Parashat Korach: Differentiation or Generalization

[Tal Chermon]

Korach was not just anyone. He belonged to Kehat, the family of Levi’im who carried the Holy Ark (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3), and, according to our Sages, was on the highest spiritual level (ibid. 8). In fact, according to our Rabbis, it was precisely this fact which misled him. Our Sages say that his descendents were among the Levi’im who served in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. One of the Psalms was composed by the “Sons of Korach” (see Midrash Shocheir Tov 1:6). His descendant, the prophet Shmuel, is compared to both Moshe and Aharon together (Berachot 31b). Thus, his challenging of Moshe and Aharon’s authority has a legitimate basis.
Korach was a great man and he made great mistakes. Moshe himself had a hard time contending with his claims (see Bamidbar 16:4 and Rashi’s commentary). Korach objected to Moshe and Aaron’s authority, claiming that “The whole Nation is holy. Why should you impose yourselves upon the Congregation of Hashem?” (ibid. 16:3). At first glance, it seems that he was right. The Holy One chose the entire Nation of Israel. When man chooses, he selects certain figures out of a group, but has no control over that group’s existence. When Hashem chooses, He is completely free. He created everything - that which He chooses and that which He rejects. Thus He has effectively “chosen” the Chosen People by creating us to be chosen! This is what is meant by the special Jewish character (Am Segula). Hashem created all of us as a Holy People. This “choseness” is intrinsic, comprehensive and irrevocable. No matter how wicked a man is, he remains a human being “in the Image of G-d.” Likewise, no Jew can forfeit his “Segula” - his special Jewish qualities. The command, “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2) is not dependent upon free will - it is simply how we were created. In this respect, there really is no difference between one Jew and another. As Korach stated, “The whole Nation is holy.”
This leads Korach to complain that Moshe and Aaron are “imposing their rule over the Congregation of Hashem.” The people need no mediators, they can relate directly to G-d. Indeed, our Sages, in describing the days of the Messiah, teach that the Messiah’s task is to educate the non-Jewish world (see “Na'ot Deshe” of the Admor of Sochatchov). The Jews “shall teach no more every man his neighbor … for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Yirmiyahu 31:33 and Orot Ha-Kodesh 95 of Maran Rav Kook). “And the Land shall be filled with knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea” (Yeshayahu 11:9). The Or Ha-Chaim Ha-Kadosh teaches us that when the Messiah arrives, “a whole tribe of Israel will arise” (Bamidbar 24:17). It will not be some external supernatural phenomenon or personality who brings the Redemption, but rather a force within the Nation as a whole shall bring the Redemption. On Shemot, 19:6, the Or Ha-Chaim explains that the differentiation into Cohanim, Levi’im and Israel is the result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. Before the Giving of the Torah, we were promised that “You shall be to Me a Dynasty of Cohanim and a Holy Nation.” Were it not for the Sin of the Golden Calf, we would not even need a Cohain Gadol, since the whole Nation would be Cohanim. This is the ideal, which will be actualized with the Redemption.
Thus Korach’s vision of a classless society is not without a basis. It is anarchism in the best sense, attempting to create a society in which there is no coercion or hierarchy. Every individual would then be able to build his own life and seek his own spiritual and material happiness with no external interference. The problem with this is that one man’s cure may be another man’s poison. Anarchists are willing to depend on man’s good will to prevent clashes. Korach’s vision is the epitome of idealistic anarchism, “Why should you impose yourselves upon the Congregation of Hashem?”
This premise, however, is basically unsound. It is true that every Jewish person is inherently and equally holy. Nevertheless, “In the morning, G-d will make known to you who is His … and will cause him to come near to Him” (Bamidbar 16:5). Moshe told them that G-d has created limitations in His world. Just as you cannot turn morning into night, you cannot turn Cohanim into Israelites. This world is characterized by differentiation, in nature and in human and Jewish society.
