This week’s parashah is about the anti-Moshe. Korach and his gang of fellow travelers and sycophants embody precisely the opposite qualities as those which made Moshe fit for leadership. Both were wise, strong and wealthy, we are told, but while Moshe was the humblest of all men, Korach was full of himself. But before summarily dismissing Korach, let’s first allow him to speak and examine his claims – perhaps they will allow us to understand whence his self-immolating uprising.
“All the assembly, all of them, are holy, and the Eternal is in their midst!”, Korach intones. Truer words, it would seem, were never spoken. After all, didn’t Hashem say, “They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell amongst them” (Shemot 25:8)? And didn’t Hashem exclaim, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, Who sanctifies you”? So what was wrong with what Korach and his gang said?
Some want to locate Korach’s mistake in the static, frozen image of holiness which Korach presents. Our promise of holiness is first enunciated by Hashem in Shemot 19, where He says: “And now, if you hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a treasure from amongst all the peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall become for me a kingdom of priests and a holy people”. Our holiness is conditional, a product of our godly actions. A presumption of immutable holiness in place of the dynamic feedback loop of actions-beget-holiness can lead to horrific conclusions.
Korach, however, isn’t done: “So why do you lift yourselves up over the congregation of Hashem?”, Korach concludes. Moshe is charged with usurping power which has been invested in the entire people. Never mind that Hashem has repeatedly sought to invest Moshe with precisely this stature: at the sea: “And they believed in Hashem and Moshe His servant” and at the giving of the Torah: “And also in you shall they believe forever”. In fact, the people themselves asked Moshe to serve as their go-between “Speak you with us, and we will heed, and let not Hashem speak with us, lest we die”.
And though Korach speaks in the plural, he seems to reserve special ire for Aharon. This is indicated by Moshe’s responses, which defend Aharon and turn the questions back to Korach: the elevated status of levitical service isn’t enough for you that you seek also the high priesthood?
But how did Moshe know that Korach was really seeking the priesthood? He laid no such claim, and his words merely accused Moshe of arrogating to his small clan a prerogative which should have belonged to (the first born of) all the people: coming before Hashem in sacrificial proximity.
Here’s a clue: Midrash Tanchuma tells us that Korach himself was one of those entrusted to carry the Holy Ark. The same man who assembles everyone who might conceivably feel passed over by the rise of the tribe of Levi and the selection of Aharon and his sons was himself the ultimate insider – he merited bearing the holiest item in the universe. And this was actually a cushy job: Far from having to lug a massive amount of solid stone and gold, those who bore the Ark were actually borne aloft by it: Ha’aron noseh et nos’av.
What is it that by all logic should be so heavy as to be immovable, yet bears itself aloft along with a ton of fleshy human beings clinging to its golden staves? What’s inside the ark? It must be a unique substance, the like of which is to be found nowhere else? If only one could open the ark and see!! But Moshe has packed away the tablets and their words, given by a kiss of the divine mouth, (as Hashem describes Moshe’s prophecy to his siblings in Beha’lotecha: “Mouth to mouth do I speak to him”). So there would be no glancing inside, not with those Kohanim diligently covering over everything with beautiful, opaque ornamental coverings. Korach would never get to see the Ark, let alone what it was that spoke so thrillingly to him through his very bones as its antigravity gently massaged away the desert, the miles, the aching limbs.
Korach, so close yet so far, desperately sought the access that had been granted to Aharon – to enter inside the inside, to offer, to kiss with his own kisses. His anarchistic rhetoric is a cover for one who cannot bear NOT to be ever lifted above the masses by and to the Only One. The Akedat Yitzchak (R. Yitzchak Arama), considers Korach’s populist remarks as stated in a sarcastic tone. It was Moshe who had asserted the spiritual equality of the people – he, Korach, knew better, but he also knew that there was nothing like the populist, egalitarian, anarchistic claim to break up the monopoly of one elite and replace it with another. The people are always the pawns.
Yet in an odd way, Korach got what he was seeking – he was devoured by fiery kisses as he held his firepan, and he was swallowed by the kiss of an earth opening its mouth to consume one so eager to draw close that he pushes aside those whose equality he championed. But he was wrong about Aharon – Aharon enters the Holy of Holies only once a year and sees nothing, his vision obscured by a cloud of incense. For the key to the ark lies in not seeking to open it. And the truest leader, the one who rises to the top of his own accord, is one who – like Moshe and Aharon – sees the potential holiness in all, and dedicates his all to its actualization.
By Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan