"Vayikach Korach - And Korach took..."
(Numbers 16:1)by Rabbi Chaim Richman
Sivan 23, 5768/June 26, 2008
Thus begins the story of Korach, the man who would be king. The two opening words in Hebrew, "Vayikach Korach," really tell us all we need to know about Korach. He took. Even before the verse can finish conveying just what Korach took, it is clear that Korach takes what he wants, when he wants, and for his own nefarious purposes. As it turns out the verse in this instance is referring to 250 men that Korach took. How did he take these men? He took them by their hearts, feeding the sweet but deceitful lines about holiness and equality. Why should Moses and Aaron lead, he asked, when we are all equally holy? It remains a persuasive argument to this very day. If we are all equal, and all holy, and each of us can approach G-d in his own way, than why can't we pick and choose, and cut and paste to suit our own needs, the way we serve G-d? Or to use more current terminology, the way we define good and bad, the way in which we perceive and define justice.
We are taught by our sages that Korach was a talmid chacham - a Torah scholar, but his great knowledge of Torah could not prove a fence against his aggrandized sense of self and entitlement. Not being able to find in Torah a reason why he, and not Moses, should lead the people, and why he, and not Aaron, should be the High Priest, he jettisoned the Torah, deciding to go it alone, in order to attain what he felt was his.
We are taught in Ethics of the Fathers (5:13) the following: "He who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours, is yours," is a pious person. But one who says, "What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine", is wicked." When Moses first hears Korach's contention that he, Moses, has amassed too much power for himself, "he [Moses] fell upon his face." (Numbers 16:4) In response to the charge that he has greedily taken for himself that which belongs to others, he shows total self-abnegation - literally falling on his face. Moses has only what G-d has given him, and desires nothing more. He is the pious man: "What is mine is yours, and what is yours, is yours: what's mine belongs to You G-d, and what You have delegated to others is also Yours."
Korach inverts this formula, saying: "What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine: what you G-d have given to Moses belongs to me. I desire and therefore deserve it. Surely it stands to reason that if what belongs to me is mine, than also what You have granted to others also belongs to me." In effect, the will of Korach trumps the will of G-d, rendering G-d's will, well... irrelevant. Once Korach has reached this place in his logic there is no G-d, there is no Torah, there is no creation. The clever trap Korach set for Moses has caught himself instead. Korach has painted himself into an existential corner. He is alone.
The beautiful and tragic irony of Korach is that once he has made it indisputably clear to G-d that His creation can't contain the ambition of Korach, G-d "accepts" his position, as it were, and creates, yes, creates, specially and solely for Korach and his following, a place in this universe where they can truly be alone, unencumbered by G-d, and man, and Torah: "The earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them and their houses, along with all the men who were with Korach and their property." (Numbers 16:32)
Of course Moses was unique. But his model for selfless leadership for the true good of the people of Israel should enlighten our eyes even today. Far too often modern day Korachs usurp the role reserved for the righteous, and lead the nation not to the tent of meeting to take council with G-d, but to the pit of their iniquity, a place of regret and recrimination.
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