The Hidden Blessing within the Curse

Rabbi Reuven Mann

The week’s parsha, Korach, describes the terrible rebellion against Moshe’s authority, which was launched by none other than his own cousin. One cannot imagine a more egregious deed: Moshe Rabbenu was the most important person in the Jewish nation. He had qualities that no one else possessed and reached a level of prophecy where Hashem spoke to him “face to face.”

No one else could have performed the mission of redeeming the Jews from Egypt and transforming them into a “kingdom of Kohanim (priests) and a holy nation.” He alone was capable of receiving the Torah from Hashem and teaching it to the Jewish people.

Aside from his “superhuman” intellectual and prophetic abilities, Moshe was also morally perfected. He was the most humble person who had ever lived and harbored no desire for power or glory. To the contrary, he had an aversion to everything associated with leadership.

It is hard for us to appreciate Moshe’s greatness, for he spurned all the things an ordinary mortal longs for. As Hashem said in His rebuke of Miriam, “Not so my servant Moshe; he is the most faithful in My entire house.” Miriam, who meant no harm, was severely punished for criticizing Moshe’s seemingly inexplicable separation from his wife. 

Yet this did not chasten Korach, who charged that Moshe was guilty of nepotism. He declared that Moshe sought to keep all the power in his hands by assigning the priesthood to his brother Aharon and keeping the kingship for himself. This denigration of Moshe could have had wide-ranging repercussions. 

The accusation that Moshe had acted on his own, without instruction from Hashem, would undermine the whole foundation of Torah miSinai and the absolute Divine character of the Torah. The revolt of Korach and his cohorts had to be dealt with, in the most forceful way. It had to be made absolutely clear that the system of halachah (Jewish law) originated at Sinai. If the notion, that the Rabbis made up the laws of the Torah, had prevailed, then Judaism would be obliterated. 

There is a debate as to when Korach’s rebellion occurred. Some say it happened when Moshe designated Aharon as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) at the time the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was consecrated, but is only recounted in Korach. However, Nachmanides maintains that the story is in its correct chronological order and that it took place after the disaster of the spies. 

Nachmanides explains that, although Korach’s resentment was aroused when Moshe made the priestly appointment, he held his anger in check. At that point, Moshe’s popularity was at its zenith, because he had taken the Jews out of Egypt, split the Red Sea, brought down the Torah, and successfully defended them after the sin of the Golden Calf.

Now, however, Korach sensed that the time was right. Moshe’s popularity had waned, as many were punished for the sin of “lusting” for meat and, more significantly, for that of the spies. Moshe could not thwart the decree that they would not enter the Promised Land, but would die in the wilderness. Korach therefore believed that widespread discontent would draw the people to his cause.

Indeed, he was successful in winning over some of the most prominent Sages of the time. Harsh punishments from Hashem were necessary to quell the uprising, but there is another dimension to this tragedy. The decree that the entire generation would die in the wilderness seems very bleak. Imagine, you have nothing to look forward to and know that, within 40 years, it will all be over.

However, I believe that there is a blessing hidden within the Divine curse. G-d is always merciful, even in punishment. Hashem did not kill them immediately, but gave them 40 years. They could, in effect, “number their days and obtain a heart of wisdom.” We all live with a fantasy of immortality and believe we will be around forever. This causes us to postpone vital spiritual projects and waste tremendous amounts of time. 

Hashem’s decree roused the Jews from their slumber. They could no longer indulge their denial of death. If they were wise, they would galvanize their energies and live every day to its fullest. The tragedy of Korach was that, instead of recognizing the reality of death and responding with wholehearted teshuvah (repentance), he persisted with his baser impulses. 

May we all merit to recognize that “the day is short and the work is long, and the Master of the House is pressing us.”

Shabbat shalom.