The story of Parshas Korach is one of machlokes (argumentativeness). The Shvilei Pinchas points out that machlokes is the mother of all tragedies. Therefore, we should pursue Shalom (peace) like Moshe Rabbenu did when he called for Dasan and Aviram, two of his opponents, to conciliate them with peace (Parshas Korach, 16:12, Rashi, ibid based on Tanchuma, 10).
In fact, Rashi opens this week’s parsha with the statement, “This section is well expounded upon” (16:1). What does Rashi mean by that? Isn’t every section of the Torah explained well?
Rabbi Yoseph Teomom (1727-1792, Galicia), in his sefer Teivas Gomeh, suggests what Rashi is teaching us with these words. In Mishlei, (15:23), it says, “How good is a word in its time.” This verse means to say that it is a good practice to expound on Torah laws that are relevant to the times that we live in.
For example, it is a good practice to learn about the laws of Passover during the Pesach season. It is also a good practice to engage in the laws of Sukkos during the Sukkos season.
However, when it comes to machlokes, it is always a good time to learn about its devastating effects because there is no time where there is no machlokes. In other words, machlokes is constantly going on in every community, in every shul, in every home, and in every business district.
This is what Rashi meant to say when he wrote, “This section is well expounded upon.” Meaning, this section of the Torah, which deals with the subject of machlokes, is a good topic to expound upon at all times. It is always a good time to speak about machlokes because we could all use another dose of chizuk to improve ourselves in this area.
In today’s day and age, many people search for segulos (charms) in order to be saved from tragedies and in order to succeed in life. However, the greatest segula is Shalom, as it says, “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Seek peace and pursue it.” (Tehillim, 34:13 & 15). This means to say that a person who desires a life in which every day is filled with good, should seek out peace because Shalom will bring this to such a person.
So, let us talk a little bit more about peace by introducing the following sources.
Our parsha opens with the pasuk, “And Korach the son of Yitzhar, son of Kehas, son of Levi, separated himself with Dasan and Aviram – the sons of Eliyav – and On the son of Peles, the offspring of Reuven” (Parshas Korach, 16:1).
Rashi (ibid) cites the Tanchuma (#4) who points out that this verse traced Korach’s ancestry all the way back to Levi, but it did not go back one more generation to say, “The son of Ya’akov.” The reason why Ya’akov’s name was omitted from this genealogy was because Ya’akov requested from Hashem that his name not be mentioned in connection with the machlokes of Korach. Ya’akov made this request when he said, concerning Levi, “With their congregation do not join my honor.” (Parshas Vayechi, 49:6).
This brings us to our first question. The Jewish people have sinned in many different ways over the ages. Yet, we never find that Ya’akov requested from God not to be mentioned in association with those other crimes. Ya’akov never said, “Do not mention my name in conjunction with the sin of the Golden Calf.” Ya’akov never said, “Do not mention my name together with the Sin of the Spies.”
It was only with respect to the sin of Korach, which was a sin about machlokes, that Ya’akov begged Hashem, “Please, do not mention my name together with them.” Why was this sin different from all of the other sins in that only regarding the sin of machlokes did Ya’akov ask Hashem to delete his name?
In the continuation of our story, Moshe asks Hashem to take Korach and his followers out by having the earth open its mouth and swallow them alive (Parshas Korach, 16:30). This also seems strange. Of all ways to take a leave of absence from this world, why would Moshe have Korach and his congregation exit stage left by being swallowed in the ground?
Along these lines, it is worth pointing out that there are pesukim in this week’s parsha which indicate that the earth indeed has a mouth. For instance, Moshe asks Hashem, “And the earth should open its mouth” (Parshas Korach, 16:30). Then it says, “And the earth opened its mouth” (Parshas Korach, 16:32).
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (chap. 5, “Ba’asara Ma’amaros”, Mishna 6 or 8, depending on which version of Pirkei Avos you are looking at) says that there were ten things that Hashem created on the first Friday of creation, late in the afternoon, between sundown and three stars appearing. For our purposes, we are only going to mention the first item on the list. That is, the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach. (The Mishna goes on to list the other nine items. But then, according so some opinions, there were another four items that Hashem created at that time, bringing the sum total of items to fourteen).
Now, one function of a mouth is to eat. The earth’s mouth did just that when it ate Korach and his supporters for breakfast. Another function of a mouth is to talk. Assuming that the earth’s mouth did talk at that time, what did it say?
