The Sound of Silence

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Korach
The Sound of Silence


Our parsha deals with a fascinating story about a rebellion which took place against Moshe and Aharon which was led by Korach. Korach wanted to usurp Moshe and Aharon of their authority. Moshe served as the Jewish people's king, while Aharon was their High Priest. Korach wanted those positions for himself. We find sources that tell us that this was not just another simple case of jealousy, but that something happened which agitated Korach, motivating him to take action.

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Korach, #1) says that when Moshe appointed Elitzaphan to be the leader of the Kohathite family (the family of Kehas), Korach became enraged. A quick look at Korach's family tree will shed some light as to why he was so aggravated.

Ya'akov Avinu had a son named Levi. Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. Today, we will focus on Kehas. Kehas had four sons. In chronological order of birth, their names were: Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uziel (Parshas Vaeira, 6:18). Amram, the oldest brother, fathered Moshe and Aharon. Therefore, it makes sense that Moshe and Aharon held the two highest positions of king and High Priest. After all, they came from Kehas's first born son.

Kehas's second son was Yitzhar. Yitzhar fathered Korach. This means that Moshe and Korach were first cousins. One would have thought that when they were seeking a candidate to hold the next highest-ranking position, which was the leader/prince of the Kohathite family, Korach would have been selected. After all, Korach came from Kehas's second born son who was next in line.

However, instead of Moshe appointing Korach to lead the Kohathite family, Moshe appointed a different cousin, Elitzaphan. Elitzaphan came from Kehas's youngest son, Uziel, (Parshas Bamidbar, 3:30). This was one of the incidents that infuriated Korach, propelling him to rebel.

One difficulty with this Midrash is that if Korach was jealous of his younger cousin's appointment over the Kohathite family, he should have just lodged a complaint that he (Korach) be given that position. How did Korach have the audacity to claim the positions of sovereign and High Priest which rightfully belonged to Korach's older cousins, Moshe and Aharon? Apparently, those two positions were never meant to be Korach's to begin with.

Another Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, Parshas Korach, 18:16; Rebbi Levi) explains where Korach was coming from. Korach demanded that he hold the two highest positions because of the fact that his (Korach's) father's name was Yitzhar. Yitzhar is not just a name; it is also a word that means oil (Parshas Eikev, 7:13). Korach took this to mean that he was connected to oil. When one mixes any other liquid with oil, oil floats to the top. Korach reasoned that this property applied to him as well. Korach felt that when you compare anybody to him, Korach would come out on top. Therefore, Korach demanded the top positions.

Perhaps we could suggest that it was for this reason that Korach assembled specifically two hundred and fifty men to support him (Parshas Korach, 16:2). As we mentioned, Korach thought that he deserved to be the High Priest. One of the most coveted jobs of the High Priest is the lighting of the Menorah. Therefore, it was fitting to gather specifically two hundred and fifty men campaigning on Korach's ticket, because when you want to write the number two hundred and fifty using the numerical value of Hebrew letters, you would write the letters reish (200) and nun (50). When these two letters are reversed, they spell the word "ner" (candle), hinting at the honor of lighting the candles of the Menorah.

Moreover, a High Priest is inaugurated by being anointed with oil. Since Korach came from Yitzhar (oil), he thought that he should be anointed with the oil for that position. A king is also inaugurated by being anointed with oil. Since Korach came from Yitzhar (oil), he felt that he should be anointed with oil for that position also.

Therefore, Korach was not satisfied with just becoming the leader of the Kohathite family, but rather insisted that he become the king and the High Priest.

One could argue against Korach that Moshe and Aharon, who held the two highest positions, came from Amram who was Kehas's oldest son. As such, Moshe and Aharon deserved the highest positions. Korach, however, came from Yitzhar, who was Kehas's second born son. Therefore, Korach was only entitled to the next position which was leader of the Kohathite family.

This line of reasoning never bothered Korach, because we find that second born sons sometimes receive higher positions than first-born sons. One example of this was Levi's three sons, Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. Although Gershon was the first born, nevertheless, Kehas, the second born son, was given the privilege of carrying the Holy Ark from place to place. Since the Holy Ark was the holiest vessel, Kehas received the highest position. Gershon only carried the curtains and tachash coverings of the Sanctuary, which was a secondary position.

Korach reasoned that although he was from Yitzhar, the second born, in no way did that impede on his aspiration to receive the highest positions held by Moshe and Aharon, who came from Amram, the first born of Kehas.

Historically, second born sons have often held higher ranking positions than first born sons. Some examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, Ya'akov and Eisav, and Ephraim and Menasheh.

This does not mean that a first-born son cannot hold the highest position. After all, Korach was the first-born son of Yitzhar. It just means that coming from a second born son does not prevent one from holding the highest position.

However, a question remains. Moshe and Aharon were already anointed with the actual anointing oil. How did Korach think that his coming from a father named oil could trump that? Moreover, how could Korach depend so heavily on his father's name? It's just a name!

The Maharzu (commentary on Midrash Rabba, Rabbi Zev Volf Einhorn, Horodna, d. 1862) addresses this by saying that Korach understood that names are not random. Especially back then when personalities like Levi and Kehas possessed Divine inspiration. Righteous people like that named their children names that fit their destinies. So, if Kehas called his second son Yitzhar, it must have been because Kehas foresaw prophetically that Yitzhar's children were destined to be anointed with oil and hold the highest positions. This is what Korach depended on.

Korach's logic seems sound. However, this leads us to another question. Why did Hashem test Korach in this way? Why did God tell Moshe to skip over Korach and appoint Elitzaphan as the prince of the Kohathite family? This will only agitate Korach, moving him to lead a rebellion. Why not just give Korach what he wants? Let Korach be the leader of the Kohathite family. This could have prevented the entire episode.

Let us share a basic rule about the two ways of serving God. This will help clarify the answers to all these questions.

The Zohar (Parshas Shmini, pg. 39a) and the Arizal (Parshas Nitzvim, Likkutei Torah) say that there are two basic ways of serving God. They are: 1) privately and 2) publicly. Both approaches have an advantage. When we serve God privately, we can be certain that it is done altruistically, because nobody is watching. We are not looking for prestige and we are not fishing for compliments. However, serving God publicly also has benefits. When we serve God publicly, other people can see us. As such, we serve as a role model for them to follow. It is important that our children see us praying, learning, and doing acts of kindness. We set an example for them to follow. It's not just our children, but anybody and everybody can learn from watching our serving God publicly.

Now, there are two liquids which serve as paradigm examples of these two approaches. They are: 1) oil and 2) wine. Let us speak about one at a time.

Wine represents serving God publicly. This is because the Gemarah (Eiruvin, chap. 6, "Hadar", pg. 65a) says that when one drinks wine he starts to reveal his secrets to others. This shows us that wine destroys privacy. Therefore, wine is connected to the public domain.

Additionally, the Talmud (Berachos, chap. 6, "Keitzad Mevarchin", pg. 35a, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeini in the name of Rebbi Yonasan) says that Levites did not sing their songs during the time when offerings were brought unless there were also wine libations on the Altar. Singing is loud and everyone can hear. Once again, we see that wine is connected to the public arena.

Finally, when you pour wine from one vessel to another, it makes a sound that people can hear. This demonstrates the essence of wine in that it represents the public service of God.

By contrast, when one pours oil from one vessel to another, it makes no sound. This exhibits oil's essence. Oil is connected to that which is quiet. Additionally, we do not find that the consumption of oil brings a person to reveal his secrets. We also do not find that oil causes people to sing out loud. Therefore, we can conclude that oil represents serving God in privacy.

Now, Kohanim and Leviim represent these two approaches of serving God.

A Kohen, like oil, is meant to serve God privately. We can see this from the fact that some of the holiest services that a Kohen Gadol performs are done in the Kodesh area or in the Kodesh Hakadashim. Nobody else is present in those places when the Kohen Gadol officiates there. This Kohen's service takes place in the private sector.

This is also evident from a kohen being appointed over the offerings. The primary aspect of the offerings is the thoughts that the Kohen puts into them. Proof of this is that prayer was instituted as a substitute of the offerings (Berachos, chap. 4, "Tefilas Hashachar", pg. 26b, Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi), and prayer is termed an "Avoda Shebilev" (service of the heart; Ta'anis, chap. 1, "M'eimasai", pg. 2a; Eikev, 11:13).

As a matter of fact, when we reach the zenith of prayer, we whisper. This demonstrates that prayer is a very private matter, between ourselves and Hashem. If prayer is a substitute for the offerings, they must share a commonality. Therefore, offerings too are mostly about the intentions. This is something that nobody else can see. Thus, the Kohen who is in charge of overseeing the offerings is about serving God privately.

This explains why Aharon, the High Priest, was anointed with oil (Parshas Tzav, 8:12; Tehillim, 133:2). It demonstrates that his approach in serving God was like oil meaning to be done quietly.

A Levi, on the other hand, is connected to wine. After all, the Levi's job is to sing God's praises with musical instruments which make quite a sound. This is a very public display of service to God. Levites only burst forth with song when wine is poured over the Altar. This demonstrates that a Levites' approach to serving God must be public.

This explains why God cautioned Aharon and his sons against drinking wine when they do the service in the Sanctuary or in the Temple (Parshas Shmini, 10:9). It is because they should not "mix their drinks." A kohen is supposed to be like oil, not like wine.

Perhaps we could suggest that this is why two of Aharon's sons died. When Nadav and Avihu entered the Holy of Holies after drinking wine, a fire came out of Heaven and consumed them (Parshas Shmini, 10:1-2; Vayikra Rabba, Parshas Shmini, 12:1, Rebbi Yishmael). The severity of their punishment was because they crossed a line. They were supposed to be like oil, and yet they tasted from the wine. This was a paradigm shift from how Hashem wanted them to serve Him. This trespassing cost them their lives.

However, after they died, what was Aharon's reaction? The answer is nothing! Aharon did not say a word (Parshas Shmini, 10:3). Imagine, two of his sons just died. How tragic! The family will be forever crushed! The two boys whose diapers he changed, the two boys who sat on Aharon's lap as they sang Shabbos songs, and the two boys whom he taught Torah and raised to be outstanding Torah scholars, in a moment they were gone. An average person would have been screaming, to say the very least. Aharon? Silence! The Imrei Noam (Parshas Achrei Mos, #4, Rabbi Meor Horowitz, the Dzikover Rebbe, b.1819, d.1877, Poland) says that this display of self-control, keeping it inside, proved to everybody that there was no better man for the job of Kohen Gadol than Aharon.

As a reward for not complaining, Hashem spoke directly with Aharon, revealing to him the teachings about a Kohen's prohibition from drinking wine (Parshas Shmini, 10:3; Rashi citing Vayikra Rabba, 12:2). Since Aharon kept quiet, he merited to hear about staying away from wine which leads to loudness.

Similarly, when Korach challenged Aharon's position, only Moshe responded. Aharon, however, did not say a word (Parshas Korach, 16:4; Ramban). This further supported the reason as to why Aharon was given the position of Kohen Gadol. It is because Aharon remained a private person. It was Moshe, the Levite, who did all the talking. This teaches us that there are times to speak and there are times to be silent. It all depends on the circumstances and on the people involved.

Korach kept using his father's name (Yitzhar - oil) as proof that he was entitled to have the anointing oil poured over his head. Korach thought that he should float to the top positions just like oil floats to the top. Korach thought that he should be given the job of lighting the oil filled lamps of the Menorah. Korach thought that he deserved to be the one to serve God privately.

Korach also wanted to be king. A Jewish king is anointed with oil because a king is also connected to the path of silence. This is because a king must keep the contents of top secret files confidential.

However, Korach was mistaken. We know this because he was punished. But, if so, why did Kehas name his second son Yitzhar? That name implied that Yitzhar, and his sons, deserved the positions represented by oil. How misleading was that?

One answer to this will become clear after exploring the true identities of Moshe and Korach.

The Arizal (Sha'ar Hapesukim; Sefer Halikkutim) says that Moshe was a reincarnation of Hevel (Able), while Korach was a reincarnation of Kayin (Cain). Just as Kayin was jealous of Hevel, so was Korach jealous of Moshe. Kayin was jealous of Hevel because God accepted only Hevel's offering, and not Kayin's (Parshas Bereishis, 4:4-5). This meant that Hevel ranked higher than Kayin. So, just as Kayin was jealous of Hevel's higher rank, so was Korach, alias Kayin, jealous of the higher rank of Moshe, alias Hevel. Boy, does history repeat itself!

Furthermore, just as Kayin caused the earth to swallow Hevel's blood, so did Moshe, alias Hevel, cause the earth to swallow the blood of Korach, alias Kayin. This was a punishment measure for measure. What goes around comes around!

This is precisely why God commanded Moshe to appoint Elitzaphan over the Kohathite family, skipping over Korach. This was meant to provide Korach, alias Kayin, with an opportunity of rectifying his old sin of jealousy.

This also explains why Kehas named his second son Yitzhar. Kehas did have Divine inspiration. Kehas knew that his grandson, Korach, was going to be a reincarnation of Kayin. Kehas new that Korach was going to be tested again. Therefore, Kehas named his second son Yitzhar, conveying a message to Korach that although Korach is a Levi, nevertheless, in this instance, he needs to be as silent as oil. Meaning, when Korach hears about Elitzaphan's appointment, he should just keep his mouth closed and not say a word. That will be Korach's tikkun (fixing).

This also explains Moshe's unusual request that Korach be swallowed by the earth opening its mouth (Parshas Korach, 16:30). You see, Moshe was in doubt whether Hashem had created a mouth for the earth or not (Rashi Korach, 16:30, citing Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 110a). We can see this from Moshe's words when he said, "But if Briah Yivra Hashem" (If God will create a phenomenon, etc.) The double lingo, "Briah Yivra" means the following. Moshe said, "If Briah," meaning, if Hashem had already created such a mouth for the earth, fine. But, if Hashem did not create a mouth for the earth, then, "Yivra'" meaning, let Hashem create one now.

The Alshich is troubled by Moshe's doubt. It is an explicit Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:6) which says that Hashem created a mouth for the earth during twilight of the first erev Shabbos, and we believe that Moshe received both the Written and Oral Law from God at Sinai. This means that Hashem already taught Moshe the Oral tradition which includes information about the earth's mouth. Why was Moshe in doubt?

The Tosafos Yom Tom (Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, b. Germany 1579, d. Poland 1654) answers this question by saying that, of course Moshe knew about the earth's mouth that Hashem created. Moshe was just in doubt if Hashem created the earth's mouth only to swallow Korach, or, did Hashem create the earth's mouth to also report what was happening to Korach and his people as they were falling to the core of the planet.

Moshe said that if Hashem intended that the earth swallow and speak, fine. But, if Hashem only intended that the earth swallow, then, I (Moshe) decree that the earth should talk as well. The truth is that Hashem only intended that the earth swallow. But, since Moshe decreed that it should talk, it did, because Hashem fulfills the decrees of tzaddikim (Sota, chap. 1, "Hamekaneh", pg. 12a).

This explains why the verse says, "And all of Israel that was around them (around Korach and his followers), fled at their voices" (Parshas Korach, 16:34). What voices were the people running away from? The simple approach is that when Korach and his followers were falling into the pit, they were screaming. It's a frightening experience to hear hundreds of people screaming. Naturally, everybody else ran away.

However, on a deeper level, the people were running away from a different voice. When the people heard the earth's voice, reporting to them play by play what was happening to Korach, they freaked out and ran away.

Now, according to this approach of the Tosafos Yom Tov, why wasn't Moshe satisfied with Hashem's creation of an earth's mouth intended to swallow? Why did Moshe insist that the earth speak as well?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that Moshe wanted the earth to speak to show the people that, just like the earth's speaking is abnormal, so too was Korach's speaking. It was abnormal for him to have spoken out against Moshe, Aharon, and God Himself. Korach should have just kept his mouth shut, like oil!

Korach learned his lesson. This is why Korach calls out from the pit of purgatory, "Moshe and his Torah are true" (Bava Basra, chap. 5, "Hamocher Es Hasefina", pg. 74a). Korach began using his mouth for the good. One day, Korach will emerge as a tzaddik. The Arizal says that this is hinted to in the words, "Tzaddik Katamar Yifrach" (a righteous man will flourish like a date palm; Tehillim, 92:13). The last letter of each word spells "Korach." The reason why Korach's name is hinted to by the ending letters is to teach us that in the End of Days, Korach will be a tzaddik once again, as the verse describes. One day, Korach will return to his position as a Levite and continue using his mouth for the good by singing praises to Hashem.

We learn from all of this about the importance of knowing when to speak and when to keep the mouth shut. Perhaps we could suggest an exercise that will help us even more in this area.

Let us choose one prayer a day to sing out loud, like a Livite. Another example could be speaking out when we witness a blatant injustice or speaking out when we hear people disgrace our tzaddikim.

On the other hand, it is also important to learn when to be quiet. We can train ourselves in this area too. For example, if things happen (or don't happen) which aggravate us, let's try to keep our mouths shut at least once and not complain.

I do not mean that we should not stand up for ourselves. I do not mean that we should not defend ourselves. I do not mean that we should be taken advantage of. What I do mean is that there are times when complaining does not help anyway. Let us use one of those times to just be silent, bite the bullet, and accept that which God has dished out to us.

I'm certain that some of us may have witnessed some scenario and we wanted to respond by saying something, but, for whatever reason, we remained silent. Then, more information became known to us and we probably said to ourselves, "Thank God I didn't open my big fat mouth!" True gladness will come to those who train themselves in this way (see Mishlei, 27:9).

So, may we all be blessed to master the art of silence, accepting Hashem's plan for us, and thus fix all of our previous lives in this gilgul (incarnation), in order that we deserve to witness the reinstitution of the kehunah (priesthood) who will be anointed with oil, and may we also live to witness the return of the Leviim who will use wine properly to sing praises to Hashem, which will inspire the very earth itself to open its mouth and burst forth with hallel and hoda'ah (praises and thanks) to Hashem.