A Passage without a Clear Meaning
Rebbe Yaacov of Husiatyn begins his commentary on the Torah portion of Korach with the following:
When we study the story of the dispute with Korach and his followers, we stand full of wonder and without any understanding.
This introduction emphasizes the great distance and the disgust that the rabbi felt from any hint of dispute, pride, or dishonesty. The difficulty is even worse because those who argued with Moshe were great men of the generation and not worthless people:
However, a great moral lesson and a warning appear in this story, in that at a time of such great Divine revelation it was possible for the leaders of the nation to be led astray by the lust for power and the desire for honor together with their evil character. These were the princes of the community, well-known leaders, men with a reputation. Yet they still dared to cry out against Moshe, the father of all prophets. So much more so must we be wary of such matters, at a time when the face of G-d is hidden from us.
The Rebbe notes some important lessons. The sin of Korach and his followers stemmed from the evil trait of lusting for power and the pursuit of honor. In the mind of the usual religious person, sins tend to be in the realm of religious activity: Shabbat desecration, sexual aberrations, kashrut, and so on. A lust for political power? This is something that is so very hard to detect. Who can tell if what motivates a public figure is a lust for power or a true desire to serve the people? Who can tell when a rabbi or a mayor is pursuing honor or if he truly wants to serve a holy nation? Does the Rebbe of today (or in the distant past) who rides in a very expensive car costing hundreds of thousands of dollars do so because he wants to glorify the Torah or because he enjoys his own honor? Does a bit of the love of power creep into the heart of an important rabbi when he sees thousands of people lining up to meet him?
The Rebbe answers all of these questions at the same time. If at the time when the Shechina was openly revealed to the people the people who saw the glory of G-d on Mount Sinai and the miracles Moshe performed could still err in this way, how much more so are we liable to fall into such a trap in our times?
Looking through Korach’s Eyes
How then does a man at such a high spiritual level make such a disastrous mistake about such a simple matter, and start a dispute with Moshe?
The Rebbe of Husiatyn explains that Korach was inflicted with evil traits that interfered with his thinking. That is, a person may well be wise and full of understanding, but on the other hand he might misinterpret what he understands because of his evil traits.
And that is what Rashi wrote, “What happened to Korach, who was so smart? The answer is that his eyes misled him (where the eye is a symbol of good or bad traits).” Korach’s eye was not satisfied with what it had, rather it was full of lust and evil desires, and it deceived him. That is, due to his pride and his burning desire to be a leader, his eyes lost their ability to see clearly and his heart lost its wisdom, his thinking was damaged, and it goes without saying that this impaired his ability to achieve spiritual greatness.
Ever since we have seen the great optical illusions made by Maurits Cornelis Escher, we can better understand that such illusions can be created in a way that seems to contradict what we see with our own eyes. Korach saw with his own eyes, but because he looked through the prism of evil traits he did not see correctly. What did he see?
The demands of Korach and his followers and their lust for leadership power made them blind and confused their minds, so that they thought that Moshe was the same as they were. And that is why they said, “This is too much for you, for the entire community is holy… Why should you rise up above the community of G-d?” [Bamidbar 16:3]. And from the words of Moshe, “I did not take one donkey from them” [16:15], we see that in their evil they suspected that he received something from the people but had no influence on them. And they suspected him not only in physical matters but also in spiritual matters – that he only received from others and gave nothing in return.
Some people measure those around them only according to their own traits. One who pursues wealth is convinced that no person alive will ever do anything if not for a lust for wealth. One who has sexual lusts is sure that everybody else sins in this matter. And this is also true of Korach, who lusted for power, control, and honor, and therefore he was confident that such lusts and desires were the basis for Moshe’s political power. And therefore it was natural for Korach and his followers to suspect that Moshe was involved in sexual sins. However, their mistake was that Moshe was in a class of his own, and we must never judge another person based on our own faults. That is how Korach sinned, and this remains a challenge for us to this very day.