In order to address these questions, let us share a teaching from the Chasam Sofer who pinpoints the cause of Korach’s argumentativeness.
The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839, Frankfurt; Parshas Korach) says, “I am in shock that the righteous people from the Tribe of Levi who lived in the wilderness named one of their sons Korach, which is actually the name of one of the descendants of Eisav who became a chief.”
In Parshas Vayishlach (36:15-16), it lists the children of Eisav’s who descended from Elifaz, who was Eisav’s first-born. These children of Eisav became chiefs. Amongst the list of names of the chiefs of Eisav, it says, “Chief Korach.”
This Chief Korach was a wicked person, and the Gemara in Yoma (chap. 3, “Amar Lahem Hamemunah”, pg. 38b) cites Rebbi Elazar who said that we do not name our children after wicked people. This is based on the verse which says, “And the name of the wicked will rot” (Mishlei, 10:7). If you want to give a person a rotten life, just name him after a wicked person. This is precisely what happened to the Korach in this week’s parsha. Since he was given the name of a wicked person, his life literally went down the drain.
The Chasam Sofer goes on to say that this is why the verse traces Korach’s ancestry three generations back. Those three generations were Yitzhar, Kehas, and Levi. The reason for this is because those three people were all tzaddikim, and it says in Koheles (4:12), “A three-ply cord is not easily severed.” Yet, look how fast this three-ply cord of tzaddikim was severed all because of the fact that they named one of their boys Korach, which was once the name of a rasha (wicked person).
The Chasam Sofer adds that this is the meaning of the opening words of this week’s parsha, “Vayikach Korach” (and Korach took; 16:1). Virtually everybody asks, “What did he take?” Many answers have been offered to address this question. However, the Chasam Sofer says that Korach took the compounded greatness of his predecessors (Yitzhar, Kehas, and Levi) and threw it away, all because of the fact that he was given the name of a rasha. Look how fast a three-ply cord can be severed when the name of a rasha comes into a family.
There is a support to this Chasam Sofer with another Chasam Sofer which will show us how the name Korach caused him to engage in machlokes.
In Tehillim (120:6) it says, “Long has my soul dwelt with those who hate peace.” The Midrash Shocher Tov (ibid) asks, “Are there really people who hate peace?” We could probably point to certain groups today who fit this bill. But the Midrash answers this question with a resounding, “Yes!”
The Midrash asks, “Who could such a person be?” The Midrash answers, “Eisav.” The Midrash continues, “It says, ‘And I will provide peace in the Land’ (Parshas Bechukosai, 26:6). When will there finally be peace in the Land of Eretz Yisrael? When we fulfil the end of that very verse which says, ‘When I will cause the wild beasts to be withdrawn from the Land.’”
We are not talking about wild beasts such as lions, tigers, and bears. Rather, we are talking about people who behave like wild animals. The Midrash continues, “There is no greater wild beast other than the swine (pig; boar), as it says, ‘The pig of the forest ravages it’ (Tehillim, 80:14). This refers to Eisav.”
The Chasam Sofer, the Ba’al Haturim (Parshas Toldos, 25:25), and the Megaleh Amukos (Parshas Pinchas) add that this idea about Eisav hating peace is hinted to in the name “Eisav.” The name “Eisav” has the gematria (numerical value) of 376, which is the same gematria as the word, “Shalom,” which teaches us that Eisav is an opponent of Shalom. Or you could say that Eisav has a twisted version of Shalom. Maybe they spell “peace” differently than you and me. Most of us spell the English translation of Shalom with the letters “peace.” But Eisav spells it with the letters, “piece.”
The Shvilei Pinchas says that all of this supports the notion that the name “Korach” caused him to engage in machlokes. Since Korach possessed the name of one of Eisav’s chiefs, he [Korach] inherited the characteristic of machlokes which was passed down to him in his spiritual DNA.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this explains why Korach picked on Aharon by trying to usurp the position of High Priest from him. It is because Aharon Hakohein was one who “loved peace, pursued peace, loved people, and brought them back to Torah.” (Pirkei Avos, chap. 1, “Moshe Kibel”, Mishna 12; Hillel). That was why everybody cried when Aharon died. It was because everybody was affected by Aharon’s love (Rashi, Parshas Chukas, 20:29).
