Looking into the story of Korach, one might view Korach and his 250-man crew in disbelief. How could they have tried to oppose Moshe to overthrow his leadership? However, looking a little deeper into it, Korach and his men were not childishly trying to gain control or power, but perhaps were driven by pure intent to advance in spiritual terms.
When Korach comes to Moshe, Moshe says, let’s have a standoff: Each of us will bring an incense offering, and we will see who Hashem will accept [and who will die] (see 16:5-7, with Rashi). Moshe, who was trying to warn them and thereby persuade them to cease fire, concludes with saying “רב לכם”—“rav lachem”—“it is too much for you,” apparently in further attempt to discourage Korach from pursuing his passionate attempt to overthrow the leadership.
When Moshe wanted to enter Eretz Yisrael, he persistently beseeched Hashem to allow him to enter. No, he wasn’t in it for the shwarma, or even the Kotel. The Gemara (Sota 14a) says Moshe wanted to gain more mitzvot, for there are certain mitzvot that only apply to Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, the pasuk (Devarim 3:26) says that Hashem’s response to Moshe was “רב לך”—“rav lach”—“it is too much for you.” Hashem denied Moshe’s pleas. Hashem’s response to Moshe is identical to the response Moshe gave to Korach, and the Gemara (ibid 13b) explains the similarity and connection, indicating that this was “middah k’neged middah,” measure for measure.
Where did Moshe go wrong? He was not only defending the honor of Hashem and the veracity of the Torah, but he was also seemingly attempting to help and save Korach himself from furthering his mistake! Why then does Moshe seemingly get punished for his response of “rav lachem” to Korach!?
It is perhaps evident from the Gemara that the same way Moshe had a pure aspiration for ruchniyut, Korach also did. Hence, Moshe’s response of “rav lachem” to Korach was in essence a response that indicated a stifling of Korach’s desire for holiness—“you have enough already.” Hence, the same way Moshe indicated a stifling of Korach’s growth, middah k’neged middah, Moshe’s growth was also stifled—“rav lach”—“you have enough already.”
[This doesn’t mean that Moshe should’ve really let Korach take over the torch. It perhaps means that Moshe’s way of discouraging should have been different, without showing a disapproval of someone’s aspiration for growth. The novelty is that even if someone is heading the wrong way due to his desire for spiritually, this sincerity shouldn’t be stifled, but rather channeled and dealt with in an empowering method. What’s mind-boggling is that Moshe seemingly got punished so severely for this even though he was trying to save Korach and help him to not further his mistake! Thus, we see that Korach was an extremely growth-oriented person, eager and driven to come closer to Hashem].
Pirkei Avot (chp. 5) says that whereas Hillel and Shamai engaged in machloket that was l’shem shamayim—for the sake of Hashem, Korach’s machloket was not l’shem shamayim. Based on this Mishna, R’ Yerucham Levovitz points out that one might look at Korach and his men from a rudimentary perspective and think he was driven toward power and honor. Yet, Pirkei Avot indicates that it was only one factor that disqualified Korach’s machloket: that it wasn’t l’shem shamayim. This shows that Korach’s pursuit stemmed from an earnest and real desire to reach greater levels of holiness, and even his machloket was a mitzvah-related machloket. Thus, it is the isolation of but this one factor that disqualified—not Korach himself, or even his machloket—but rather just the fact that his machloket was not l’shem shamayim. [Even Korach’s 250 men, R’ Naftali Tzvi Berlin (Emek Davar, 16:1) points out, were God-fearing men and exceptionally great people in every aspect who were motivated by a genuine “burning” desire to reach a higher level of closeness to Hashem that they believed would be achieved through the Kehuna]. R’ Levovitz further points out that the fact that Moshe had to pray to Hashem that Korach’s offering not be accepted shows that had he not prayed, Korach’s offering could have been accepted, which shows that Korach was motivated by ruchniyut.
Rashi (16:1) says that Korach had “kinah”—he was jealous of the kehuna. While this may be looked at negatively, based on the above we can perhaps explain this not in a critical sense, but rather based dictum of Chazal—“kinat sofrim tarbeh chochma”—that in spirituality, “spiritual envy” is encouraged, for this energy promotes spiritual growth.
However, it seems that Korach’s passion for personal growth was too personal. Indeed, R’ Levi Yitchak of Berditchev (Kedushat Levi) explains that although Korach desired spiritual growth and wanted to please Hashem, he wanted himself to do that, and not anyone else. Hence, we may suggest that this obstinance of a fixed “personal” growth might have been the root of what ultimately led to Korach engaging in machloket that wasn’t “l’shem shamayim”—for the “greater good.” We see a similar mistake in the period of the second Beit Hamikdash, where kohanim fought to do a particular service, and R’ Abraham J. Twerski, zt”l (“From Bondage to Freedom,” p. 30) points out that this highlights a challenge in spirituality that comes up for a person when he entertains that only he must do it, and does not reflect on the greater goal of mitzvot.
While a person’s personal desire to advance in ruchniyut is highly commendable, it is important to also be aware that the ultimate is that Hashem’s will be fulfilled. This duality in personal versus ultimate growth means constantly attempting for personal growth while also maintaining the awareness that our ultimate goal is that Hashem be glorified, in whichever capacity that may be in.
Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected]