In our previous article, we began exploring the nature of Korach’s sin. To review, as many Jewish thinkers explain, Korach’s sin lay in his pantheistic view. He believed that the physical world, as well as all the people within it, are part of Hashem Himself, and therefore already spiritually perfect. Korach says, “Kol ha’eidah kulam k’doshim – The entire nation is holy.” There is no difference between me and Moshe, or me and Aharon, or the Jewish People and their leaders. Everything is Hashem, everything is one. Within pantheism, there are no boundaries or distinctions and nothing higher to connect to. Hashem is only connected to the here and now, and therefore we do not need to look for anything transcendent, higher, or beyond this physical world.
Straightening the Bent Path
The Midrash fills in the background behind Korach’s contentions, detailing the specific arguments that Korach brought to support his case (BaMidbar Rabbah 18:3.):
Korach challenged Moshe: “Should a room full of s’farim require a mezuzah on its doorpost?” In other words, should a room full of holy objects require the finishing touch of a mezuzah affixed upon its doorpost?
Similarly, Korach asked: “Should a four-cornered garment made completely of t’cheiles require t’cheiles in its strings?” After all, if the garment itself is made completely of t’cheiles, why should it require additional t’cheiles in its strings?
These questions preface Korach’s main question: “If the entire Jewish nation is holy and exalted – “kol ha’eidah kulam k’doshim” (BaMidbar 16:3) – why should you, Moshe and Aharon, hold uniquely exalted positions of power? In other words, why do we need you as spiritual leaders if we are all spiritually perfect?
If Korach’s mistake indeed lay in his pantheistic worldview, how were his questions and assertions a reflection of this?
As we previously explained, the purpose of t’cheiles and tzitzis is to straighten the bent path and help connect us back to Hashem, our Source. Let us briefly recall the parable we mentioned: Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see exactly where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn and bends off its straight course, then if you turn around, you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and you knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path, directly back to the Source of the world. However, when Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, and it is no longer clear where we come from. When we look around, we no longer see a universe that clearly and loyally reflects its G-dliness; instead, we see a physical world of multiplicity and twoness.
As we previously explained, tzitzis are only required on a cornered garment. It is only when the edge of the garment begins to bend that we are obligated to attach tzitzis to the corners. The straight lines of the tzitzis straighten the bent path of the garment. Thus, tzitzis represent our ability to source ourselves back to Hashem, even on a bent path.
Halachah dictates that once the garment bends (once the physical world no longer perfectly reflects its spiritual root), we must straighten the bent path with strings of t’cheiles, helping us source ourselves back to Hashem. Korach claimed that a four-cornered garment made up of t’cheiles is already spiritual, and therefore does not require additional strings of t’cheiles. Essentially, Korach claimed that spirituality can be self-contained, confined only to the garment (the physical world) itself, without any need to connect to a higher source beyond the physical world.
Similarly, the purpose of a mezuzah is to connect your physical makom, your physical room, back to its spiritual source, Hashem (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Mezuzah 6:13). Whenever you enter a room and pass a mezuzah, you are immediately reminded to source yourself back to Hashem. Fascinatingly, many halachic authorities hold that the mezuzah should be placed on a slanted, bent angle on top of the doorpost. While this may appear to contradict the principle that we just presented about straightening the bent path, it actually adds another layer of depth to it. While the mezuzah may appear to be crooked, this is only according to our limited perception. In reality, the world itself is crooked – a fallen vestige of a world that once fully and loyally reflected Hashem. We are mistaken if we assume that our current, limited perception of the world is the objective truth. Instead, we must learn to realign ourselves and our perception with the truth, instead of trying to align the truth (the straight path) with our crooked and bent perception. Rather than bending the truth to fit our world view, we must learn to fit ourselves into the truth.
Rejecting Our Mission
This was Korach’s sin: Korach claimed that a room full of s’farim was already a spiritual room and therefore did not require a mezuzah. It did not need to be connected back to any outside spiritual source, as it was already perfect. This represents Korach’s claim that the physical world itself is already independently spiritual and perfect and does not require a connection to any higher spiritual source. Essentially, Korach rejected the idea that we must straighten the bent path, claiming instead that the physical world is already straight, free of any need to be further straightened.
