our tzelem Elokim, and achieve our destiny in this world. We aren’t perfect, we are becoming perfect. This is why we can we feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time. We aren’t perfect, we are on a journey of becoming, of actualizing our fullest potential. Sometimes we feel and fully embrace the Godliness within us, sometimes we feel the void, realize our shortcomings, and yearn to become more. We aren’t Hashem, but we are meant to strive every day to come closer and closer to Him.