The sedras of Shelach and Korach, read in the Torah last week and this week, are pretty much back-to-back unmitigated disasters for the Jewish people. Last week found Bnei Yisrael poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, after some minor delays described at the end of Beha’aloscha. Bnei Yisrael sent tribal leaders as spies to scout out the Land in preparation for conquering it. Catastrophe ensued, and as a result of the iniquity of the spies and the subsequent reaction of Bnei Yisrael, the people were destined to spend the next 39 years wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land. The parshah then concludes with seemingly unconnected random laws and events, amongst which are the law requiring one to bring grain and wine offerings together with most (animal) sacrifices, the law of giving a portion of one’s dough to the Kohen, and, later on, the halacha of tzitzis (how one is to attach them to one’s garments and thus have a constant reminder of one’s obligation to perform mitzvos). These short parshiyos in the Torah do not seem connected with one another; certainly they do not seem to be especially associated with the story of the meraglim. In fact, it seems discordant even to have them here in Chumash Bamidbar; one would think they more properly belong in Vayikra!
This week we read about the rebellion of Korach and his group against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, indeed against the very veracity of much of the Torah itself! It seems from the wording of the pesukim that Korach took advantage of a natural dissatisfaction with the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu in the wake of the decree of continued wandering in the midbar. Yet one wonders if there is an even deeper connection between the two watershed events. Also, although it seems to carry a certain degree of poetic justice, it does seem a bit curious that the Torah lists the various privileges of the Kohanim at the end of our parshah, just after Korach based his rebellion and fomented disapproval of Moshe Rabbeinu due to those very dinim, which he claimed exhibited familial favoritism!
Many meforshim talk about the sin of the meraglim, each with his own “take” on it. There is a general approach (with various permutations) that these tribal leaders of Klal Yisrael did not want the “normal” life that living in Eretz Yisrael would entail — plowing, planting, threshing, doing everything that is done in a “normal” lifestyle, being expected to do it in a holy Land, in a holy way, connecting to HaShem and being very much a part of His plan for our universe. No, no, no! We don’t want that. Maybe we don’t trust ourselves, maybe we think it is an impossible task, maybe we are repulsed by the mere thought of “entering” the mundane, temporal world. We want to stay in the midbar, with the mahn, the Clouds of Glory, the Well of Miriam which miraculously produced water, and with all of our physical needs taken care of. Who in their right mind would want to enter the “real” world, where one must eke out bread from the earth, and life is, well, earthy? We want to stay put, where our time is spent in contemplating Torah, davening, and experiencing the direct Divine presence in our midst!
A“Land”? A land that would “devour its inhabitants,” inevitably causing the people to get caught up in the physical, with no time or inclination for the spiritual?
But this is a fallacious, specious argument. HaShem wants, demands, the consecration of the materialistic world — a world that would commence as soon as they entered Eretz Yisrael. And as they entered, they were told that the spiritual korbanos, where one consecrates one’s very essence and life unto HaShem, actually require libations, rejoicing, delighting, exulting with, of all things, wine, perhaps the very symbol of spiritual turned physical (as alcohol is apt to do). And so we turn the tables, and bring wine as libations on the very Mizbe’ach in which we dedicate our lives to HaShem. Challah, bread, physical life itself, the nurturer, the feeder; take off a portion and give it to HaShem, i.e., His messenger, the Kohanim. And our clothing, the very enfolding of our other-worldly souls in olam hazeh garments, requires the holy tzitzis, constant reminders of who we really are and what we are really about.
Korach then swings to the opposite position. He reasons, “If the purpose of it all is this sanctification of the temporal and mundane, is it logical that there be Kohanim and Levi’im serving G-d in the Holy Temple, being a class unto themselves, with Klal Yisrael giving them the wherewithal to survive as they do G-d’s work in the Temple? Isn’t everyone’s work holy? Why the caste system? “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim” — all the nation is holy. You, Moshe Rabbeinu, have taught us that in the wake of the meraglim; and now you are telling me to put the servers of HaShem in a Holy Mishkan on a pedestal, so to speak? Something is strange here, it just doesn’t hang together!
The answer is that in order for that which is holy to permeate and transform the mundane, it requires transcendence, it requires that pure jug of oil, that primordial light from whence the light can shine into this world, consecrating the unsacred. The Kohanim and Levi’im serve as our role models and teachers, as the sources of that light. This world can be made holy, is supposed to be made holy, must be made holy. But it requires unadulterated holiness to be the fountainhead of the difficult task of comingling and cojoining the chol and the kodesh.
What Korach actually tried to do was bring the kodesh down to the level of the chol. He thus met a fitting end; and the supremacy of the Kohanic light was reaffirmed, as well as their prerogatives in getting matanos kehunah established in order to keep them away from the mundane, to maintain the purity of the light source which is their essence.