The Quest


And Korach took… two hundred and fifty men of the children of Israel—leaders of the community, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. And they massed upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! The entire community is holy and G-d is amongst them; why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of G-d?”

…And Moses said to Korach: “Hear, I pray you, sons of Levi! Is it not enough for you that the G-d of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel to bring you close to Him—to perform the service in the Sanctuary of G-d… that you seek also the priesthood?”

Numbers 16:1-10

Moses said to them: “Among the religions of the world there are various customs, and they do not all gather in the same house [of worship]. We, however, have but one G-d, one Torah, one law, one Kohen Gadol and one Sanctuary; yet you, two hundred and fifty men, all desire the Kehunah Gedolah?! I, too, desire it…”

Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 5

Moses was the essence of truth.[1] When he told Korach, who was protesting the appointment of Aaron as the sole Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the only one allowed to perform the most sacred services in the Holy Temple, that “I, too, desire it,” this was no mere debating tactic. Moses truly desired the position of Kohen Gadol for himself. But if this were the case, was he not guilty of the very sin for which Korach and the 250 men who joined him in his spiritual mutiny were so severely punished?

The difference, however, is obvious: Moses desired to be a Kohen Gadol; Korach and his company acted to appropriate the station for themselves. Moses yearned for the ultimate level of intimacy with G-d; Korach and his company acted to realize this yearning by performing the most sacred of divine services—the offering of the ketoret (incense)—which is forbidden to a non-kohen.

This was not the first time that someone had acted on such a striving to tragic results: Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, “came close to G-d and died” when they offered the ketoret without divine sanction.[2] Korach and his fellows knew what had happened to Nadav and Avihu, but this did not deter them in their quest to become Kohanim Gedolim, if only for the briefest moments. So great was their desire to “come close to G-d” that they were willing to give up their very lives in the effort.[3]

This explains why an entire section of the Torah (Numbers 16‑18) is named after “Korach”—an unrepentant sinner. For though Korach’s deeds were sinful and destructive, his motivation was meritorious. The story of Korach comes to teach us what not to do—not to act on even the most lofty of ambitions if they are contrary to the will of G-d; but it also comes to tell us that we should desire and yearn for the highest ideals, even those which we are prohibited from actually attaining. In this, we are enjoined to emulate Korach (and Moses)—in not being satisfied with our current spiritual station, even when G-d Himself has imposed it upon us.

The Spiritual Option

What is the Kehunah Gedolah? Simply stated, it is a state of being (or rather, a state of non-being) characterized by an utter negation of one’s own existence. The Kohen Gadol  is “segregated [from the people]… sanctified as a holy of holies”[4]; he “never leaves the Sanctuary”[5] and does not partake in the social and civic activities that are integral to a person’s life as an individual and a member of society.[6] His entire being is devoted to maintaining a state of perpetual, self-obliterating attachment to G-d.

It’s not that the Kohen Gadol’s is a spiritual existence while everyone else is bound to the mundanities of physical life; rather, the Kohen Gadol is one who transcends the very notion of a “life”—physical or spiritual—in the sense of personal strivings and achievements. In regard to the spiritual side of life, an entire tribe within the people of Israel—the tribe of Levi—was elected by G-d to serve as the “spiritual leaders” of Israel, serving in the Holy Temple, and as teachers and instructors of Torah. Indeed, Korach and Moses, who yearned for the Kehunah Gedolah but were proscribed from ever achieving it, were both Levites.

Furthermore, the option of choosing a spiritual rather than material life is available to every individual. In the words of Maimonides:

“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants on earth, whose spirit has volunteered and his mind has convinced him to segregate himself to stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him and to know Him… and he cast from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek—such an individual becomes sanctified…”[7]

The pursuit of a spiritual life is entirely optional (the prerogative of one “whose spirit has volunteered and his mind has convinced him”) and attainable by all (“any man of all the inhabitants on earth”). In contrast, the pursuit of the Kehunah Gedolah differs in both these respects: it should be desired by everyone, and only a select few—those specifically chosen by G-d[8]—can ever achieve it.

There is only one Kohen Gadol, for G-d “did not create [the world] for chaos; He created it to be settled.”[9] G-d wants us to develop our world—whether it is the material world of the farmer or artisan, or the spiritual world of the scholar or mystic—not to escape it. Nevertheless, He stipulated that there be one human being who personifies utter detachment from any and all “worlds” and utter attachment to Him, and that everyone else should strive for this state even as they are prohibited from actually attaining it.

In other words, our involvement with the world should be accompanied by the desire to transcend it. The Hebrew word for “world,” olam, means “concealment,” for a “world” is a superimposed reality that veils the divine reality. This is also true of the most spiritual of worlds, for every world imposes definition and context upon its inhabitants, thereby obscuring the infinite and undefinable reality of G-d. So whatever world we inhabit, we must carry with us the awareness that it is but a guise, a projection of the divine truth via a finite filter which conceals far more than it reveals and distorts far more than it elucidates.

To actually escape one’s world would be to betray one’s mission in life, which is to unravel the distortion and peel away the concealment. On the other hand, not to desire to escape it means that one accepts—or is at least able to “live with”—the distortion and the concealment, which is likewise a betrayal of one’s mission in life. Indeed, it is the constant striving to escape the strictures of our world that drives our efforts to develop, expand and sanctify the very world we are seeking to escape, and make it a vessel for the divine truth.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Parshat Korach 5733 and 5734 (1973 and 1974)[10]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 32:1.

[2]. Leviticus 16:1; ibid., 10:1-7.

[3]. Cf. Ohr HaChaim commentary on Leviticus 16:1 regarding Nadav and Avihu: “[Theirs was] a death by divine ‘kiss’ like that experienced by the perfectly righteous; it is only that the righteous die when the divine kiss approaches them, while they died by their approaching it….  Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near [to G-d] in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”

A similar phenomenon was the case of the Kohanim Gedolim who served in the latter years of the Second Temple when the land of Israel was under Roman rule. Because these men were unworthy of the Kehunah Gedolah, which they received by purchasing it from the Roman procurator, none of them survived their first year in office (Talmud, Yoma 9a; Jerusalem Talmud, ibid. 1:1). Nevertheless, they endeavored to be Kohanim Gedolim, even though they were aware of the fate that had befallen their predecessors.

[4]. I Chronicles 23:13.

[5]. Leviticus 21:12. This is not an across-the-board prohibition for theKohen Gadol to ever leave the Temple, but the designation of the Temple his permanent place. As per Maimonides, the Kohen Gadol went home at night to sleep or to attend to other personal needs, but was otherwise to by found in his suite (lishkah) at all times. Furthermore, the Kohen Gadol’s residence was in Jerusalem, and he was proscribed from ever leaving the holy city (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanctuary’s Vessels and Those Who Serve In It,5:7).

[6]. Ibid., halachot 1-9.

[7]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel, 13:13.

[8]. Only a descendent of Aaron (a Kohen) can become Kohen Gadol.

[9]. Isaiah 45:18.

[10]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, pp. 187-195.


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