Parshas Korach: Does a Holy Nation Need Leaders?

In this week’s parsha (in chutz la’Aretz) Parshas Korach, Korach – a first cousin to Moshe and Aharon – leads a rebellion against the rulership of Moshe and the kehunah gedolah of Aharon.  Fueled by personal motivations of jealousy, lust and the desire for honor, Korach claims: 

כִּי כָלהָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם ה’! וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַלקְהַל הthe entire assembly is holy and G-d is amongst them all (a claim that is correct), and why do Moshe and Aharon raise themselves up over the congregation of G-d (Bamidbar 16:3)?!

While Korach claims a leader is not needed over such an exalted assembly, and Moshe and Aharon took power and honor for themselves; Korach was the epitome of the most despicable and dishonorable trait of being inconsistent in his inward feelings and his outward behavior.  What he really wanted was to be the leader himself.

To “prove” that the mitzvos were fabricated by Moshe, and that they were nonsensical, the Medrash teaches us (as quoted by Rashi in the beginning of the parsha), that Korach took an entirely blue cloak of techeiles to Moshe.  “Does this cloak of techeilis need the fringe of techeiles on the tzitzis or not? If you will say that it does, how can it be one string fulfills the obligation of techeiles but an entire garment of techeiles does not!”  He further mocked Moshe by asking: an entire house (or room) filled with Sifrei Torah, does it need a mezuah or not?  How can it be than if the entire room is filled with sifrei Torah, a mezuzah – which contains only a relatively small numbers of verses from Chumash – would still be needed!?

In his claims, Korach attempted to mock, denigrate and undermine the authority of Moshe and the validity – and Divinity – of the Torah and mitzvos.  

Ultimately, as his machokes (quarrel) was not for the sake of Heaven, his rebellion was a failure and the ground opened up and swallowed him (and his people) alive.  

What is this Medrash coming to teach us?  There must be a deeper lesson than simply relaying a story of a blue cloak, a fringe of tzitzis, a room of sifrei Torah, and a mezuzah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l teaches, “The Midrash is doing more than answering the questions and filling in the gaps.  It is telling us something fundamental about the Jewish project itself.  There is a perennial temptation in Jewish life to say that we do not need law, halakha, to achieve our religious ideals.  There are commands for which a reason is given, and tzitzit is one.  It is not a hok, a ‘statute’, a command without explicit purpose.  It is, rather, one of the edot, a ‘testimony,’ whose purpose is to remind us for certain truths, historical or spiritual… Korach’s argument is that there are other ways of remembering Heaven then by attaching a blue fringe to the corners of our clothes.  Another is to make a garment entirely of blue – surely a far more visible, eye-catching symbol.

“Korach’s argument is logical but not rational.  What he forgot is that the essence of the command is the means, not the end.  It is precisely by doing things G-d’s way that we achieved personal transformation.  The apprentice who is impatient with the instructions of the master will never grow, never become a master himself.  Apprenticeship is a matter of doing things we do not fully understand until we have undergone the discipline of subordinating ourselves to the instructions of an expert.

“That is the meaning of mitzvah, command.  It is our apprenticeship to the Master of the Universe.  In telling us this, the Midrash is teaching us something deep not only about the nature of a mitzva, a commandment, but also leadership itself.  Korach could never be a leader because he was incapable of being a follower.  He did not understand what it is to obey.  Such a person will never get others to obey” (Covenant & Conversation, Numbers, p.198-199).

“…We see how one simple midrash helps us rescue a text from its pastness, for a sad quarrel of thousands of years ago… and showing us the real nature of Korach’s error.  He was not wrong to say that all people were holy.  He was wrong to say that holy people do not need leaders – they do.  He was even more wrong to say in public that people do not need leaders while privately seeking to be a leader himself.  HIs populism (political approach) was disingenuous and deceitful” (ibid, p.202).  

While Korach was correct that the entire assembly of Israel is holy, he was incorrect in his false claim that holy people do not need holier people as leaders.  Even leaders need leaders.  Our nation is made up of a large assembly, and yet we all need leaders to guide us, teachers to transmit the mesorah to us, and halachic deciders to explain Jewish law to us.  

The greatness of a leader is his humility to submit to his own teachers, and recognize that they are one degree closer to Sinai and the Emes la’Amito than he is.

Rav Mosheh Twersky, zt’l, HYD (a gaon in Torah and middos tovos, Rosh Kollel Yeshivas Toras Moshe, eldest grandson of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l, and murdered in the Har Nof massacre R”L) had tremendous thirst to hear divrei Torah from his rebbe, R’ Yisrael Elya Weintraub.  “Rav Twersky felt strongly that it was worth traveling from Jerusalem, all the way to Bnei Brak, just to hear his Rebbi speak, even in an address to teenagers.  He felt that he could gain from any shiur his Rebbi gave, even if geared towards youngsters who were just starting to learn how to learn.  Even in such an address, Rav Twersky could discern a depth and profundity between the lines that could speak to, and educate, him as well.  He felt that any words of Torah at all that emanated from his great Rebbi’s mouth would certainly contain untold depths of meaning and import” (A Malach in Our Midst, p.116).

May our leaders, and their leaders, continue to guide and teach us, until the End of Days, and may we be humble and grateful enough to accept their leadership with gratitude and grace, showing them the honor they deserve for the Torah they transmit.  

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,


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