The Torah portion of Korach relates how Korach and a band of 250 men rebelled against Moshe and Aharon. This revolt took place after the incident of the Meraglim1 sent by Moshe to spy out Canaan, and who returned with a pessimistic report regarding the ability of the people to conquer the land.
The elevation of Aharon to the High Priesthood was what touched off Korach’s revolt. But this elevation took place at least a year before the incident of the Meraglim. Why did Korach wait so long before revolting?
The Meraglim contended2 that it was important for the Jewish people to be separate from the material world. In that way they would not be hindered in cleaving to G-d through the study of Torah. They therefore desired that the Jews remain in the desert, where they would be freer of worldly distractions. Moshe, however, replied that the physical performance of the mitzvos is vital, since it is through such performance that Jews make a dwelling place for G-d in this world.
The difference between Torah study and practical mitzvos is the following: Comprehension is a fundamental aspect of Torah, in which there are diverse levels. Some people understand more and some less.
This is not so in the case of the mitzvos. In this regard, all Jews are equal; the donning of tefillin performed by Moshe was exactly the same as the donning performed by the simplest Jew. Moshe and the simple Jew may differ in intensity of concentration while performing the mitzvah , but they did not differ in the physical act.
This is why Korach’s rebellion took place only after the incident with the Meraglim : Korach was aware that Moshe and Aharon far outdistanced other Jews in comprehension of Torah, for Moshe received the Torah directly from G-d and then proceeded to teach it to Aharon. Korach’s complaint “Why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation”3 related to that in which all Jews are equal — the performance of mitzvos.
Thus, it was only after the Meraglim had expressed the desire to devote themselves exclusively to spiritual service and were informed that the physical performance of mitzvos is most important that Korach felt justified in his complaint. For with regard to the physical performance of mitzvos, all Jews are indeed equal.
Where did Korach err?
G-d desires not only the physical performance of mitzvos, but also the proper spiritual intent. A dwelling place for G-d must provide a home for G-d’s essence , and His essence must be in a revealed state; it must be a luminous dwelling. Just as a physical structure must be illuminated in order to be habitable, so too, G-d’s dwelling must be made habitable by providing it with illumination.
In order for G-d’s dwelling to be illuminated, it is necessary that the mitzvos themselves be performed with the proper intent in order to illuminate the person himself and the surrounding world.
Thus, while Moshe’s and Aharon’s actual performance of mitzvos in no way differed from that of the simplest Jew, the intent with which the mitzvos were performed varied greatly.
G-d considers the intent as well as the deed.
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. IV, pp. 1048-1054.
A Lesson in Priesthood
In the Torah portion Korach we read how Korach led a band of 250 men in a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. Underlying their revolt against Aharon’s High Priesthood was the charge: “All the people in the community are holy and G-d is in their midst; why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation?”4
From Moshe’s response,5 “…and you seek priesthood as well,” we readily perceive that Korach and his band desired to become priests. This being so, their argument that “All the people…are holy,” and nobody can set himself above anybody else seems to contradict their desire to be above others by obtaining priesthood.
The Kohanim , the priestly class, differed from the rest of the Jewish people in that the Kohanim were wholly dedicated to spiritual matters. This was especially true with regard to the Kohen Gadol , the High Priest, who was commanded “not to leave the Sanctuary.”6
Their apartness from the general populace notwithstanding, the Kohanim in general, and the Kohen Gadol in particular, imparted their level of sanctity to all the Jews. Thus we find that Aharon’s service of lighting the Menorah in the Sanctuary imparted sanctity to all Jews, and enabled them to reach Aharon’s level of service and love of G-d.7
Korach, however, argued that just as Kohanim were removed from worldly matters — a quality lacking in the rest of the Jewish people — the rest of the people possessed a quality that the Kohanim lacked: the ability to occupy themselves with worldly matters and transform physical objects into vessels for G-dliness.
Moreover, since G-d’s main intent is for this nethermost world to be transformed into a dwelling place for Him by elevating it to holiness, Korach maintained that it was specifically the populace as a whole who were accomplishing this task — not the Kohanim , who were separate and aloof from mundane matters.
Since the Jewish people as a whole possessed qualities that Kohanim lacked, Korach therefore rebelled against the thought that Kohanim in general and Aharon in particular could set themselves apart from the rest of the people because of their ability to impart holiness to them.
Korach and his band’s complaint that “All the people…are holy,” however, did not contradict their own desire for priesthood, for they desired a manner of priesthood totally removed from the rest of the congregation.
This manner of priesthood would not cause them to feel superior to the rest of the Jewish people, a superiority that resulted from their imparting holiness to them, for in their scheme of things they would not impart holiness to other Jews — they would remain totally separate and apart.
But Korach and his band were badly mistaken: It is true that there are different categories of service — Jews who are solely occupied with spiritual matters, and other Jews whose task it is to purify and elevate the physical world through the service of “All your actions should be for the sake of heaven,”8 and “In all your ways you shall know Him.”9
Nevertheless, it is necessary for the Kohanim to bestow their sanctity upon the Jewish people so that they too may aspire to the level of “priesthood,” i.e., that during certain portions of the day, even the “regular” Jew will occupy himself with Torah study and divine service, to the exclusion of all else.
Our Sages imply this when they say,10 “Minimize your business activities and occupy yourself with Torah.” A business person should not only “set aside certain portions of the day and night for Torah study,”11 but should also “steal away” time from his business affairs — minimize his business activities — and dedicate that time to “priesthood,” to the study of Torah and divine service.
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. VIII, pp. 116-118.
1. Seder Olam Rabbah, ch. 8; quoted in Rashbam and Tosafos B. Basra 119a.
2. See previous essay.
3. Bamidbar 16:3.
4. Bamidbar 16:3.
5. Ibid. verse 10.
6. Vayikra 21:12.
7. See Likkutei Torah , beginning of portion Beha’alosecha.
8. Avos 2:12.
9. Mishlei 3:6.
10. Avos 4:10.
11. Hilchos Talmud Torah of the Alter Rebbe , 3:4.