So, Korach fought specifically with Aharon because Korach was all about machlokes, whereas Aharon was all about peace. Korach inherited a hatred for peace on account of his name. Therefore, Korach, who stood for machlokes, became the antagonist of Aharon because he was the paradigm example of peace.
Let us talk a little bit more about the name Korach and show how it represents argumentativeness.
The Gemara in Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 109b) quotes Reish Lakish who said that the name Korach is a disgraceful name. This is because the name “Korach” is linguistically related to the word “korcha,” which means, “baldness.”
After reading such a passage, we must ask ourselves, “What is so disgraceful about baldness?” There are many fine Talmidei Chachamim who are bald. What is so bad about baldness? One answer to this question will be understood in light of the next Talmudic passage.
In Meseches Baba Basra (chap. 1, “Hashutfin”, pg. 16a) it cites Rabba [some say Rava] who said that Iyov (Job) was guilty of blaspheme by mentioning a storm, and he [Iyov] was answered with the mention of a storm. Where do we find that Iyov was guilty of blaspheme by mentioning a storm? It is found in the pasuk, “He shattered me in a storm” (Iyov, 9:17). What did Iyov mean when he said those words? The Gemara explains.
Iyov said to God, “Master of the Universe, maybe a storm passed before You and caused You to become confused between “Iyov” (spelled; aleph, yud, vov, beis) and “Oyeiv” (enemy; spelled, aleph, vov, yud, beis). These two words (Iyov and Oyeiv) share the same letters. It is just that the two middle letters get switched around.
Iyov said to God, “Maybe You wanted to send all of these tortures to “Oyeiv” (enemies), but then You got caught is a storm which shook You up and left You confused. As a result, You accidentally sent these calamities to me, Iyov, instead of to Oyeiv because You mixed up the words.”
This is considered blaspheme because it suggests that Hashem is susceptible to human conditions and mistakes.
Hashem responded to Iyov by mentioning a storm. In the Book of Iyov (38:1 & 3) it says, “And God answered Iyov from the storm and said, ‘gird up your loins like a man, and I will demand of you and make you known to Me.’” The Gemara explains what it was that Hashem said to Iyov. Hashem said, “I created man with a lot of hair. Every hair nurses from its own groove or hole. No two hairs grow from the same hole, for if two hairs did grow from the same hole, it would cause a person’s eyes to become darkened.” Hashem concluded by saying, “Between one hair and the other I do not get confused, between “Iyov” and Oyeiv” I did get confused?!”
The Shvilei Pinchas says that we learn a tremendous lesson from this Gemara. That is, hair on a person’s head carries with it a hint about peace that people are supposed to learn from. You see, the reason why people argue with each other is because of jealousy, lustful passions, and honor. When you boil it down, the primary reason for strife between people is the thought that, “so and so took something away from me.”
When people start to think, “That person’s spouse, home, car, children, money, etc. is really mine and he took that away from me,” they start to fight with each other.
But hair carries the opposite message. Hair teaches us that although they [hair] live in a very close proximity to each other, nevertheless, not one hair takes away anything from another hair. Each hair has its own source of livelihood. Each one nurses from its own hole. Each one has its own territory. Each one gets what it is supposed to get. No hair deprives another other hair from anything.
This is why hair is so beautiful. The beauty of hair is that they all get along with each other because each one knows that nobody is robbing him of what he thinks is rightfully his.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this is precisely why the descendants of Eisav named one of their boys Korach. It is because Korach is from the word korcha (baldness). Since Eisav and his family hated peace, they did not like hair and its message of harmony. Eisav and his family would sooner shave all of the hair off of their heads rather than be reminded of the message of peace that hair carries. This was the meaning behind the name Korach that the children of Eisav gave to one of their sons.
Now we can understand why Reish Lakish said that Korach is a disgraceful name because it is related to the word korcha (baldness). Korcha (baldness) is disgraceful because when a person intentionally shaves the hair off of his head because he does not want to be reminded of the message of unity that hair stands for, he demonstrates that he is disinterested in living in peace and harmony with others. That type of baldness is disgraceful. (Shvilei Pinchas).
This approach will also help us understand how the wife of On ben Peles saved her husband by revealing her hair.
In Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 109b) Rav tells us that Mrs. On saved her husband’s life. She said to him, “Why are you getting involved in this debate between Moshe and Korach. If Moshe wins, you will be number two. If Korach wins, you will still be number two. There is no benefit to you by getting involved.” [Nothing like a good wife to put her husband into his place by letting him know that he is not such a hot shot].
