The Torah portion of Korach relates the story of a man by the name of Korach who debates Moses and ultimately leads a mutiny against the greatest Jewish leader. "The entire community is holy, and G-d is within them," Korach exclaims (1). "Why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G-d?"
The Midrash (2) specifies, in greater detail, the nature of Korach's arguments against Moses.
Just prior to the Korach debacle, at the culmination of last week's portion (3), the Torah presents the commandment of tzitzis, or fringes, which obligates the Jew to hang strings on each edge of his four-cornered garments. One of the strings on each corner, the Torah instructs, should be of turquoise wool, known in Hebrew as techeiles.
Now, Korach dressed two-hundred-and-fifty men who joined him in his debate with Moses, with four-cornered garments made completely of turquoise wool and then confronted Moses with the following question: Does a garment made completely of turquoise wool still require a single turquoise thread in its fringes?
Moses' answer was, yes.
To which Korach, who was attempting to demonstrate the absurdity of Moses' law, responded: If a single strand of turquoise wool is enough for an entire garment made of a different color, does it not stand to reason that a garment of complete turquoise should not require one more strand of this wool?
Then, the Midrash continues, Korach approached Moses with another question:
As we know, a Jewish home requires a mezuzah, a piece of parchment hanging on its doorpost, with the writings of two short sections of the Bible (Deuteronomy 6:4-10; 11:13-21) that discuss our relationship with G-d and our obligation to follow His mitzvos. Now Korach asked Moses the following question: If a home is filled with many complete Torah scrolls, does it still require a mezuzah on its doorpost?
Again, Moses' response was yes.
Once again Korach dismissed this verdict as absurd. A Torah scroll contains all two-hundred-and-seventy-five sections of the Pentateuch, while a mezuzah contains merely two. If a single mezuzah suffices for an entire home, would not many complete Torah scrolls in a home suffice to create a "kosher" and holy space? Do you really need another two portions on the door post?
This was the public debate that took place in the desert between Korach and Moses.
What Bothered Korach?
But why did Korach choose these two examples to "demonstrate" that the laws presented by Moses were illogical. He could have chosen myriads of biblical mitzvos that apparently have no place in the structures of human logic. He could have, for example, scoffed at the prohibition against eating cheeseburgers or shrimp or horsemeat. He could have derided the mitzvah of purifying a defiled person with the ashes of a red heifer. He could have questioned the mitzvah to blow a ram's horn on Rosh Hashanah, as opposed to playing a violin or a chello?
Why did Korach dissect and analyze the nuances of the above two particular mitzvos?
There is another aspect that requires reflection. From the biblical description of Korach's family lineage, it is quite clear that he was no simple rabble-rouser, craving the power or fame of Moses. Korach was a member of the holiest family of the Jewish people, a man educated and molded by the kindred spirits of the house of Levi, the only tribe that did not take part in the golden calf debacle. He was Moses' first cousin (their fathers' were brothers).
Furthermore: Joining Korach in his mutiny against Moses were "two hundred and fifty men of Israel, leaders of the community, of those regularly called to assembly, men of renown," the Bible records (4). If Korach was simply an egotistical trouble maker, he would not enjoy the companionship of 250 Jewish spiritual leaders, scholars and men of stature. One must conclude that Korach's debate with Moses was driven by a sensible argument, logical enough to persuade great leaders to join his rebellion.
What was the essence of Korach's argument with Moses?
Drama Vs. Action
Why does the Torah instruct the Jew to insert into each of the fringes one strand made of turquoise wool? The Talmud explains (5), because turquoise is a spiritual color. It resembles the oceans and the heavens, reminding a human being of G-d's majesty.
Now, Korach and Moses debated the nature of spiritual leadership, the question of how to impact and inspire physical human beings toward idealism and spirituality.
Korach believed that you need to shake people up and overwhelm them with the magic and majesty of your message. Let their entire "garment," their entire identity, become all-turquoise, melting away completely in the "blue light" of heaven.
Moses disagreed. He said that to move people to their core, to let their spirits soar on high, is splendid, but never enough. For inspiration to leave a lasting impact, it must find expression in individual specific acts, words and thoughts. If you wish to make a real transformation in people's lives, it is not enough to generate a dramatic momentum, to make them cry, laugh and dance. You must give them a single tangible act through which they can connect to G-d and bring His morality into the world on a daily basis. You need to inspire people to make one strand of their lives blue.
The Future of Judaism
This was no mere argument about how to deliver a speech. It was an argument about what should become the great emphasis of Judaism. According to Korach, Judaism was about awakening a passion to revolutionize the universe. But Moses understood that in order to accomplish this goal, the primary focus of Judaism needed to be on individual daily behavior, changing the world one mitzvah at a time.
Korach's message seemed logical. If we can electrify a soul with a passion for making the world a G-dly place, is the individual mitzvah ultimately relevant? If we can turn a person into being all-blue, isn't a single strand of blue insignificant? Let us talk about changing people and changing the world, not about small individual acts!
Ultimately Korach felt, that Moses was misrepresenting G-d's true intent in the world. By putting so much focus on mitzvos, Moses was stifling the spiritual creativity to be found in the souls of Israel. Moses was robbing the community from its grandeur. "The entire community is holy, and G-d is within them," Korach exclaims (1). "Why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of G-d?"
The Revolutionary and the Leader
Korach was a revolutionary; he was a soul on fire. But Moses was a leader, a shepherd. Moses, to be sure, deeply identified with Korach's message. If anybody understood the value of impassioned idealism, it was Moses, a man who left everything behind in his quest for truth. But a leader is not an individual lofty soul; a leader is a person who encompasses within his own heart an entire nation, from the highest to the lowest, and who is deeply in-tune with human nature.
Moses knew that a message that inspires boundless awe and excitement, but that does not demand individual life changes, will not have a lasting impact in the long run. As the fiery inspiration dies down, as the coals dim their glow, black ashes are left behind. When the concert is over, and the lights go off, what remains from all of the ecstasy? A lonely musician leaving from the back door.
When an idealistic spirit speaks of transforming the universe and lifting all of humanity to heaven, but fails to invest much focus on building this universe through daily actions and words, at the end, he might fall very low, perhaps even become swallowed by the abyss. This indeed occurred to Korach and his men, as discussed in the continuation of the Torah portion, as it continued to happen to many a social revolutionary in our own times.
Has this not been the story of so many artists of our generation who raised people up to the heavens and then saw themselves and followers end up in the abyss?
The lesson in our lives is clear: Living a Jewish life on a daily basis, saturated with the study of Torah and observance of Mitzvos, and passing on these sacred deeds to our children -- that is what will secure Jewish continuity and tekun olam (healing the world).
(This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to a group of teenage girls, 26 Sivan 5732, June 16, 1974 (6)).
1) Numbers 16:3.
2) Midrash Tanchumah in the beginning of Parshas Korach.
3) Numbers 15:37-41.
4) Ibid. 16:2.
5) Menachos 43b.
6) Published in Sichos Kodesh 5734 vol. 2 pp. 220-229.