Parshat Korach – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
Our parsha is named after Korach and his controversy. "And Korach took…and they stood up before Moshe, with two hundred and fifty men from Bnei Israel, leaders of the people, representatives of the community and men of renown. And they gathered on Moshe and on Aharon and said to them: (It is) enough for you, since the people, all of them are holy, and G-d is in their midst, and why are you elevating yourselves above G-d's people?!"
The controversy stirred up by Korach caused an "earthquake" in Am Israel and turned into a symbol for "a controversy which is not from pure motives" which "in the end will not exist." (Pirkei Avot 5:17) The Sages said: "Korach was a great sage, and was one of the bearers of the Aron!" (Bamidbar Rabbah, 18:3) As a known public figure, his arguments couldn't be ignored.
The controversy originated from Korach's personal frustration and ambition for power, his expectation to be appointed the head of the Kehati family, the foremost family of the Cohenim and Leviim. Korach saw himself as qualified because of his abilities, and "next in line for promotion" because of his age. However, Providence chose his younger cousin Elizafan Ben Uziel for that position.
Like all sowers of discord, Korach camouflaged his true intentions, and didn't debate the appointment itself, which would be recognized as a personal affair. Rather, he attacked the "inequality" of the social "system" – "since the people, all of them are holy" and the technique of appointing leadership – "and why are you elevating yourselves above G-d's people?!" The public reverberation swayed the hearts of the leadership: Korach "pulled after him (convinced) all the leaders and heads of the courts." (Midrash Tanhuma Korach 1) "And there is no eye-blinding hypocrisy more than this, but his inner thoughts were impure, and his end proved what he was in the beginning, and he didn't repent until his death." (Tiferet Israel on Pirkei Avot)
The argument over the social system - the structure of society, leadership and the way it is appointed – touched on one of the essential foundations of human society. It is a strategic issue that directly influences every person and the quality of his life.
From the origins of humanity, it has been occupied with the question of what is the goal of society, and what is the ideal social structure from an ethical point of view, and one which will best achieve its goal.
Universal social strategy sees society as a framework which serves the needs of the people. Therefore it requires an echelon of leaders who will run it, and it gives them authority and power to carry out their responsibility. On the other hand, this is a large group that becomes a "class" of its own. It is liable to abuse its power and give itself undeserved authority and privileges at the expense of the lower and middle classes, contradicting the concept of equality. Often they take advantage of public funds to live self-indulgently, and do this so ostentatiously that it makes people jealous and ambitious to become leaders themselves. And the very subjugation of one man to another causes endless tension. This is the source of friction between classes which frequently erupts into violence, class wars, and civil wars which tear apart nations and states.
Am Israel was given a different strategy, appropriate to its purpose. Am Israel is destined to be "a kingdom of Cohenim and a holy people" (Shemot 19:6) where the fabric of society is built upon the foundations of holiness. Holiness acts as a "hub" and around it are layers of spheres. There is a difference between each sphere and the others. (Tanhuma Korach)
According to the sphere's distance from the center, so its level of holiness is different. But this doesn't give the higher levels more privileges, but rather more obligations and restrictions. (Maharal, Tiferet Israel 22) Israel's social system is built upon this. It isn't built upon "classes" and it isn't "leveled" with everyone equal, but it is made up of spheres. In the center is the Cohen Gadol (high priest) and around him is the Kehati family and the rest of the Cohenim. Next are the Levites and then the Israelites. (See Sichot HaRav Zvi Yehuda Kook ztz"l on Korach) It isn't possible to relate to these spheres in the same light as we do to "classes", and positions on the spheres aren't bought or sold. The Divine choice of leadership pre-empts competition for the "crown". "In the morning G-d will make known who is His and who is holy, and He will bring close he whom He has chosen to bring close." (Bamidbar 16:5)
Korach knew this, but went ahead to "campaign" against the leadership by using claims of "equality" which is a powerful populist tool against any "government". His "revolutionary" call was aimed straight at the holy structure of Am Israel: "all the people are holy." With his "rhetorical" arguments about "a Tallit which is entirely blue" and the necessity of a Mezuzah in a "house full of books (scrolls, like the Torah)", he attempts to nullify the need for the special and unique blue Tallit-threads and for the one, unique Mezuzah. By analogy, he tries to "prove" that the spheres of holiness are only an excuse for creating a privileged class!
Korach's discrediting the foundations of Am Israel shook the ground under our existence as "a kingdom of Cohenim and a holy people". However, this shaking ground opened up exactly under Korach, and swallowed him up along with his followers.