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The Roots of All Evil

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Korah, a cousin of Moses from the distinguished tribe of the Levites, falls prey to two of the three sins which our Sages teach are the source of all destructive character traits: jealousy and the thirst for honor. (The third character trait is lust.) In his obsession, Korah foments rebellion and tries to unseat Moses and Aaron.

Vayikach Korach – And Korah took”1 are the opening words of the parashah, and our Sages explain that he “took,” i.e., seduced, people with persuasive words. He duped them and managed to incite 250 leaders of the nation to join him.

Those who participated in Korah’s rebellion all had their own hidden agendas. First and foremost among them were Dathan and Abiram, who had a long history of attacking Moses and who harbored a desire to return to Egypt. Then there was the neighboring tribe of Reuben. Korah convinced them that Moses was guilty of nepotism. stating that it was not by the command of God that Moses had appointed Aaron as High Priest, but rather, by his own ambition to keep all the high honors for his own family. Korah’s arguments fell on willing ears since, following the sin of the Golden Calf, Reuben lost his privileged position as the firstborn. Reuben’s vulnerability also lay in his close proximity to Korah, reinforcing the warning of our Sages, “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor.” We must be careful when choosing a place of residence, for our neighbors can influence us without our even realizing it.

Accusations, Libels, and a Formula for Peace

There are times in life when accusations are leveled that are so outrageous, so egregious, that one is left stunned and unable to respond. Moses – lovingly referred to as “Ro’eh Ne’eman, the loyal shepherd” – who sacrificed his entire life for his people, who wrestled with God and put himself on the line by declaring, “If You forgive them, good, and if not, erase my name from Your Book,”2 is now put on trial by this pretender and accused of nepotism and greed.

One can only imagine the pain that Moses must have felt at this senseless accusation. We gain a glimpse of his suffering when the Torah tells us that he “fell on his face” in prayer,3 for what could he have possibly said when confronted by such ingratitude and betrayal?

How would you have reacted in Moses’ place? What can we learn from Moses to help us when we are unjustly accused by those for whom we sacrificed and gave our love?

By all rights, Moses would have been justified in reacting furiously and demanding the obliteration of the insurgents, but instead, he tried to reason with them: “In the morning (boker) Hashem will make known …,” he said.4 The word “boker” does not only mean “morning,” but is related to the word “bikores,” meaning “to clarify, to investigate.” By telling them to “sleep on it, to wait until the morning,” Moses hoped that they would examine their own motivations and re-think their malevolent plans. Sadly, however, they remained adamant and refused to concede their evil intent. So lesson number one that we learn is not to act hastily or precipitously. Before speaking, before acting, before condemning, try to make peace. Tell you opponent to “sleep on it, to wait until morning” in the hope that he/she will investigate and find clarity. Unfortunately, in the case of Korah, it did not work. Korah and his followers remained blind and obdurate. Nevertheless, Moses’ example is here to guide us.

Despite it all, however, Moses did not give up. He sent for Dathan and Abiram and tried to make peace with them but once again, they arrogantly refused, so Moses, the prophet of God, the leader of Israel, the beloved rabbi of all the Jewish people, did not hesitate to humble himself, but personally went to Dathan and Abiram in a final effort to make peace.5

Once again, we are given a profound lesson. If strife and contention plague our families or community, let us not stand on ceremony, but let us be the first to extend the hand of peace. If Moses didn’t feel that he compromised his honor by humbling himself, how can we? Even if our overtures are rebuffed, we should not give up, but try and try again.

Our Sages admonish us not to keep a quarrel going and gave us a threefold formula to achieve peace: “Be like a teakettle, be like a bird, and be like a river.”

A teakettle makes peace between fire and water, even though it becomes scorched in the process.

  • Try to catch a bird: It will fly away. Someone took your seat, your parking place? Instead of being angry, learn from the bird: Fly away.
  • The banks of the river keep the waters from overflowing. Learn control and do not permit the floodwaters of your temper to take over.
  • Let us take to heart Moses’ example: Pursue peace and make every attempt at reconciliation.

The Disastrous Consequences of Jealousy

Korah possessed everything to which a man could aspire: He was brilliant, came from a noble family, was majestic in appearance, and was the wealthiest man of his time. But all his attainments were for naught because he had no peace; his heart was consumed by jealousy. His obsession came to a tragic climax in the controversy he fomented, resulting in his death and that of his family as well as of many others.

Jealousy is the ugliest trait a person can harbor, so how can we protect ourselves from its deadly sting? Whenever we feel it invading our hearts, let us bear in mind that jealousy is pointless and also self-destructive. It is pointless because the venomous feelings that envy generates will not alter our situation; if anything, it will make it worse. What we covet will not become ours, but it will prevent us from enjoying what we do have, and worse, it will transform us into bitter, cruel individuals. Thus, Korah – who at first had everything – in the end had nothing. All his accomplishments, all his wealth, had no meaning because, in his mind’s eye, all he saw was the crown of the priesthood on his cousin’s head.

The story of Korah speaks to us in every generation. Alas, jealousy has been the undoing of man since the beginning of time when Cain rose up to kill his brother Abel. Baruch Hashem, in our own generation, we enjoy so many blessings, and yet we are discontented and ungrateful. Somehow, we always feel that our neighbor, our relative, our friend, is better off than we, that the grass is greener on the other side, Thus, we rob ourselves of our peace of mind, make ourselves miserable, and are unable to enjoy those blessings that we do have. So, instead of looking enviously at others, we would do well to focus on our own lives and develop our own potential.

The great Chassidic leader, the Rebbe Reb Zisha, was once asked if he would have preferred to have been born the Patriarch Abraham. To which he responded, “What would the Almighty God gain from that? There would still be only one] Abraham and one Reb Zisha.” This teaching of Reb Zisha’s is one that we would do well to contemplate. We must realize that each and every one of us has a special task and that, throughout our lives, we must strive to fulfill the purpose for which God created us. Instead of trying to imitate others, we should probe our own souls and become our own unique selves. Genuine joy can only be found in the knowledge that we are standing at the post to which we were assigned by God, and are fulfilling His Will. On the other hand, self-aggrandizement and an envious eye can only lead to frustration and destruction. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will know peace of mind.

In living a purposeful life, it is important to remember the very first passage of this parashah in which it is related that Korah took it, which means that the life of Korah centered on taking rather than giving. Takers are never content, since genuine happiness can only be found in giving. Had Korah realized that, he would have understood that the very essence of life is to help others and create a relationship with Hashem; that realization would have enabled him to rejoice in the achievements of his fellow man.

  1. Ibid. 16:1.
  2. Cf. Exodus 32:32.
  3. Numbers 16:4.
  4. Ibid. 16:5.
  5. Ibid. 16:25.

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