Mrs. On’s reasoning resonated with Mr. On. So, he said to her, “Ok, but what should I do now? I already sat in counsel with Korach. I was at the parlor meeting. I already swore that I would join forces with them. How can I back out now?”
She responded, “Look, I know that Korach and his followers are all holy people. I know that they are very modest and they would never look at another woman, and they certainly would not look at the uncovered hair of another man’s wife (see Rashi ibid). Go inside because I am going to save your life.”
She gave him strong wine to drink. When he was inebriated, she put him to sleep in an inner chamber of their home. Then, she sat outside their tent and uncovered her hair. When Korach’s delegation came to collect On, they saw Mrs. On’s hair. They were so careful with modesty that they ran away. While On was snoring on his bed, the earth swallowed those that had joined Korach, thus sparing On.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that the reason why Mrs. On revealed her hair was because she was sending two messages to Korach’s people. The first message was that On decided to live up to the hair expectation. She claimed that her husband has decided to back out of this mutiny because he no longer believes that Moshe or Aharon are holding positions which really belong to somebody else. She said that On now understands that everybody gets what they deserve. As such, there is no need for machlokes.
The second message was to Korach and his followers. Mrs. On’s uncovered hair was meant to convey to them that they should move away from Korach’s philosophy of baldness (korcha) and instead, embrace the message of harmony which is buried within hair. If they were to follow the message of hair, there would no longer be a need for them to think that somebody took away what was rightfully theirs.
Now we can begin to understand why Ya’akov requested not to be mentioned specifically regarding the sin of Korach. It is because Ya’akov and Eisav were two very different types of leaders who represented two opposite approaches. Ya’akov was the leader of Shalom, whereas Eisav was the leader of machlokes.
We find that Ya’akov was a paradigm example of Shalom from his middah (characteristic) which was Tiferes (beauty). You see, Avraham’s middah was Chesed (kindness). But unbridled Chesed can lead to unhealthy places. On the other hand, Yitzchak’s middah was Gevura (discipline). But Gevura to an extreme can also become unhealthy.
Therefore, Ya’akov took the two middos of his father and grandfather and merged them into one called Tiferes. This synthesis struck a healthy balance. Therefore, by definition, Tiferes represents Shalom and achdus (unity) because it combined Chesed with Gevura. Since Tiferes was Ya’akov’s middah, it shows that he represented unity.
There is another example of Ya’akov representing achdus. Right before he died, Ya’akov called to his sons and said, “Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the End of Days” (Parshas Veyechi, 49:1). In Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Vayechi, 98:2) it quotes the Rabanan who said that in this verse Ya’akov instructed them concerning machlokes. Ya’akov said to them, “You must always gather together in unity.” Once again, we see how much Ya’akov was concerned about Shalom.
One more example of Ya’akov’s connection to peace is that there are three blessing in Birchas Kohanim (the Priestly Blessings; Parshas Naso, 6:24,25,26). The Avudraham (Rabbi Dovid Avudraham, 14th cent., Seville Spain, a disciple of the Tur) says, in his commentary on Shmoneh Esrei, that the three blessings of Birchas Kohanim correspond to the three Avos.
According to that, the third bracha corresponds to Ya’akov Avinu. The third bracha says, “And He will give you peace.” Once again, we find that Ya’akov is connected to peace.
However, Eisav hated peace. Eisav was connected to machlokes as we established above from the Medrash Shocher Tov.
Perhaps we could suggest that this was the reason why Eisav was so hairy (Parshas Toldos, 25:25). Since Eisav had a proclivity towards machlokes, Hashem made Eisav hairy because all of that hair was meant to be a message to Eisav that he must learn from the lesson of hair which is to live together in harmony.
Perhaps we could add that this was the reason why Ya’akov was smooth skinned (Parshas Toldos, 27:11). Ya’akov’s relative baldness was Hashem’s constant message to him that one of his missions in life was to seek out places of baldness [which represents machlokes because baldness is the absence of hair, and hair represents the Shalom] and engage in “hair implants” (so to speak) by sowing the message of Shalom and unity into those places.
Perhaps we could suggest that this is the reason why Ya’akov requested from Hashem that he not be mentioned specifically in connection with the sin of machlokes in the Korach story. It is because this sin of machlokes went against the essence of Ya’akov (who represented Shalom). Therefore, of all sins, he did not want to have anything to do with this sin of argumentativeness.