This is what Korach meant by “Kol ha’eidah kulam k’doshim,” namely, that all of the Jewish People are already perfect, and as a result, Moshe and Aharon had no right to maintain any form of leadership. A leader is only necessary if a nation needs direction; but a nation that is perfect does not require any hierarchy or leadership.
A New Punishment
We can now understand why Moshe asked Hashem to create a “chidush,” a completely novel punishment for Korach. From a pantheistic viewpoint, everything in this world is already perfect as it is Hashem. Consequently, there can be no chidush; there can be absolutely nothing new. The logic behind this is simple: If there is nothing outside the system – no transcendent force beyond the physical world – there can be nothing new that comes into the world. Once the system is fundamentally and inherently limited to what it already is, with no higher outside force that can affect it, nothing new can be added.
Therefore, Moshe asked Hashem to add something new to the world – a novel phenomenon, thereby punishing Korach midah k’neged midah (measure for measure). His very claim would be disproven through his punishment. He claimed that there is nothing outside the limited framework of the physical world and that nothing new can be added; as a result, Hashem created a new punishment just for him. We must still ask, though, why Hashem specifically chose to have the earth swallow Korach up. Is there a deeper meaning to this specific punishment?
Korach’s sin can be most clearly defined as gaavah (haughtiness). In essence, Korach claimed that he, and all of klal Yisrael, were no different from Hashem. Korach single-handedly raised himself up to the level of perfection, of G-dliness. While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, as we are all created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of Hashem), Korach distorted this principle and took it to the extreme.
This is why Korach’s punishment was so appropriate. He claimed that he was perfect, and in so doing, he raised himself up to infinite heights. As a consequence, Hashem opened up the earth, swallowing Korach and sending him to the very lowest of depths imaginable. Korach’s ego and haughtiness sank him, quite literally, to the lowest, most insignificant level possible.
Always a Chance for Redemption
The pasuk in T’hilim says: “Tzadik ka’tamar yifrach – The righteous will bloom like a palm tree” (T’hilim 92:13). The last letters from each of these three words spell “Korach.” While Korach was swallowed up by the earth, he was like a planted seed that would later sprout fruits. As a matter of fact, Chazal state that Korach’s children survived Korach’s punishment, as they did t’shuvah while they were being swallowed up (BaMidbar 26:11; Megillah 14a; Sanhedrin 110a). Can you think of anything more profound and inspiring than this? Korach’s entire claim lay in his belief that humans are equal to Hashem and are therefore already perfect. Since we are perfect, we not only don’t need to change and grow, but we can’t. Something that is perfect cannot change or grow; it must remain static. The children of Korach survived by doing t’shuvah. T’shuvah is the ultimate expression of the human ability to change, to grow, to transform from one state of being to another. The seed was planted, and the righteous palm trees sprouted. It is no surprise that many years later, Shmuel HaNavi came from the seed of Korach, a tzadik who devoted his life to ascending the spiritual ladder of growth and traveled across Eretz Yisrael inspiring others to do the same. (See BaMidbar Rabbah 3:11. Both Shmuel and Korach came from K’has.)
We aren’t perfect; we are becoming perfect. This is why we can feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time. We aren’t perfect; we are on a journey of becoming and of actualizing our fullest potential. Sometimes we feel and fully embrace the G-dliness within us, and sometimes we feel the void, realizing our shortcomings and yearn to become more. We aren’t Hashem, but we are meant to strive every day to come closer and closer to Him.
Korach’s pitfall resulted in his actual “pit-fall.” May we be inspired to learn from Korach’s mistake and harness the beauty of being human. Our humanity is our unique G-dliness. We have the ability to grow, to become, to change, to evolve, and to actualize more and more of our tzelem Elokim and achieve our destiny in this world.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.