Clinging to the Light

June 24, 2009

7 min read


Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha tells the story of a man named Korach who led a mutinous rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach claimed that the entire Jewish people was holy, and therefore it was inappropriate for Moses and Aaron to exalt themselves over the people (Numbers 16:3). Moses responds to Korach, "In the morning, God will make known who is His own and who is the holy one, and He will draw him close to Him" (Numbers 16:5).

It seems strange that Moses would want to wait until the morning to resolve such a critical issue. Why not settle the matter immediately?

Furthermore, Rashi (based on Midrash Tanchuma 7) teaches that Korach spent the entire night going around to each tribe and trying to gain support for his rebellion. Why does the Midrash stress that Korach went around at night?

According to the Netivot Shalom, certain actions that are not explicitly condemned in the Torah are nevertheless considered more severe than sins that are explicitly mentioned. Korach, by arguing against his rabbi, provides one example of this principle. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) teaches that one who disagrees with, argues with, complains against, or suspects his rabbi is considered to be exhibiting all these behaviors toward God Himself.

In order to understand how the Talmud can equate a rabbi with the Divine - a comparison that seems to border on idolatry! - we must examine another Talmudic passage (Ketubot 111b). Several verses in the Torah (Deut. 4:4, Deut. 30:20) instruct us to cleave to God. The Talmud wonders how this is possible, since God is described as an all-consuming fire (Deut. 4:24). How can we be expected to attach ourselves to a blaze of perfect holiness?

The Talmud answers by explaining that anyone who marries his daughter to a Sage, does business with a Sage, or uses his property to give pleasure to a Sage (for example, providing him with a meal) is considered as if he attached himself to the Divine Presence.

According to the Netivot Shalom, the purpose of the Torah and all its mitzvot is to enable us to cleave to God (d'veikut). One mitzvah in particular, however, helps us achieve this goal more than all the others: cleaving to Torah scholars. When the Talmud compares a rabbi to God, it does not mean that the rabbi is God, God forbid. Rather, our connection and attachment to a rabbi brings us to a deeper connection to God. From observing how our Sages behave, even in the most mundane areas (eating, speaking, walking, conducting business), we learn how to become God-like in every facet of life. In this way, we become closer to God.

Based on this idea, we can see the severity of Korach's error. When Korach stated, "The entire congregation is holy," (Numbers 16:3), he was implying that the Jewish people no longer needed to have a rabbi. It seems that Korach wanted to prevent the Jewish people from cleaving to Torah scholars, thereby preventing them from cleaving to God. According to this understanding, Korach was rebelling not only against Moses and Aaron, but against the very purpose of Torah and mitzvot.

We could suggest that the letters of Korach's name provide a hint to this idea, since they form the acronym of the phrase Chalak Kedushat Rabo ("He argued on the sanctity of his rabbi").

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This helps us understand why Moses waited until the morning to resolve the dispute with Korach, whereas Korach acted at night. The Midrash (Shmot Raba 15) teaches that the Jewish people are compared to the moon. We can understand this statement based on the Talmud's (Chullin 60b) explanation of an apparent contradiction in the Torah, which states, "God made the two great luminaries, the great luminary to serve by day and the small luminary to serve by night" (Genesis 1:16). How can two "great" luminaries be different sizes?

The Talmud explains that originally the sun and the moon were both the same size. However, the moon complained to God, "Can two kings share the same crown?" God acknowledged the moon's objection, saying "Go and diminish yourself."

Maimonides (Laws of Kiddush HaChodesh) states that the moon does not generate its own light, but is rather a reflection of the sun's light. According to the Toldot Yaakov Yosef, the moon initially complained to God because it thought it did generate its own light. God's response ("Go and diminish yourself") was intended to teach the moon the true nature of its illumination. It is as if He told the moon, "You think you provide your own light because you are so close to the sun. Once you create some distance ("go"), you will see on your own ("yourself") that you are small."

[This is not the straightforward understanding of the Talmud, in which God literally made the moon smaller. According to this new approach, the first half of the verse, which refers to the two great luminaries, describes how the luminaries appeared. The second half of the verse clarifies what was actually there. God never created two equal "kings" in the first place.]

Now we can see why the Jewish people are compared to the moon. The moon does not generate its own light and needs the light of the sun in order to shine. The masses of the Jewish people also do not start out with their own light; we need a rabbi, who is compared to the sun, to give us light and help us shine. A rabbi has his own light because he has already achieved d'veikut with God, whereas the majority of us are still working toward that goal.

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The Tifferet Shmuel (vol. 2) points out that the moon's mistake occurred at night. When the moon was directly opposite the sun, shining brightly, it assumed it generated its own light. In the daytime, however, when there is a greater distance between the sun and the moon, it became obvious that the moon never generated its own light at all.

This is why the Midrash stresses that Korach tried to gain support for his rebellion at night. Korach lived in darkness. Although he was a Torah scholar, he got so close to Moses, his rabbi, that he began to think he had his own light. Therefore, he tried to gain followers at night, because he shone most brightly at that time. Moses, on the other hand, knew the true source of Korach's light. This is why he waited until the morning to resolve the issue. In the daytime, it would be obvious that Korach was merely a reflection of Moses's light. Perhaps he would realize on his own that he still needed a rabbi.

We could suggest that the remedy for Korach's error can also be found in the letters of his name. The letters of korach can be rearranged to spell the word rachok ("distant"). In the daytime, when the sun and the moon are farther apart, Korach could see with clarity what was not evident at night. The letters of korach also spell the word kerach ("ice"). With the clarity of distance, Korach could have seen that he was as cold as ice without Moses, and that he did not have his own fire at all.

May we all be blessed to find and follow a real rabbi who speaks to us and whose light will cause us to shine. In this way, may we grow ever closer to God, becoming more and more God-like, so that we may be elevated to the highest levels.

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