Korach - Doing The Right Thing
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The greatest challenge we face as humans is doing what is the right thing
rather than what we think is the right thing. Therefore, it is crucial that
we know what the right thing is, and that we teach it to our students and
The Rambam extracted his Thirteen Principles of Faith from the vastness of
the Oral Torah. In doing so he gifted us with an understanding of Who G-d
is, how G-d communicates with humanity, and the absolute appreciation that
there are consequences to our actions. In addition, the Rambam established
that the foundation of the Torah and our relationship with G-d is faith in
G-d's existence and trust in His never-ceasing benevolence.
Simply put, the definitive criteria for "what is the right thing" is
anything that G-d commanded in the Torah. If G-d said to do it, it must be
the right thing; and if G-d said not to do it, it must be the wrong thing.
Furthermore, whatever G-d does must be the right thing. (Is there an
inverse to that equation?)
The logic follows the Rambam's Thirteen Principles. In the first five
Principles the Rambam defined Who and What G-d is. He established that the
base line of our faith and trust believes that there is a G-d Who created
and maintains the universe. The next four Principles define how G-d
communicated His expectations (commandments) to humanity. They established
the fundamental criteria for defining the right thing and the wrong thing.
Obviously, we must accept G-d's existence before we can accept that He gave
commandments. We must accept that there is a G-d before we accept that an
absolute criterion exists for defining the right thing and the wrong thing.
The remaining four Principles define reward and punishment. As law-abiding
citizens and families, we all appreciate that actions must have
consequences. If G-d exists and He gave us commandments, there must be
consequences, whether for doing the right thing or the wrong thing.
This week's Parsha details Korach's rebellion against Moshe and G-d. The
Talmud describes Korach's rebellion as a Halachik (legal) challenge. "Does
a four cornered, Techeles (unique ancient dye recently rediscovered and
produced) dyed garment require Tzitzis (fringes)? Does a home filled with
books of Torah require a Mezuzah?"
Korach's underlying challenge to Moshe was obvious. Must we accept the 613
commandments as absolute definitions of the right thing, or, are they mere
indicators of what is the right thing? The difference between the two is
whether or not the Oral Law is equally divine as the Written Law. If G-d
exists, and He gave the Torah, and He further explained the Torah to Moshe,
and we believe that Moshe did not change a single word or letter in the
Torah or the teaching of the Torah, then we can accept that the oral
explanation of the 613 Mitzvos absolutely defines the meaning of the right
thing and the wrong thing.
Korach did not want to accept that the definition of the right thing and
the wrong thing was dependent upon Moshe's explanation of G-d's
commandments. Korach wanted to retain the right to personally define G-d's
intentions and act accordingly. In dyeing the entire garment with Techeles,
Korach indicated that he understood G-d's intention for giving the
commandment of Tzitzis and was prepared to do even more than the "minimum".
Korach did not have to keep to the "letter of the law" because he felt that
he understood the intent of the law. By filling his home with books of
Torah Korach proclaimed his belief in the Written Law. What greater
statement of personal belief than a lifetime devoted to the study of G-d's
law? What more could a small scroll of parchment attached to the doorpost
mean to G-d? G-d is not interested in form! G-d desires meaning and intent!
Which is better, a home with a Mezuzah but no Chumash (bible), or a home
with a well used Chumash but no Mezuzah?
Moshe's response was simple. "In the morning G-d will make known the one
who is His own… and whomever He will choose, He will draw close to
Himsself." It was not up to Moshe to defend G-d. Moshe could not prove his
or Aharon's Divine appointment. It was not up to Moshe to prove the process
that G-d had chosen for disseminating His expectations for humanity to
humanity. The process was as it was ordained and Moshe fully trusted that
G-d knew exactly what He was doing.
Korach's challenge attacked the most fundamental principle of Judaism. Who
defines right and who defines wrong? Did G-d institute an "absolute"
criterion for the right thing that would be subject to the whims and
fancies of the greater or lesser intellects of every subsequent generation?
