Challenge Number Four
After the miraculous exodus of the B’nei Yisroel from Mitzrayim, The Torah
relates how four incidents disturbed this uplifting and stirring time in
the life of the B’nei Yisroel. The Jews had previously sinned by 1)
serving the egel (golden calf), 2) raising baseless complaints about their
food in the desert, and 3) by mourning the negative reports of the
In this week’s parsha, Moshe was faced with his fourth challenge – an
outright rebellion and defiance of his leadership from his cousin Korach
and the group of 250 people that he assembled, many of them distinguished
leaders in their own right.
What is unclear from the pesukim is exactly what the complaints of Korach
and his followers were. A simple reading of the pesukim leaves one with a
sense that there was discontent on behalf of Korach and his followers –
but with many unanswered questions as to the exact nature of those
Rashi explains that Korach became envious of Moshe after Korach’s younger
cousin Eltzofon assumed the position of Nasi (leader) of the shevet of
Levi. Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon, who were older that he, were
entitled to the two most coveted roles – leader of the Jews (Moshe) and
Kohein Gadol (Aharon). However, he strongly felt that as the next in line,
he was entitled to the Nasi position.
According to Rashi’s understanding of these events, however, it is quite
striking that Korach never mentioned this seemingly reasonable complaint
when addressing Moshe. In fact, it seems as if the main point of Korach
was that the Bnei Yisroel needed no leaders.
This line of reasoning is evident in the first three pesukim of this
week’s parsha (Bamidbar 16:1-3). Korach challenged [the leadership of]
Moshe, by asking him, “Why do you exalt yourself over Klal Yisroel?”
He and his followers mocked Moshe by asking him if a house filled with
seforim requires a mezuzah, and by wearing garments made entirely of
techeles (blue wool, used for tzitsis), and asked Moshe if those garments
require tzitsis. This would seem to be ‘sour grapes’ – if we cannot lead,
Moshe should not lead either, since a great group of people need no leader
at all. That raises the question; did Korach want to lead or to have no
leadership at all?
Several other questions arise:
1) Why did the 250 people of the Shevet (Tribe of) Reuvain accompany
Korach? Rashi explains that they were influenced by Korach, who dwelled in
close proximity to their tents. However, it is difficult to believe these
wise men (See Rashi 16:1) would risk challenging Moshe with nothing to
gain. What was in it for them?
2) Moshe initially responded by ‘falling on his face’ (Bamidbar 16:4) in
frustration and despair when he heard of this fourth significant sin that
the Jews committed since they left Egypt (see Rashi). Shortly thereafter,
he firmly answered the challenge of Korach. What changed that gave Moshe
3) Moshe ends his forceful declaration by stating, “u’vikashtem gam
kehunah?; are you asking for the kehunah – priesthood – as well (Bamidbar
16:10)? He then finishes his argument by stating, “Lachein, ata v’chal
adascha hanoadim al Hashem, V’Aharon ma hu ki salinu alav? – Therefore,
you and your entire group are joining together against Hashem; and [as
for] Aharon, why do you protest against him? (Bamidbar 16:11).
This is most difficult to understand. When did Korach ever ask for
kehunah? When did he complain against Aharon? Finally, what is
the ‘lachein; therefore’? That would seem to indicate a line of reasoning
(see Rashi for his explanation). Why would his challenge of Aharon prove
that he is quarreling against Hashem?
A POWERFUL INSIGHT
The Chasam Sofer offers an overriding view of Korach and his followers. He
maintains that they were only united by their feelings of disenchantment
As noted earlier, Korach felt that he was passed over for a position of
influence. The Chasam Sofer maintains that the members of Shevet (Tribe
of) Reuvain felt slighted that Yaakov Avinu took the right of the
firstborn from his eldest son Reuvain (Bereshis 48:5). They thought that
one misdeed should not have disqualified them from leadership. He adds
that among the 250 people were bechorim (firstborn children) who were
replaced by members of Shevet Levi after the sin of the egel.
The Chasam Sofer points out that each of these groups had conflicting
agendas. Even if they had defeated Moshe, they would have argued among
themselves!! Therefore, their alliance was only a temporary one, which
would crumble as soon as their mutual goals were met.
He offers a beautiful insight into the timeless words of our chachamim
(sages) in Pirkei Avos. “Any argument that is l’shem Shamayim, for the
sake of Heaven, sofo l’hiskayeim, will have a constructive outcome, while
a dispute that is for other, personal reasons, will not have a
constructive outcome (Avos 5:20). The Mishnah notes Hillel and Shammai as
examples of people who argued for the sake of Heaven – and Korach and his
followers as those who argued with personal agendas.
The Chasam Sofer points out that the Mishna says that Korach and his
followers were the ones arguing [not for the sake of Heaven] not Korach
and Moshe, since Korach and his followers were deeply divided and only
joined forces to do battle with Moshe.
Following this line of reasoning, I would like to suggest an explanation
for the “lachein – therefore” counterargument of Moshe and his emboldened
At the onset, each of the three diverse groups in Korach’s band has
seemingly legitimate complaints. Korach had a ‘lineage’ claim – that he
was the next in line for a position of leadership. The firstborn people
and the leaders of Reuvain claimed that they were unjustly penalized for
one-time sins. Perhaps Moshe ‘fell on his face’ feeling that their claims
were difficult to disprove.
I would like to suggest that at that point, seeing Moshe’s public display
of frustration, Korach may have become overconfident. He tried adding to
his initial claim for the position of Nasi, and abandoned his theme that
the Jews need no leaders at all. He then challenged Aharon’s worthiness to
serve as Kohein Gadol, and claimed that Aharon was unfit to serve since he
had a role [albeit inadvertently] in the forming of the egel.
THE TIDE TURNS
At that point, Moshe became energized. As the Chasam Sofer explains the
words of Moshe, he countered Korach with a powerful argument. He asked
Korach, “How could you join forces with others (the people from Reuvain
and the bechorim) who had served the egel?” Even if individually your
claims have merit, as a group, you contradict each other!!
I would like to suggest that this fits well with Moshe’s words. “Lachein
(therefore)” – since you challenged Aharon, [it became evident that] you
and your band [the collective unit of malcontents] are arguing against
Hashem [and not only against my leadership].”
Our chachamim in Avos cite this as a timeless message.
Selfish people only serve their own narrow goals. Selfless people – even
when they disagree – can unite to enrich the world and contribute to its
Best wishes for a Gutten Shabbos
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Torah.org.
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.