בס"ד כ"ה תשרי התשע"ז

Parashat Korah

פרשת קרח - Parshat Korah


Korah and Moshe – Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking

-Rabbi Ronen Lubitz-


When comparing Korah's rhetoric to that of Moshe, a significant difference emerges: Korah talks about high and low, whereas Moshe talks about near and far. The gap between how each perceives the world can be reduced to the difference between vertical and horizontal thinking.

References to Korah as well as quotes by him contain a series of expressions involving elevation and ascension, such asוַיָּקֻמוּ  - and they rose up, ּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ - wherefore lift you up yourselves, לֹא נַעֲלֶה – we will not come up, כִּי הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ – that you have brought us up,

כִּי תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם הִשְׂתָּרֵר– that you make yourself a prince over us. He and his men view leadership as a role that gives one superiority over others, and were therefore jealous of Moshe's position, which they perceived as elevating and rendering its holder superior, themselves coveting such ministerial posts.

By contrast, Moshe lives in a very different conceptual realm. He views the difference between people not in terms such as "high" and "low", but rather in terms of "closer to Hashem" and "distant from Hashem". That is why, in references to Moshe and quotes by him in this incident, we find four subjugations of the Hebrew verb הִקְרִיב – to sacrifice, which comes from the Hebrew stem meaning to near or come close to. Following this interpretation, one might say that Korah's name befits him, for when rearranging the Hebrew letters that make up his name, a new word appears: רחקhe grew distant, adequately describing his status and position.

The distinction between both forms of expression is not merely semantic, but reflects two different outlooks that depict people's quality, value and status. The vertical perspective, that of Korah's, which speaks of being "high" or "low", claims that a person's rank is determined by his/her social stratum and position when compared to others in the same society. If s/he is above everyone else, their position is ideal, whereas if s/he ranks low on the social ladder, they are in an undesirable position. Such a perspective is based on relativity and adopts a human view of the world. There is no objective measure determining the quality of a person – it all depends on their position compared to others. Following this viewpoint, a person must always strive to outdo their peers, or as Korah and his men phrased it: to lift yourself up above others and to make yourself a prince over them.

The vertical stance, in Hebrew – אנכית – is therefore not surprisingly also a selfish one, or in Hebrew – אנוכית. No wonder it was adopted by Korah. Our Rabbis have described him as exceedingly wealthy, making his fortune in Egypt while his brothers toiled away. It is only natural for a person from his social-economical class, guided by nothing but his own personal interests, to measure the value and worth of others by their social standing.

The horizontal perspective, however, speaks of being near or far, and determines a person's ranking by their level of proximity to Hashem. This outlook renders the social ladder and one's position in comparison with others irrelevant – it all depends on your standing with Hashem. A person may be at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder, but being close to Hashem, will be the chosen one, the one most elevated. By contrast, a person may play a key role in society, but be regarded as low-ranking when measured by the absolutely objective index.

This outlook is expressed vividly and succinctly in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yossef son of Rabbi Yehoshua, who regained his health after being pronounced clinically dead. He said that in the afterworld, "I saw a world inverted: those at the top were on the bottom and those at the bottom were on top". And his father said to him: "You saw a clear world". Meaning that the terms that measure socio-economic success, the relative definitions determining a person's standing in human society, are irrelevant in the afterlife, where all that matters is how close one is to G-d.

How is the line of thought represented by Korah and his men dealt with? Moshe tries to speak the language of near and far to them, but they are incapable of comprehending and internalizing his horizontal tongue, or perhaps are not willing to understand it. Hashem knows they must be spoken to in their own language, and shows them, and indeed the entire Bnei Israel congregation, that whoever follows Korah and his men and seeks to rise above everyone else, will ultimately spiral downwards. Therefore, during Korah's tests and punishment, Moshe is told by G-d to use the vertical language, the language of "up" and "down": הֵעָלוּ מִסָּבִיב – get you up from about, וַיָּקָם מֹשֶׁה– and Moshe rose up, וַיֵּעָלוּ מֵעַל מִשְׁכַּן קֹרַח – so they got up from the tabernacle of Korah, וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה – and they shall go down alive into the pit, וַיֵּרְדוּ הֵם וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם – and they and all that they had went down. The Torah continues to describe the death of Korah and his men by using terms of rising and falling, thereby underscoring the message that when one's motive is the desire to be superior to others and rule over them, they are doomed to fall and spiral down into the abyss.

In modern society, social concepts have shifted from Korah's perspective to Moshe's. in our day and age, society is not divided into social strata, it is no longer as hierarchal as it once was and attempts to treat everyone as equally as possible. People are no longer lined up according to their social standing, but according to the principle "first come, first served". They do not have privileges and rights associated with their socio-economic class – all are entitled to equal rights. The leader of a modern society is also no longer regarded as superior to his/her subjects, as leaders often were in the past, but rather as the first of equals.

However, compared to socialist societies and the welfare state policy adopted by Israel in the first few decades following its establishment, we have gone backwards somewhat in recent years. These days, people are not eva luated according to their absolute spiritual values, such as proximity to Hashem, but rather by their socio-economic success. The media feeds the public with information on the financial achievements and flamboyant lifestyle of the rich and famous and the evolving social ethos adores such successes. Moreover, it is currently acceptable to give the ultra-wealthy, sometimes termed "tycoons", certain privileges. If they accumulate debts, they will get a 'haircut'; should they wish to invest in various channels, they will receive tax exempts and other benefits. Israeli society is becoming increasingly stratified by its members' financial capabilities, and the gaps between the higher and lower classes are growing – those who can accumulate more and more assets, and those who cannot sinks deeper still to no avail.

The story of Korah should remind us that the Torah sees everyone as equal amongst themselves, and a person as wealthy as Korah is regarded no better than the poorest of Israelites. We must apply Moshe's horizontal line of thought, whereby all are created equal, and remain so, and the differences in their value are attributed solely to their proximity to Hashem. All men must be eva luated according to their level of spirituality – it is the only measure any of us should ever strive to rank high on.


Rabbi Ronen Lubitz is a Tzohar rabbi and the rabbi of Nir Etzion.

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