Korach: Atzilut Unplugged


Down to Earth Spirituality

In Honor of Gimmel Tammuz

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach leads a mutiny against Moses. End of story: He is proven wrong and the earth swallows him and his fellow mutineers.

Why such a strange punishment? Is there no other way to penalize them? Indeed, we are told that the ‘mouth of the earth’ that consumed Korach was created at the beginning of time! (at the end of the six days of creation, on Friday at dusk). What makes the ‘mouth of the earth’ so important that it had to be formed at the outset of Genesis – waiting thousands of years for the day that it would open to ‘welcome’ Korach and his cronies!

This takes us back to Atzilut and materialism – the theme of the previous episodes in the last two Torah portions.

Korach did not arrive in a vacuum. Let’s put ourselves in his shoes. As a sharp man (a ‘pikach’) he was obviously closely following the discussions (debates) and events that came before him. He first heard that the people demanded meat. They were questioning the possibility of integrating G-dliness and the material world. Then Korach listened closely to G-d’s response – the revelation of Atzilut, which would bridge the two worlds of spirit and matter, of the Divine and the human.

Korach then witnessed the sin of the scouts, who challenged the very notion of being able to conquer a ‘land that consumes its inhabitants.’ Materialism is just too strong for us, they argued. Korach saw how they were severely punished for defying the very purpose of existence – to make a home for G-d in this lowliest world, in the world of the gross matter.

So now the stage is set. Here is a reenactment of Korach’s argument:

Korach: Ok, we now know that we cannot avoid the material world. On the contrary, we must engage it and transform it. We cannot escape into spirituality. Within the material universe is embedded the deepest spiritual energy and the highest level of the Divine Essence. Indeed, G-d Himself desired a home in this world.

So how do we tap into ‘meat’ and all material matter and release this powerful Divine energy? What options do we have? Let’s see: We cannot remain locked and insulated in synagogues and other spiritual oases. We cannot rely on prayer to G-d alone. He insisted that we enter the universe and use our own faculties. What else is there left to do?

We must – whether we like it or not – immerse ourselves into the material world and give it all we got.

So Korach argued: Why did you – Moses and Aaron – lift yourselves above all the rest of us? Is not the entire nation holy? Is not every one of us able to access G-d and our own inner spirituality to connect to G-d?

Strong argument there, Mr. Korach. Korach simply drew a logical conclusion from the events that he just witnessed. Had G-d told the people – ‘no, you cannot have meat,’ or had G-d in some way acknowledge that the scouts had a point when they argued that we cannot enter a ‘land that consumes its inhabitants,’ then Korach would not have made his case. But Korach clearly saw that G-d wants us to immerse into the material world, so he drew the next logical step, namely: We can and must follow G-d’s command and take on life, because we have all the power to do so. The exact opposite argument of the scouts.

The mere fact that you exercise leadership – Korach argues to Moses – demonstrates that not every person has the necessary sanctity and power to transform the universe. Which goes against the events we all just experienced with the ‘meat’ and scouts stories.

What was Korach’s error?

Yes we need meat, we need the material world. Ahh, but the meat has to come from Moses. And Atzilut does not mean that the lower worlds (all the way to the lowest stage of Asiyah) are G-dly. It means that the lower worlds could become G-dly if they allow Atzilut to connect them to the Divine.

What he apparently didn’t listen to closely enough was the consequence of indulging in meat consumption, which ultimately ended up choking its very consumers. Or perhaps Korach felt that he ‘knew’ how to overcome the challenge.

He also missed the point of Caleb and Joshua, who were nor seduced by the scouts’ arguments because they were connected to above – to Moses and to G-d (see last week’s article).

This explains the weird punishment of being swallowed by the earth. Ok, you think that that you can conquer a “land that consumes its inhabitants’ without the conscious connection to Atzilut. Here, look what happens to them: The very earth that you wanted to conquer ends up consuming you, exactly as the scouts had predicted. The scouts were wrong because instead of believing in G-d’s promise, they chose to question the entire premise of conquering the material, and they cowered in fear of the prospect. But Korach was equally wrong because he was arrogant in his confidence of being able to take on the world without the connection to a Rebbe, to Atzilut.

And indeed, from the very beginning of Genesis, the earth was endowed with this power and message, as if always reminding us:

“G-d has sent you to earth to transform it into a Divine home. But never, ever forget the pitfalls of material earth, the difficulties and cruelties of existential loneliness. Never forget how vulnerable you are to the seduction of material desires as a result of G-d’s concealment on earth. Do not succumb to the illusion promised by the temptations and pleasure of this world. Transform it, but never, ever join it. From the beginning of time I carry inside of me – the earth tells us – the power to instantaneously consume you should you ever make that grave mistake.

So, in this triad of events, Korach illuminates for us yet another dimension of Atzilut and its importance in our lives. Atzilut serves as mediator between heaven and earth, between the Divine and the human. The scouts erred by leaning to far toward the Divine side and disregarding the ‘earthly’ dimension of Atzilut; Korach erred by opting for the ‘earthly’ and losing touch with the Divine, ultimately resulting in being consumed by the very earth that he immersed in.

Korach’s challenge is our very own challenge today: Will the shrouds of our material existence cause us to lose sight of the Atzilut within?

This challenge is especially apropos people grappling with Gimmel Tammuz: Will Gimmel Tammuz be seen as a day when Atzilut was unplugged from us (G-d forbid), or will it challenge us to dig deeper and find Atzilut in deeper and newer ways.

Korach’s message is that Atzilut never can be unplugged; it is only we that can become unplugged, or more correctly, perceive ourselves as being unplugged, when in truth Atzilut is always plugged into us and we into it. Our challenge is to recognize and acknowledge the connection, and then reveal it and act on it.


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Milosh Korach
16 years ago

I dont think that God punished Korach, and 250 mens, and that the Earth opened its mouth and swallowed them in fire.
Was it an earthquake?
It can not be related with Genesis.
I think that Moses, and Aaron were in danger about the power so they poisoned and then burnt the group.
God would never punish in such a way, 251 mens, just for a critic about equality.
Milosh Korach

14 years ago

Fascinating. all the smart people and leaders of the generation keep getting it wrong.
so what chance do we poor incapable unlearned inexperienced people have of getting it right?

14 years ago

…with cannabis ketores

14 years ago

This seems particularly insightful in light of the BP oil spill, among other environmental disasters. Here were engaging in procuring the meat of the world, and with what goal in mind? Its somewhat easy to see how the earth could swallow us at the rate that were going.

14 years ago

I always thought it would have been better had God clarified in advance that Moshe and Aharon werent hoarding the glory and that Hashem indeed chose them for the initial leadership and Kehunah. Should Korach and company have just been satisfied to have faith in Moshe and Aharon?

This whole series of events is troubling.

Replies welcome

Carol Beatty
14 years ago

Thank you Rabbi Jacobsen, for your clear and concise interpretation of Korach. In my spiritual practice I disliked leaving the beauty and awe of Atzilut, however, just recently, I was blessed to deal with a personal circumstance in a lower physical realm and found the immense joy of revealing Hashem at this level. The Rebbe said, Sometimes you must leave the comfort of your tallis to help another and reveal G-dliness. I have found its a discipline of balance between willingness, wisdom and courage. As always, youre the best!

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