It was the most devastating and audacious of rebellions.
Korach contested the leadership of Moses — the leader who communicated directly with G-d, who wrought the plagues upon the Egyptians, led the nation through the Red Sea and brought down the Torah. Not only did he himself rebel but he managed to persuade 250 heads of court to go along with him.
How did he conduct this rebellion — what argument did he have that would persuade the rest of the nation that he might have a valid claim?
Rashi (16:1) describes how the rebels dressed themselves in garments of wool dyed completely with techelet, the dye that was to be used on the tzitzit strings in each corner of a garment. They approached Moses and inquired whether such a garment was obligated in tzitzit.
When Moses responded in the affirmative, they derisively claimed, “How can it be that a regular garment is exempt with several strands of techelet while this garment, which is completely techelet, would still be obligated?”
The Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Loewe (1525-1609), explains that the intention here was not merely this particular mitzvah; Korach was using this to highlight allegorically what he saw as a glaring flaw with the structure of the Jewish people under Moses’ leadership.
“You have seized power for yourself and your brother. There is no need for anyone to have an elevated status — we are all holy. Did we not all hear the Word of G-d on Mount Sinai?”
Korach was incensed that there was only a small group of people — the kohanim — who would perform the service in the Mishkan. He countered that since the whole nation was holy, everyone should have an equal opportunity to serve G-d in this way. There should not be a privileged class of people, nor should there be anyone with more authority than anyone else.
What Korach failed to recognize was that Moses wasn’t the originator of this system. It was with G-d’s directive that Moses was the leader, Aaron the Kohen Gadol and Aaron’s children the kohanim that would perform the service. The placement of the tribes, both physically and hierarchically, was determined by G-d. What we as humans imagine to be fair and just must be guided by Divine instruction. While it is true that all Jews are holy, it doesn’t follow that we all have the same status or the same role to play in the schematics of the Jewish nation.
A Chasid once came before his rebbe crying that he lived alone in the forest, chopping wood for his livelihood, and as a result, he was unable to pray with a minyan each day, articulating to the rebbe how he longed for the opportunity to pray with a minyan. The rebbe told him lovingly, “How do you know that G-d wants you to pray with a minyan? Perhaps He derives more satisfaction from your wanting to pray with a minyan even though you are unable to do so.”
The Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yishaya Karelitz (1878-1953), was once experiencing stomach issues which prevented him from being able to put on tefillin. Those close to him thought he would be distraught at not being able to perform this precious mitzvah, yet he appeared as complacent and cheerful as he normally was. When asked about this he replied, “Normally I serve G-d by putting on my tefillin. Today, I service G-d by not putting on tefillin.”
During these times, when many of us would love to revert back to the way things normally are, we must accept this Divine decree and adjust to serving G-d with whatever means we have at our disposal. JN
Rabbi Sholom Twerski is the assistant rabbi of Beth Joseph Congregation and the rabbinic administrator at the Greater Phoenix Vaad HaKashruth.