Have you ever felt on top of the world, energy pulsing through your veins, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way? Most people, at some point in their lives, have felt invincible, unstoppable, almost Godly. And yet, at other times, these very same people have felt weak, incapable, deflated, and worthless. If we take a step outside ourselves, and realize that everyone experiences this, we are likely struck by how strange and paradoxical this phenomenon is. How can we feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time [or maybe even simultaneously]? There is a fundamental idea that lies at the root of this experience, one that sheds light on the inner meaning of a strange event in Parshas Korach.
The Story of Korach
The story of Korach is often considered one of rebellion, but it can also be seen as a case of mistaken idealism, a philosophical challenge, or misplaced spiritual yearning. At the most basic level, Korach attempted a coup, rallying supporters from amongst klal Yisrael in an attempt to overthrow Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. However, Chazal add multiple mysterious layers to Korach’s attempted rebellion that far surpass the idea of a typical attempt to seize power.
The Midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 18:3) fills in the background behind Korach’s contentions, detailing the specific arguments that Korach brought to support his case.
Korach challenged Moshe: “Should a room full of s’farim require a mezuzah on its doorpost?” In other words, should a room full of holy objects require the finishing touch of a mezuzah affixed upon its doorpost?
Similarly, Korach asked: “Should a four-cornered garment made completely of t’cheiles require t’cheiles in its strings?” After all, if the garment itself is made completely of t’cheiles, why should it require additional t’cheiles in its strings?
These questions preface Korach’s main question: “If the entire Jewish Nation is holy and exalted – “Kol ha’eidah kulam k’doshim” (BaMidbar 16:3) – why should you, Moshe and Aharon, hold uniquely exalted positions of power? In other words, why do we need you as spiritual leaders if we are all spiritually perfect?
Although there may be elements of truth in Korach’s claims, his approach and arguments are critically flawed and ultimately lead to him being punished severely. The ground opens up, and, like a mouth, consumes Korach, his followers, and all their possessions. This punishment is unique, and strikingly so – a fact that is not coincidental.
As Moshe stands up to Korach’s claims against his leadership, he specifically asks Hashem to punish Korach in a new, unique, and unnatural way to prove that Moshe indeed acts only as a messenger of Hashem. Moshe says that if Korach dies a natural death, then Moshe was not sent by Hashem. If, however, Korach dies because “bri’ah yivra Hashem” – Hashem creates something out of the ordinary – and the ground swallows them alive, along with their possessions – it should stand as proof that Korach and his followers were in the wrong, acting against Hashem’s will (BaMidbar 16:30).
The nature of this punishment is quite strange. Why does Moshe emphasize that Korach must be punished by something completely novel, and why is the ground swallowing them up the proper punishment for their crimes? In order to answer these questions, we must delve into Korach’s argument and better understand where he went wrong.
Three Spiritual Perspectives of the Physical World
There are three main approaches to the relationship between the spiritual and the physical world. The first approach is that of monotheism, which centers on the concept of one God. Within this classical worldview, Hashem is both completely perfect and completely transcendent. He exists beyond the universe of space and time, completely detached from this physical world.
The second approach is that of pantheism, which asserts that the entirety of the physical universe is itself God. In other words, there is nothing that transcends this world. This is a completely immanent perspective of Hashem. What results from this theory is actually quite startling; if Hashem is the world, and He is “nature,” then humanity literally is part of Hashem. The common understanding of pantheism is that Hashem is the “soul” of the universe, the physical world is the expression of Hashem, and there is nothing more of Hashem than what we see expressed in the universe. The problem with this perspective is that it places limitations on Hashem, positing that Hashem is nothing more than the universe itself. Furthermore, this breaks down the concept of boundaries, and consequently, challenges the validity of Halachah (Jewish Law). If one is part of Hashem, then one can easily claim that whatever he or she does is the will of Hashem! Lastly, with pantheism comes a complete breakdown of distinction and difference. There is no difference between you and another human being, or between you and this rock, or even between you and Hashem; after all, we are all Hashem anyway.
The third approach is a deeper, more holistic form of monotheism, a synthesis of these first two polar extremes. This is the worldview of most Kabbalistic and mystical thinkers. According to this view, Hashem is both transcendent, as in traditional monotheism, and immanent, as in pantheism. While at root Hashem is transcendent and infinite, He also manifests and expresses Himself in the physical world. This differs from traditional monotheism, as it posits that Hashem is not only transcendent, but rather that the physical world itself is also connected to and an aspect of Hashem, that Hashem manifests and expresses Himself within this world. It differs from pantheism, because while it sees the physical world as a manifestation of Hashem, Hashem Himself is completely beyond the physical world. In essence, it is a deeper and more holistic form of monotheism.
As many Jewish thinkers explain, Korach’s sin lay in his pantheistic view. He believed that the physical world, as well as all the people within it, are part of Hashem Himself, and therefore already spiritually perfect. Korach says, “Kol ha’eidah kulam k’doshim” – the entire nation is holy. There is no difference between me and Moshe, or me and Aharon, or the Jewish People and their leaders. Everything is Hashem, everything is one. Within pantheism, there are no boundaries or distinctions, and nothing higher to connect to. Hashem is only connected to the here and now, and therefore we do not need to look for anything transcendent, higher, or beyond this physical world.
A New Punishment
We can now understand why Moshe asked Hashem to create a “chidush” – a completely novel punishment for Korach. From a pantheistic viewpoint, everything in this world is already perfect, as it is Hashem. Consequently, there can be no chidush, there can be absolutely nothing new. The logic behind this is simple: If there is nothing outside the system – no transcendent force beyond the physical world – there can be nothing new that comes into the world. Once the system is fundamentally and inherently limited to what it already is, with no higher outside force that can affect it, nothing new can be added.
Therefore, Moshe asked Hashem to add something new to the world, a novel phenomenon, thereby punishing Korach midah k’neged midah (measure for measure). His very claim would be disproved through his punishment. He claimed that there is nothing outside the limited framework of the physical world, that nothing new can be added; as a result, Hashem created a new punishment just for him. We must still ask, though, why did Hashem specifically choose to have the earth swallow Korach up? Is there a deeper meaning to this specific punishment?
Korach’s sin can be most clearly defined as gaavah (haughtiness). In essence, Korach claimed that he, and all of klal Yisrael, were no different from Hashem. Korach single-handedly raised himself up to the level of perfection, of Godliness. While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, as we are all created b’tzelem Elokim – in the image of Hashem – Korach distorted this principle and took it to the extreme.
This is why Korach’s punishment was so appropriate. He claimed that he was perfect, and in so doing, raised himself up to infinite heights. As a consequence, Hashem opened up the earth, swallowing Korach and sending him to the very lowest of depths imaginable. Korach’s ego and haughtiness sank him, quite literally, to the lowest, most insignificant level possible.
We aren’t perfect, we are becoming perfect. This is why we can feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time. We aren’t perfect; we are on a journey of becoming, of actualizing our fullest potential. Sometimes we feel and fully embrace the Godliness within us; sometimes we feel the void, realizing our shortcomings, and yearn to become more. We aren’t Hashem, but we are meant to strive every day to come closer and closer to Him.
Korach’s pitfall resulted in his actual “pit-fall.” May we be inspired to learn from Korach’s mistake and harness the beauty of being human. Our humanity is our unique Godliness. We have the ability to grow, to become, to change, to evolve, to actualize more and more of our tzelem Elokim, and achieve our destiny in this world.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.