“Jealousy, Lust, and Thirst for Honor”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the contentious rebellion of Korach and his cohorts, and its disastrous outcome. Korach and his family were ultimately swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 men who offered forbidden fire-pans were devoured by fire.

The Midrash Rabba cited by Rashi in Numbers 16:7 states that Korach was a “pikay’ach”–a brilliant man. The Talmud (Pesachim 119a) maintains that he was a person of great stature and wealth. The rabbis describe Korach as one of the very few Levites who was honored with the great privilege of carrying the Holy Ark. Nevertheless, his character flaws and personal issues led him to rebel against G-d, Moses and Aaron.

The rabbis are greatly puzzled by how a man of such intelligence and public standing could be so misguided. They offer a host of possible explanations.

Rashi (Numbers 16:1) suggests that Korach was deeply offended when his cousin, Elizaphan the son of Uziel, was appointed to serve as the Prince of the tribe of Levi, even though Korach himself was older than Elizaphan, and Korach’s father, Yitzhar, was older than Uziel.

Others suggest that Korach himself longed to be the High Priest. After all, he was a firstborn child to his parents, and since the Levites did not participate in the Sin of the Golden Calf, Korach felt that he should not only have been a Levite, but that he should have been elevated to be of equal status to Aaron. Korach, therefore, mobilized 250 firstborn men from the tribe of Reuben (the firstborn of all of Jacob’s sons) to challenge Moses with the fire-pans.

Korach also believed that he had superior intellect, certainly equal to Moses and Aaron. He, therefore, challenged Moses by having a group of men dress in tallitot, prayer shawls that were entirely of blue, and demanded to know if a tallit that was entirely blue required the tzitzit fringes. When Moses responded that it did require tzitziot, Korach mocked Moses’ reasoning and logic.

Having studied this parasha many times, I recently noticed the remarkable confluence between the story of Korach and the statement of Rav Elazar Ha’Kapar that is recorded in Mishnah Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, 4:28. Rav Elazar Ha’Kapar states that “Envy, lust and the obsessive desire for glory, remove a person from this world.”

Many thousands of years ago, King Solomon, in Proverbs 14:30, also expatiated upon envy, saying, “A tranquil, healing heart gives life to the flesh, but envy brings a rotting of the bones.”

In his wonderful commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, Rabbi Irving Bunim writes:

“A person who is envious and jealous of his fellows will constantly be frustrated and irritated. He perceives others, forever, as threats to his esteem and well-being; he believes that others have attained heights of achievement or wealth, that he too must have, but are beyond his reach; and he feels futile and powerless to do anything about his imagined plight. The result is a constant emotional stress within him…”

Such stress, suggested Rabbi Bunim, could lead to psychosomatic and physical illness, and result in, as King Solomon said, “a rotting of the bones.”

Jealousy, lust and desire for honor were among the impulses that drove Korach to destruction. After all, Moses and Aaron did not choose to be the leaders of Israel and the High Priest. Their roles were Divinely ordained. And, of what was Korach envious? Was he envious of the enormous responsibilities that Moses and Aaron shouldered? Was he envious of the constant complaints from the Jewish people to which they had to respond? Was he envious of the ceaseless demands from the people for advice, and the endless legal decisions that Moses had to render? Was he envious of the fact that, because of the exalted status that Moses and Aaron achieved, they were judged so harshly when they erred when hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?

There are few greater honors in Jewish life than being assigned to carry the Ark on one’s shoulders, and being constantly connected to the word of G-d. But this was not enough for Korach, who obviously had an idealized fantasy of what the role of leadership entailed. He saw only the glory of leadership, but failed to comprehend its burdens and responsibilities, and the impact it would have on his personal life. “I come from nobility,” says Korach. “My father was the second oldest son of Levi. I deserve to be treated as an elite member of the tribe.”

Korach was also envious of the fact that he was not chosen to be the High Priest. He felt that as a Levite, and a firstborn himself, he should have been accorded much greater stature. Envy, of course, is a double-edged sword. Envy can lead to great personal and spiritual growth when one is envious of another person’s good characteristics or scholarship. On the other hand, obsessive envy is more than just desiring what another person has. It is, very often, a desire that others should have nothing. If I can’t have it, then no one should.

Consequently, Korach’s strategy in mobilizing the 250 Reubenites, who were themselves firstborn, was to show Moses and Aaron that he too had significant leadership abilities. He wanted to demonstrate to the people of Israel that he could also bring Holy fire down from Heaven. And what an incredible display of spirituality it would be! Instead of only one High Priest igniting a single fire-pan, 250 officiants would offer incense up to G-d. “We are far more worthy than the priests,” was Korach’s message. “Look how much more we can accomplish for the people.” Korach not only wanted to show how great he and his followers were, but he was determined to show how inadequate the others were.

Finally, it was also Korach’s obsession with honor that did him in. Korach was a brilliant man and great Torah scholar, but he was unable to distinguish between intellectualism and spirituality. When he confronted Moses with the men dressed in the tallitot of pure blue, he presented himself as a much greater intellect than the son of Amram. “In fact, I am a greater scholar, because my position is purely logical,” as if to imply that he had a higher IQ, possessed more degrees, and went to better universities. To Korach, it was the public glory and the honorific titles that decided who was right and who was wrong. Korach could not fathom that spiritual logic could somehow trump intellectual reasoning. Korach could not appreciate that the intellect of the spirit, the intellect of emotion, could be, at times, more compelling than rational intellect.

While it is true that all the qualities mentioned by Rav Elazar Ha’Kapar, jealousy, lust and honor, could serve as forces for good, Korach used his Divine endowments to undermine Moses, to undermine the people, to undermine the Torah and to undermine G-d. And for that, he was taken out of the world.

May you be blessed.