This approach also explains why Moshe said that Aharon and Korach must use the Avoda of the Ketores (incense) in their showdown as the acid test to determine who would be the chosen one of God (Parshas Korach, 16:5,6, and 8). It is because of what the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572, Cracow, Poland) says in his Toras Haolah (vol. 2, chap. 36).
The Rema says that the Ketores represented unity because it contained the Levona (frankincense) spice which had a fragrant scent. The Levona was often used to describe tzaddikim. But the Ketores also consisted of the Chelbena (galbanum) spice which has a foul stench. The Chelbena was often used to describe reshaim.
Yet, all spices, from the frankincense (tzaddikim) to the galbanum (reshaim), and every different type of spice in between, come together to serve Hashem. As such, the Avodas Haketores represented acceptance and unity.
In fact, the Gemara in Kerisus (chap. 1, “Shloshim Vasheish”, pg. 6b) tells us that any Jewish public fast day that does not include Jewish transgressors, is not considered to be a valid Jewish public fast day, for the spices of the Ketores included the galbanum (reshaim) amongst the other good smelling spices. If Jews could not open their arms, their homes, and their hearts for people who are very different from them, they would not be living up to the Ketores expectation.
Therefore, it was davka the Ketores which stood for Shalom that would accept the man of Shalom (Aharon), and it was davka the Ketores which abhorred machlokes that would reject the man of machlokes (Korach). That was why Moshe chose the Avodas Haketores to sift out the true man of peace. (Shvilei Pinchas).
At this point we are ready to answer the question regarding why Moshe chose to have Korach eliminated by having him swallowed by the earth. It is because Hashem created man from the earth (Parshas Bereishis, 2:7) for a specific reason. That reason is that the earth is made up of thousand and millions of tiny grains of dirt or sand. Each grain on its own is worth nothing. But when they join together, they become the blanket which covers our planet. Only when the grains of earth unite are we able to walk or travel from one place to the other.
Moreover, when the various grains of dirt come together, we can plant in them and thereby ensure our survival. Hashem wanted man to learn from the grains of the earth [from which he came]. The lesson that Hashem wanted us to learn from the earth is that just like the grains of earth come together and work as a team, so too should man come together with his fellow and work together as a team. Only united will we be a force to reckon with, and only together will we be successful.
In fact, Hashem gave the blessing of, “Your offspring will be as the dust of the earth” (Parshas Vayeitzei, 28:14) to Ya’akov Avinu, not only so that his seed would be numerous, but also in order that his offspring would be united as the grains of the earth are. This bracha was given specifically to Ya’akov Avinu because it was Ya’akov who symbolically represented Shalom.
Therefore, Moshe specifically requested that Korach and his followers should meet their end by being swallowed in the ground. This is because Moshe wanted them to learn from the grains of the earth about the importance of Shalom that they stand for (Shvilei Pinchas). You never know, maybe at the last moment they would do teshuva and be saved, just like Korach’s children were (Parshas Pinchas, 26:11; Meseches Sanhedrin, chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 110a).
This could also explain what the mouth of the earth said to them on their way down. Perhaps the earth said, “Look at us and learn to live in peace as we do.” Even if the earth did not actually say those words, this was certainly one of the messages it tried to convey. (Shvilei Pinchas).
One practical application that we could take away from this piece is to try and improve on Shalom. This includes prevention. Meaning, let us try to think before we speak so that we do not wind-up saying something accidentally which could hurt another person. Let us also try to think before we do so that we do not wind-up hurting someone else accidentally.
But even if we have already hurt another, let us try to sincerely apologize to him. It can be hard and embarrassing to say, “I’m sorry,” but it is very effective.
Additionally, let us give people the benefit of the doubt. Let us also try to see that positive spark which resides in other.
Let us also remember that we are all connected as one family. We are all God’s children, and Hashem will treat us in the same way that we treat others.
So, may we all be blessed to implant the hair message into our heads and hearts a little bit deeper, reminding us that nobody can take away what God has chosen to give us, and remember that we cannot deprive another of what God deemed to be his, so that we don’t wind-up pulling the hair out of our heads when we witness other people’s successes, for that would create a bald society; and may we be blessed to live like Aharon Hakohein by loving peace and by pursuing peace during all of the stormy days that we walk upon this earth, until the day that it opens its mouth – the grave – when we will all return to the place from where we were created, when we will join our father, Ya’akov Avinu.