Parashat Korah tells of the uprising led by Korah against the authority of Moshe and Aharon, which ended in the death of Korah and all his followers. Together with his cohorts, Korah came before Moshe and Aharon and proclaimed, “The entire congregation – they are all holy! So why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of God?” Korah’s contention was that all Beneh Yisrael are endowed with sanctity; each and every Jew is holy by virtue of the sacred soul contained within him or her. As such, Korah claimed, there was no need for Moshe and Aharon to assert their authority over the rest of the people.
Truth be told, Korah’s assumption of “Kol Ha’eda Kulam Kedoshim” – that all members of Beneh Yisrael are holy – is absolutely and indisputably correct. Each one of us contains a sacred soul, no matter who we are and even if we fall short of our religious obligations. Halacha very clearly establishes that if somebody orders us at gunpoint to kill a fellow Jew, we must disobey the order even at the expense of our own life. As the Gemara explains, one Jew’s blood is no “redder” than that of another Jew; no Jewish life is more valuable than another. Even if the person being threatened is a major Jewish philanthropist who sits on the board of ten prominent Jewish organizations, and he is told to kill a Jew with a severe mental disability, he must refuse the order. Despite his extraordinary accomplishments and great influence on the Jewish world, has no right to assume that his life is worth more than that of any other Jew, including people with mental disabilities. All members of Beneh Yisrael are equally holy, because we all contain a sacred soul.
The question, then, arises, what was Korah’s mistake? If, indeed, “The entire congregation is holy,” then why was he wrong for protesting against Moshe and Aharon’s leadership?
Korah’s contention was fundamentally flawed for several reasons. First, he failed to recognize that there are two forms of Kedushat Yisrael – the sanctity with which we are endowed. Although it is true that we all share a basic quality of holiness by virtue of the sacred soul within us, there is an additional dimension of Kedusha that each of us creates through our actions. Moshe and Aharon were, in one sense, holier than the rest of the nation because of their piety. It is true that regarding one aspect of Kedusha they were no different than anybody else, but there is another type of holiness that depends on one’s character. And since they were the great Sadikim of the generation, they were worthy to lead the rest of the nation.
Korah’s second mistake was in thinking that because we are all sacred we do not need religious leaders. Even great Torah Sages consult with other Sages for guidance and direction. The fact that we are all sacred does not mean we have all the answers we need to live a proper Torah life. We need the guidance of the “Moshe and Aharon” of each generation to help ensure that we conduct ourselves the way we should.
Korah also made another mistake. The Midrash says that he and his followers put on garments dyed in Techelet and then came to Moshe and asked whether these garments require a Techelet string with the Sisit, like ordinary garments do. Moshe ruled that they do, and Korah and his followers then began ridiculing him. If a single thread of Techelet suffices for a white garment, they argued, then why would a garment that is entirely Techelet require a Techelet string? Korah’s mistake was in trying to apply intuitive logic to Halachic reasoning. Halacha operates on its own internal logic, and we accept its authority even we do not fully understand its rationale. We cannot understand, for example, why a woman who was educated in Harvard and holds a Phd in Jewish law cannot serve as a witness in Bet Din, any more than we can understand why a Jewish king – such as Mashiah himself – may not serve as a witness in a Bet Din. Korah thought he could write his own Halacha based on his own logic and intuition, and this, too, was a grave mistake.
Finally, Korah erred in focusing on the goal and purpose of Misvot, without regard for its details. The Sages teach that the purpose of the Techelet string – whose color resembles the heavens – is to remind us of the divine throne so that we always remain cognizant of our obligations to God. Korah argued that if a single Techelet string serves this purpose, then certainly an entire garment of Techelet is a far more effective reminder. While the argument sounds reasonable, it is wrong because God demands more than just realizing the purpose of the Misva. The act itself, the faithful observance of all details and intricacies, is a critical component of any Misva. Yes, the purpose of Techelet is to remind us of the heavenly throne, but the Torah demands compliance with all the detailed Halachot irrespective of this goal.
Unfortunately, many people today repeat Korah’s mistake, thinking that they can realize the spiritual goals of the Misvot without abiding by their Halachic requirements. To take an extreme example, we can imagine a Jew who decides that he can best experience the spiritual feeling of Shabbat by listening to relaxing music while lying on the beach. Of course, this is very wrong. The Torah’s goals are to be realized in the way the Torah tells us to, and not however we feel like it. We cannot assume the right to decide for ourselves the best way to be “spiritual.” This goal is achieved by observing Halachic guidelines, and not by following our own ideas of “spirituality.” This, too, is a crucial lesson we must learn from Korah’s tragic mistake.
This dibre torah is based on a derasha by Rav Soleveitchik.