The "Holiness" of Korach and his Assembly
Korach (Numbers 16-18 )
An important law is derived from verses in the Torah portions of Shelach and Korach. The Gemara states that whenever there are ten Jewish men together, they are able to publicly sanctify the Name of God by reciting holy words, such as Kaddish and Kedusha. This is derived from the verse in Emor: "V'Nikdashti bsesoch Bnei Yisrael1." The Gemara makes a gezeira shava (word comparison) to a verse in Korach where God instructs Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from Korach’s group: “Hibadlu misoch haeidah hazos2” – ‘separate from this congregation’. To complete the teaching that ten men are required, the Gemara needs to go a step further and link the verse in Korach to the verse in Shelach which speaks of the ten spies who returned the slanderous report about the land of Israel, and calls them "haeidah harah hazos” – “this wicked congregation3." This teaches us that just as the spies were ten and are described as an eidah, a congregation, so too any group of ten men is qualified to say words of holiness.
The question arises as to why did the Torah choose to teach the concept of a minyan in particular with regard to two groups of people who were guilty of grievous sins; the ten spies and Korach’s assembly? Rabbi Yaakov Luban4 offers a simple insight to explain this difficulty: When a person looks at the incidents involving the spies and Korach, on a superficial level, he can easily think that they were completely evil people with no redeeming qualities – after all, the Torah paints them in a very negative light for lacking faith in God, and rejecting the authority of Moshe. Yet, on deeper analysis, we learn that they were very great people who had understandable reasons for their behavior, but who erred because of a slight character flaw which led to a serious misjudgment, that in turn resulted in a heinous sin.
In the case of Korach, the Sages teach that Korach was a very great man, and that he saw accurately, through prophecy that Prophets, including the great Shmuel, would descend from him. This convinced him that he was justified in his dispute with Moses. His error was that he did not realize that his sons would repent and Shmuel would come to existence in their merit, not because of Korach himself.
Likewise, the 250 elders that joined Korach were great men. The Netsiv5 explains that they had elevated motivations in their actions: They desired to attain greater closeness to God by partaking in the service of the Kohanim. They were even willing to attempt to make an offering to God with the realization that they would die for doing this yet they were willing to give up their lives in order to attain this perceived greater ‘closeness’ to God. The Netsiv writes further that they had no real claims against Moshe and Aaron, rather they knew that the only way that they could have the opportunity to perform the priestly service was by joining Korach’s rebellion. The Netsiv adds that because their intentions, though clearly misguided, were leshem Shamayim (pure), they were killed in a more elevated fashion, by a holy fire.
In a similar vein, the commentaries explain that the ten spies were also great men who had seemingly reasonable motives for their actions. Some explain that they felt that the Jewish people were not ready to leave the spiritual lifestyle of the desert for the more materialistic existence that would be required to work the land of Israel. Again, they seriously, erred, but the point is that they were not simply evil people.
Returning to Korach himself, the following story told by Rabbi Yissachar Frand helps give us an idea of the ambiguity of the nature of Korach. The Satmar Rebbe once said that he recalled hearing his great-grandfather, the Yismach Moshe tell his own son, the Yitav Lev (the Satmar Rebbe’s grandfather) that the Yismach Moshe came to this world on three different occasions through the concept of Gilgul Neshamos (reincarnation). The first time he was in this world, he claimed, was in the period of the Jewish people in the desert at the time of the incident of the Rebellion of Korach and his congregation. Upon hearing this, the Yitav Lev asked his father to tell him about the events of that time. The Yismach Moshe told his son that all the Heads of the Sanhedrin sided with Korach and the masses of the people sided with Moshe. The Yitav Lev then pressed his father and asked him "Who did you side with?" He responded "I was neutral". The Yitav Lev asked him, how he could not support Moshe, when his greatness was so clear. The Yitav Lev told his son, “I can see that you have no inkling of what a great person Korach was. If you would have been there and you would have seen who Korach was you would not be so shocked by my neutrality.” This story helps us internalize how it is inaccurate to view people such as Korach and his assembly, and the spies as purely evil people, rather the truth is far more unclear.
There are two important lessons that can be derived from this idea: Firstly, when a person first learns the stories in the Torah as a child, he is of necessity taught in a black and white fashion, where the righteous characters are portrayed as being perfect, and the negative characters are viewed as being purely evil. The problem can be that when a person grows us, he may still have this immature approach to the characters of the Torah, and this will hinder his ability to derive the important life lessons we can learn even from the ‘evil people’ in the Torah.
A second lesson is to remember that even the most seemingly nefarious Jews have the idea of the pintele yid – that they have a soul and deep down want to do the right thing. In this vein, the deeper commentaries6 write that even though particularly evil Jews are described by the Sages as having no place in the Next World, but on a deep level, they actually will eventually reach the Next World, because of the inherent purity of their souls. This teaches us never to give up on any Jew, no matter how distant he seems to be from the truth.
- Vayikra, 22:32.
- Bamidbar, 16:21.
- Bamidbar, 14: 35.
- Quoted by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
- Eimek Dvar, 16:1.
- This is particularly prevalent in the writings of Reb Tzadik HaKohen. See Resisei Laylah, p.18, Machshevet Tzaddik, p.83. Also see the commentary on Nefesh HaChaim, Meshivat Nefesh, p.76.