Was the definition of truth and the right thing going to be dependent on an
evolutionary process called "survival of the smartest?"
One of the arguments offered against Darwin's theory of evolution is the
question, "If everything has evolved by relative chance from a lesser to a
more complex organism what guarantees that the process will not reverse
itself? Who is to say that we will not find ourselves living on "Planet of
From my limited experience I cannot tell you whether such a degeneration
and reversal has or could ever occur. However, in the arena of intelligence
and intellect I can assure you that there has never been a guarantee that
the smartest will survive. Intellectual devolution (stupidity) happens all
the time. In fact, our history suggests the opposite. If not for G-d's
loving benevolence what would we be today? The transmission of the Oral Law
from Moshe to today is predicated on the understanding that subsequent
generations know less about G-d's intentions than the generations that
preceded them. Therefore, not only are there no guarantees for intellectual
evolution, the facts suggest the opposite! Does it make sense that G-d
would subject the world to a code of ever-changing morals and values?
Absolute truth is critical to our entire relationship with G-d and
humanity. Those who argue for an ever-changing subjective moral code do so
because they do not believe in the same G-d concept that I do. My G-d was
and is capable of establishing unchanging, objective, absolute standards of
right and wrong. My G-d, Who is all-knowing, unlimited, and eternal, gave a
Torah that transcends the limitations of generations and circumstances.
From G-d's perspective, "There is nothing new beneath the sun." The truth
is as Moshe transcribed it in the Torah and as he taught and explained it
to the Bnai Yisroel.
Korach's rebellion was the first of many. Throughout the generations the
religious battle lines have been drawn on the pages of the Oral Law, not
the Written. The Jews accepted the Torah with the words, "We will do and we
then we will attempt to understand." Such a commitment could only be
offered on the basis of absolute faith and trust in G-d and Moshe.
Those who truly believe in the first five Principles of Faith are able to
follow the dictates and commandments inherent in the middle four Principles
and to accept the consequences defined in the last four Principles. They
embrace the absolute criterion for right and wrong as defined in the 613
Mitzvos and as taught by Moshe and all the subsequent teachers.
Trust must be modeled and taught. The transmission of Torah from generation
to generation demands trust. The Talmud in Shabbos 31a records a discussion
between Hillel and the Convert. The Convert stipulated that he would only
trust Hillel regarding the divinity of the Written Law but not the divinity
of the Oral Law. However, because the Convert did not know the Aleph Bet
(Hebrew alphabet), Hillel had to first teach him how to read Hebrew so that
he could teach him the Written Law. Pointing to the letters in the Torah
Hillel taught him Aleph, Bet, Gimmel… The next day, Hillel pointed to the
exxact same letters but reversed their names, Gimmel, Aleph, Bet. The
Convert immediately confronted Hillel with the obvious contradiction
between the lessons of the first and second days. Hillel responded, "Do you
see that you have to trust me when I teach you the basics of reading? The
same way that you must trust that I am teaching you the truth when I teach
you how to read the Written Law, so too you must trust me that I am
teaching you the truth when I teach you the Oral Law."
The moral of the story is obvious. There can never be knowledge without
trust. Imagine a Pre 1A class that refuses to accept the accuracy of the
alphabet being taught. Imagine if every student demanded that their teacher
prove to them that what was being taught was the truth and not some made up
personal mumbo jumbo! The entire educational system both formal and
informal is predicated on trust.
The rebellion of Korach is the challenge of every generation. After all is
said and done, after every challenge is met and answered, the bottom line
remains the same. Either we trust the truth of the Oral Law or we question
the very foundation of our belief in G-d. Either we do as G-d commanded and
as Moshe explained, or we do as we want, regardless of what G-d wishes. In
more challenging terms, we choose to do either the right thing as defined
by the absolutes of the Torah or we choose to do the wrong thing as defined
by the absolutes of the Torah.
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
North Hollywood, CA and Assistant Principal, YULA.