There are two types of differentiation: “In the morning, G-d will make known to you who is His … and will cause him to come near to Him, and the one whom He chooses ….” G-d chooses some, and causes others to come close to Him. “Choseness”, as we have already explained, refers to Divine Creation of that which is chosen. Just as G-d chose the Nation of Israel from all other nations, so did He choose the Cohanim from the rest of our Nation. This is an absolute irrevocable choice. However, there is also a “coming near,” and this depends on each individual’s own efforts. “G-d is near to all who call Him, to all who truly call Him” ("Ashrei"). Divine light falls upon all of us equally, but it is absorbed better by some than by others. G-d makes Himself accessible to those who make an effort to reach Him (see Sukkah 53a). This approach is equally accessible to all. “I swear in the name of the heavens and the earth: be it Jew or non-Jew, man or woman, slave or maidservant - everything depends on one’s actions, and in accordance with them is one blessed with Divine inspiration” (Tana De-Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 9 and Maran Ha-Rav Kook in Ikvei Hatzon, chapter on thoughts). As the Rambam declares, “Any human being whose spirit moves him … to stand before G-d … becomes holy in the utmost” (Hilchot Shmitta and Yovel).
The Crown of Priesthood is Divinely ordained, but the Crown of Torah is accessible to all. It only depends upon us (Rambam, Laws of Talmud Torah 3:1). Indeed, the Halachah rules that a Mamzer who is a Torah scholar takes preference over a Cohen Gadol who is unlearned (Mishna Horiyot 13).
We therefore see that there are two types of differentiation within the Jewish People: One divinely ordained and one based upon one’s own effort. This divinely ordained differentiation affects all dimensions of life - society, time, and space. In general society, there is a difference between Jews and non-Jews, and within the Jewish people there are the Cohanim, Levi’im and Israel. In time, there is a difference between weekdays and Shabbat. Shabbat is not merely a psychological frame of mind, it is an objective, divinely ordained phenomenon. Were one to light candles, sing Zemirot, and rest on Tuesday, it would not be Shabbat. Likewise, there are areas which have the Kedusha - the sanctified status - of Eretz Israel, and others which do not. One who lives in South Dakota and claims that it’s just like living in Eretz Israel because he is so devoted to the Mitzvot is mistaken. In the same vein, areas which are geographically part of Eretz Israel, but are inhabited by non-Jews have lost none of their sanctity. It is not Man who decides which, when, and where is holy but the Holy One of Blessed Name (see Rashi to Bamidbar 16:5).
Together with this, there is a uniting factor: “There are two lines which guide us regarding society and the individual, one line differentiates and the other unites” (Orot Ha-Kodesh vol. 2, 439-440)…. Differentiation is not the result of egoism, but is rather a process which brings benefit to all. For example, the separation which Cohanim must undergo in the Beit Ha-Mikdash results in a spiritual uplifting for the whole Nation.
The guiding rule is separation in order to bring about unity. It is not “equality” in the gross sense of the word. It is not Korach’s vision of all being equally holy. That kind of equality eventually results in gross egoism: “The evil impulse begins with unity (i.e. the false alliance between Korach, Datan and Aviram, and the Levi’im - to claim that all are equally holy), and ends in division (each of the above had different aspirations and met a different fate). In contrast, the impulse for sanctity begins with separation (of Cohanim from Israel) and ends in unity” (Orot Ha-Kodesh ibid.).
Korach’s sin and the sin of the Spies are actually two sides of the same coin: The Spies denied the possibility of that holiness could infuse the material world: army, agriculture, politics, etc. They endowed the material world they saw in Eretz Israel with a power too strong to overcome (Bamidbar 13:31 and Sotah 35). They thought the only way to achieve sanctity was through complete detachment from anything secular.
Korach, on the other hand, saw holiness everywhere. He was great enough to take in the sanctity of the upper and lower worlds, to appreciate the holiness inherent in the shoemakers as well as in the prophets. But he blurred the differences between them. Our world is one of gradation: The Tanach contains the Five Books of Moshe, the Prophets and the Writings (Mishnah Megilah 26). Even in the Five Books, four were written by G-d Himself, and the fifth by Moshe Rabbenu…. Among the holidays, Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and Passover each has a different status. Even a house full of Torah Scrolls needs a Mezuzah, even a Talit which is all Techelet must have a Techelet string (see Rashi to Bamidbar 16:1), because there are distinctions and levels within the general sanctity. As we learn from the Parashah of Korach, false unity eventually leads to division, whereas sanctified division eventually leads to true unity.