Our parsha describes the harshest attack on Moshe’s leadership. Korach complains:
“For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy… So why do you exalt yourselves”.
All of Am Yisrael is holy. Why should only Moshe get to be the leader and only Aharon and his sons deserve to be Kohanim?
The psukim do not clearly elucidate Korach’s goal. Did he himself want to be the leader? After all, his charge could be leveled at any leader or Kohen: Moshe, Korach or any other individual.
Equality was important to Korach. Everyone is holy; everyone is equal. Therefore, the leadership should be democratic, because the nation is the majority. The whole assembly is holy and not just the leader.
Clearly, Korach was complaining about Hashem’s decrees. However, there were many other sinners, but none of them was immediately swallowed up by the ground. The response to Korach’s sin is astounding in terms of both its intensity and its rarity.
“And when he finished speaking all these words, the ground which was under them split open. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people that were with Korach and all the possessions. And they and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit, and the earth covered them and they were lost from among the congregation.”
Everything was lost: all the people and all the property. Why was such a severe punishment necessary?
Close examination of the punishment shows that it directly corresponds to the insistence that everyone is equal.
“Moshe said: ‘This is how you will know that Hashem sent me to execute these deeds, and it was not from my heart. If these die like any other man, and the destiny of any other man does befall them, then it was not Hashem who sent me. But if Hashem will create a creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that belongs to them, and they will descend alive to the pit, then you will know that these men provoked Hashem.’”
Conventional wisdom holds that everyone faces death equally. Death is each person’s eventual destiny. A master and a slave share the same fate. However, in this case, Moshe announces that equality in the face of death will be the criterion for testing his leadership. If Korach and his assembly die a death unlike any other, then the equality claim is false.
Other criteria could have been used for equality. For instance, at the end of the parsha, Moshe initiates the test of the staffs, in which only the chosen one’s rod blossoms. Why was death specifically used to demonstrate inequality?
In Midrash Rabbah, Chazal sharpen this question and hint at an answer.
“R’ Brachya said: ‘How severe is strife (machloket). The Heavenly Court only imposes a penalty from age twenty and up, but the earthly courts [do so] from age thirteen. During Korach’s machloket, one-day old babies were burnt and swallowed down to the lower pit, as it says: “Their wives and their children and their infants … They and all that was theirs descended alive into the pit.”’”
The punishment is not limited to the sinners themselves and is expanded to include even day-old infants. At first glance, this is astonishing. How did those babies sin? Furthermore, even if they did in fact sin, does not the Midrash explicitly state that minors are not punished? In cases where individuals who obviously did not choose to sin are nonetheless hurt, Chazal instruct us to view the incident as a consequence rather than a punishment. When a pregnant woman takes drugs, the fetus will suffer. Clearly, the fetus did not sin; he has neither control over the situation nor free will. Thus, his suffering was a result, not a penalty. Machloket is so severe because it causes the loss of day-old babies.
Chazal define the machloket of Korach and his assembly as a “machloket that was not for the sake of Heaven”. This type of machloket induces destruction on its instigators. There are two main categories of machloket. In the first type, the truth is sought. In other words, the machloket is the means used to clarify the truth. In contrast, the instigators employ the second sort of machloket to achieve their own personal aims. That is to say, the claims serve to advance goals. Truth and lies are utilized equally, depending on their relevance to the aim.
The great danger and ruthlessness inherent in Korach’s machloket was that Korach was suggesting an alternative ideology to Moshe. The point of this ideology was not to achieve the ultimate truth. Rather, the goal was to advance Korach’s own personal interests.
Korach hitched one of the most convincing arguments to his machloket. Namely, he claimed that he was fighting for equality. This claim is very appealing, because it aggrandizes every detail and nullifies a person’s envy for his contemporaries. Naturally, this claim is false, because the world contains both individuals chosen by Hashem and those not chosen. However, it sounds goods and serves Korach’s aims well. Reality can be very painful. A marketable ideology that will attract a maximum number of consumers requires sacrificing the truth in favor of whatever it is that people want to hear. These types of considerations came into play more than once throughout the history of religion. For example, Christianity waved the need for observing the mitzvot in order to appeal to the nations of the world.
For Am Yisrael, for whom the Written Torah comes together with the masoret (lit., our traditions) and the Oral Torah, the danger inherent in this sort of machloket increases sevenfold.
Every religious ideology and interpretation can combine with the masoret and become part of the Torah. If these ideologies and interpretations are not derived from heeding Hashem’s will and the quest for truth, but rather from personal agendas, then the Torah may, chas vishalom, transform from Hashem’s words to a marketing tool for charismatic leaders.
Hashem gave the Torah to mortals, but the control mechanisms remain in His hands. A machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven will not survive. Those who persist in such a machloket cut off the branch which they are resting upon and will be lost to the congregation. Throughout the generations, we have seen many machlokot in Am Yisrael. Some have survived, but some have been lost to the congregation. Christianity and the Sadducees instigated tremendous machlokot in their times and were lost to the congregation. They and their spiritual descendants are no longer part of Am Yisrael.
Parshat Korach is a stern warning to those who choose to either instigate or follow market- and agenda-based ideologies. Individuals who continue along these paths and who raise their children in these ways will descend alive to the pit. It does not say that they “are dead”. Perhaps, they remain alive, in the pit, lost to the congregation.
Thus, the Torah concludes this somber parsha:
“As a reminder to Bnei Yisrael, so that no alien person who is not a descendent of Aharon shall draw near to bring the ketoret before Hashem, and he shall not be like Korach and his assembly…”