Behind the White Beard
He must have been the epitome of a Jewish sage. His face must
have glowed with a holy light. His beard must have been long and white,
his eyes bright with wisdom. He commanded great respect among the
people, both for his illustrious lineage and for his own righteousness.
His name was Korach. He led a rebellion against Moses and was
swallowed up by the earth. He is one of the most infamous men in
How could such a thing happen? How could one of the leading
Jewish sages of his generation stoop so low as to rebel against Moses?
The commentators explain that it all began quite innocently. Korach
had a strong desire to be close to the Almighty, and he strove to
achieve that goal through the study of Torah and the performance of the
commandments. But then he saw that there was another avenue open
to Moses and Aaron, an avenue that was closed to him. Moses and
Aaron had the special privilege of serving the Almighty in the Mishkan,
of entering the inner sanctums and treading on the most hallowed
ground on the face of the earth. Korach was filled with a righteous envy.
How he longed to serve the Almighty at the highest level possible. How
yearned to be as close as possible to Him.
So what went wrong? After all, righteous envy (kinath sofrim) is a
positive force that leads to excellence in spiritual achievements.
The commentators explain that true righteousness is selfless. If his
motivations had been pure, he would have accepted the Almighty’s
decision to delegate Aaron as the high priest, and he would have
derived closeness to the Almighty from this very acquiescence. But
somewhere deep inside, other motivations also lurked. In some sinister
corner of his heart, he begrudged Moses and Aaron their honors and
prestige. Perhaps he didn’t even admit it to himself, but his motives
were not exclusively righteous. And in the end, they brought him down.
Listen closely to his revolutionary statement, and you can hear the
jealousy clearly. “Why do you raise yourself above Hashem’s people?”
Korach declared. “Why do you lord over them?” If he were only
concerned about his own spiritual accomplishments, why focus on
Moses? Why should he care about what Moses did or didn’t have? This
is jealousy in its pure form, concerned that someone might have
A certain village along a well-traveled route always had strangers
staying for the Sabbath. The custom in the village was that
householders would invite these strangers after the Friday night
services in the synagogue. The president would be the first to choose
his guest, and afterwards, the householders would extend invitations to
A poor traveler once passed through the village and spent the
Sabbath there. Friday night, he stood at the back of the synagogue
waiting for someone to invite him for the meals. The president was
talking to the rabbi.
One of the householders walked up to the traveler, shook his hand
and extended an invitation. The traveler accepted gratefully.
Just then, the president turned around and saw what had
“Did you see that?” he said to the rabbi furiously. “How dare that
fellow extend an invitation before me. Maybe I wanted him as my
“My good fellow,” said the rabbi. “If you are really motivated by
feelings of hospitality, then you should be happy for the traveler who
now has a good place to stay. If you are upset, it must be that you were
more concerned with your own pleasure than with the needs of the
In our own lives, we constantly need to evaluate and reexamine our
own good deeds. We must look closely into ourselves to discover if we
are acting for the higher good or if we are seeking honors and acclaim
for our spiritual accomplishments. And we must always remember that
selflessness is the surest route to closeness with the Almighty.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.