The Other Side of Ambition
In this week's Torah portion, Korach foments an outright rebellion against
Moshe and Aharon. He could not have chosen a more opportune moment. After
the fiasco of the spies and the decree that the entire generation would die
in the wilderness without ever seeing the land, the discontent in the nation
made the moment ripe for provoking an uprising.
Two hundred fifty of the most distinguished members of the tribe of Levi
joined him as Korach explained to Moshe, "Rav lachem!" It is too much--more
than you are entitled to-that you and Aharon have assumed leadership
positions while we are resigned to perform the simple Levite services. Moshe
responded by throwing back at them the exact same words, "Rav lachem, Bnei
Levi" (verse 7) "It is more than enough for you." Moshe told them that they
had already been given great honor as Levites and they should not be
This seemed to be a very appropriate and fair response. However, the Talmud
in Sota tells us in the name of R' Levi that Moshe was severely punished for
reprimanding Korach and his followers in this manner. When Moshe implored
Hashem that he be allowed to enter the promised land, Hashem responded with
the exact same expression, "Rav lach" (Devarim chapter 3; verse 26), "It is
too much for you. Do not continue to speak to me further about this matter".
The Talmud tells us that Hashem denied him his request because Moshe had
responded to Korach's rebellion with these unduly harsh words.
The commentaries are perplexed. Surely Moshe was correct in countering
Korach's challenge by admonishing him to be grateful for the prestige he
already enjoyed. Why then was he punished so severely for using the
expression "rav lachem?"
The commentaries explain that Moshe was correct in standing firm against
Korach's rebellion, but he overlooked an important facet in Korach's
motivation. Although Korach was driven by raw ambition-the desire to assume
the mantle of leadership and achieve prominence among the people-there was
also a strain of a genuine desire to serve Hashem on a more sublime and
intimate level. By being able to offer the incense in the Sanctuary, he
would be able to connect to Hashem in a uniquely special way. Moshe should
have acknowledged that desire as something positive and genuine.
True, Korach's rebellion was primarily fueled by his own self-interest and
his recalcitrance warranted the severest punishment imaginable. However, the
words 'rav lach' that implied that his spiritual aspirations should be
restricted were inappropriate. Therefore, when Moshe aspired to achieve even
greater heights by entering the promised land and fulfilling the mitzvos
associated with it, Hashem rejected his impassioned entreaty with the same
words Moshe had used to Korach.
I recall from my youth in Manchester, England, that our next-door neighbors
were Reform Jews who had little reverence for our sacred traditions. When
walking home from shul one Shabbos, we saw them pulling out of their
driveway on their way to their Shabbat temple services. My father remarked
to me that even though they were publicly desecrating the Shabbos, they
would nevertheless be rewarded for devoting their Saturday morning to
connecting to Hashem in the manner they understood to be correct. In the
celestial worlds, good intentions are measured and acknowledged appropriately.
Korach had committed a dastardly act and the earth was about to swallow him
up for his heinous sin-a punishment that was unprecedented and never again
duplicated. Nevertheless his spiritual stirrings should not have been so
sharply brushed aside.
In our own lives, we too encounter many groups and individuals who challenge
our traditional ways with the professed objective of enhancing a Jew's
spiritual connection to the Divine. While we may vehemently oppose their
religious choices, we should not condemn them personally. As this Chazal
teaches us, a Jew's religious stirrings, however misguided, deserve
recognition. Instead of summarily discounting them, let us acknowledge the
genuine elements within those streams while opposing the misguided actions,
remaining hopeful that the positive elements will ultimately prompt a true
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos.
Rabbi Naftali Reich
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.