It strikes us as a bit much, the drama that brought Korach down. To start
with, Moshe insists upon pushing the envelope in judicial sternness. The
Torah has no problem dealing with appropriate harshness against the worst
perpetrators of evil. Worshippers of idols, murderers, and sexual
profligates are all executed at times by the court, but without any new
contrivance. They are all permitted to exit their existence by perfectly
natural and predictable means. Regarding Korach, however, Moshe asks for –
and receives – “a new creation”2 to
dispatch him and his company to their deaths.
Does this make sense? At worst, Korach violated an ordinary lo
sa’aseh, an ordinary transgression. On the hierarchy of
transgressions, machlokes hardly resides at the weightier end,
where the punishment escalates. (To make matters worse, the transgression
is not even mentioned until our parshah, well after Korach began
his offensive.) Why is it dealt with so severely? Why do young children
lose their lives in this incident, in contradistinction to the Torah’s
firm rule that children are not to be punished for the sins of their
The difficulty does not end with the verses in our parshah. The
contrast and comparison go on. Chazal tell us that the first Temple was
destroyed because of violations of the three cardinal sins, three
transgressions so serious that one must give up his life rather than
violate. The seriousness of the crime appears to match the punishment.
The second Temple, they tell us however, was lost because of sinas
chinam, groundless enmity. Now hating another Jew is wrong, but it is
an ordinary lo sa’aseh, on par with engaging in disputatious
behavior. How does it become the peer of a deadly combination of the
worst transgressions of the Torah?
Do not think that perhaps the intentions of Korach’s cohorts were
particularly diabolic and ugly. The opposite is true. The Shalah
HaKadosh tells us that all of Korach’s two hundred and fifty
coconspirators (including the nesi’im!) pursued the interests of
Heaven. Earthly glory was not on their minds; they saw spiritual gold,
and each wanted to be the one to mine it. They were convinced somehow
that the job of Kohen Gadol was up for grabs, a spiritual plum available
to whomever exerted himself more. They complained that Moshe had squeezed
them out of contention through effective tefillah on behalf of his
brother’s candidacy. They were disappointed that Moshe used his “in” with
HKBH to keep the position within his family, moving the coveted prize out
Rabbi Akiva called “love your friend as yourself”3 the great principle of the Torah.4 What gives this love so much power is what it
accomplishes. The mutual love of Jews for each other binds us together.
It is only when we are bound together that Hashem relates to us as a
Father. Only when we practice this love are we called His children. Only
within unity do we merit the blessings of a bounty of His compassion and
lovingkindness. The results of losing the distinction of being His
children are disastrous.
Machlokes tears asunder the bond that makes us special. We do not
become Jewish sinners through it. We become something less than Jews, at
least in the sense of no longer being members of a single vibrant entity.
The Zohar typifies Korach’s dispute as something divisive – divisive
above, and divisive below. In other words, machlokes disrupts the
elaborate connection between the Worlds that link Heaven and earth, as
well as disrupting the connection between Hashem and us. Sowing chaos
universally, machlokes is dealt with as the most serious
Klal Yisrael can attach itself to the One only when they are one.
(Think of matan Torah. In our finest hour we accepted a Torah
spurned by the rest of the world. We accomplished this only in a moment
of oneness – “like one person, with one heart.”5 ) Devekus – the most important object of our
pursuit – is possible only when we are one.
Shattering the essential unity of Klal Yisrael is as insidious as
the cardinal sins. Each of those severs the relationship between a Jew
and his Creator. Idolatry strips Jewishness from his mind. Illicit
relationships distance him through the passions of the heart. Murder
turns his limbs, his organs of performance, into un-Jewish organs. The
combination of all three turned us into beings so un-Jewish, that the
connection with Heaven was interrupted. The Temple ceased to function.
Machlokes did the same. Without strong bonds between a Jew and his
friend, without an essential bond between them, they could not maintain
oneness with Hashem. The second Beis Hamikdosh became irrelevant.
We have arrived at precisely the point that the Torah wishes to make in
our parshah. The consequences of the sin of machlokes are
anomalous. They do not reflect the severity of the transgression as a
rebellion against Hashem’s expressed Will. Those consequences flow from
realities about ourselves as a people, and how we collectively relate to
Him. Just as loving others is the “great principle” of the Torah in a
positive sense, machlokes is the same in the negative. We lost the
Beis Hamikdosh through hatred and dissension; we will regain it
only through love.
The Torah makes this point best by embedding it in a story about people
who were not driven by ego or petty desires. As the Shalah pointed
out, their intentions were for the good. We could easily think that a
noble pursuit would mitigate the effects of divisiveness. Alas, that is
not the case. Whatever breeds division, for whatever the cause, will
still choke off the connection between ourselves and Heaven.
We are still somewhat at a loss to understand. Why should this be? A
machlokes leshem shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, is not such a
bad thing.6 Inescapably, we learn that
people pursuing spiritual goals does not turn their competition into a
machlokes leshem shomayim! The two hundred fifty chased after their
prize only because they convinced themselves that Moshe had somewhat
improperly used his advantage to take a lead in the competition. Herein
lies a subtle flaw, one that compromised their entire pursuit.
Chazal tell us that one who second-guesses his Torah teacher is the
equivalent of one who doubts G-d Himself.7 There was no race to run without entertaining
suspicions that Moshe desired something that was not completely congruent
with the wishes of his Master. A subtle fault line ran through their
pursuit of what they thought was spiritual treasure.
Another fault line was not so subtle. Negation of self is an important
principle in spiritual striving. Yeshus – the pronounced presence
of self and ego – is the root of many deficiencies. Contrary to what we
might believe, yeshus is problematic not only in regard to material
acquisitions and undeserved honor. It is a blight on the pursuit of
ruchniyus as well. They told themselves that there is nothing
improper in wanting the merit of spiritual elevation. In the race for
spirituality, why not compete? If only one person could have it, it was
fair game for all.
But what advantage would Hashem’s interests have in the selection of any
one of them over another? Where was the net gain? If one could not be
discovered, then the beneficiary was not the honor of Heaven, but one
person’s thinking of himself.
The bottom line is that machlokes is fatal. Even when pursued for
what seems to be a noble cause, and even when the participants are great
people who should be able to detect any admixture of impropriety, the odds
are against it amounting to anything positive. In the case of Korach’s
associates, the odds were two hundred and fifty to one – and they all lost.