Two old friends met up for lunch one day. They were both extremely successful, with long, productive careers. Yosef was happy, always smiling from head to toe, and gave off an aura of energetic positivity. While Daniel was just as successful on the outside, his life was falling apart. His relationships had gone sour, and his health was failing. He was bitter and unhappy.
When they finished updating each other on the latest developments in their lives, they sat silently for a few moments. Then Daniel, with a sudden vulnerability in his face, looked at Yosef. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course. What’s the matter?” asked Yosef.
“What happened to me? When did I become so bitter, so empty? We used to be the same, you and I, but somewhere along the line, things changed. You kept on moving up, and I just fell apart. What happened?”
Yosef had spent plenty of time thinking about this very question, but he never thought that Daniel would ask him about it directly. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, deciding how best to formulate his response.
“You and I were very similar growing up,” he started. “We were both driven to achieve greatness in all areas of life: professionally, personally, and spiritually. But somewhere along the line, you decided that you were already perfect. You stopped growing; you stopped wanting more. A plant is what is, a dog is the same every day, but a human being has infinite potential. We are never finished; we are never perfect. I don’t know if you stopped enjoying the process or if you thought you already finished, but you stopped trying to become more. You settled. You decided that you are perfect.”
Yosef paused a moment, and with a sparkle in his eye and conviction in his voice, he continued: “The one principle that I try to place at the center of my life is the fact that there is always room to grow. It is in this very growth that I find my happiness, it is in the becoming itself that I find my greatness.”
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 G-dly. 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 to be 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 the story of 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 fills in the background behind Korach’s contentions, detailing the specific arguments that Korach brought to support his case (BaMidbar Rabbah 18:3.):
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 it proves that Moshe was not sent by Hashem. If, however, Korach dies because “b’riyah yivra Hashem” – Hashem creates something out of the ordinary and the ground swallows it alive, along with its 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 around the concept of one G-d. 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. (Whether this view asserts that G-d is the actual physical universe, the laws of physics and nature, or both, is a matter of dispute.) 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. 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 many deeper Jewish 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. (A more technical term for this approach is “panentheism.” Pantheism means “all is God.” Pan means “all,” and theism means “God.” Panentheism means “all is within God.” Pan “all”; en “is in”; theism “God.”) 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. In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and try to understand Korach’s approach and sin on an even deeper level.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.