What is Korah’s sin? This week’s parasha, Parashat Korach, deals with the theme of honor and how it affects us. Through the story of Korach, we see that his downfall might have been related to his pursuit of honor. By juxtaposing Korach, who pursued honor with Moses, who fled from it, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin reveals an important message about how one can truly attain honor, as it is written in Proverbs (29:23): “A man’s pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor.”
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What was Korah’s sin? Our Sages answered this question in a number of different ways. Some say that he mocked certain commandments (Midrash Tehillim 1:15, p.14) Others say that he discovered one of the three treasures hidden by Joseph in Egypt (Pesahim 119a) “and due to his great wealth he became haughty” which led to his downfall (Rashi ibid.).
However, it seems more likely that Korah’s sin, his main transgression was the pursuit of kavod/honor, and so our Sages explained in Midrash Tanhuma (par.1): Elizaphan ben Uziel was appointed as Chieftain of the Kehatite families (Numbers 3:30). “Said Korah: my father was one of four sons; as it is written:(Exodus 6:18): ‘And the sons of Kehat: Amram and Yizhar, Hevron and Uziel’. Amram the firstborn – Aaron and his sons received the Priesthood and Moses his brother the Kingship. Who is worthy to become Chieftain – is it not the second son? And I, the son of Yizhar, was worthy to be Chieftain of my family, and he made the son of Uziel Chieftain!…Therefore, I will disagree [with Moses] and nullify everything done by him! This was the reason for the disagreement.”
Moses our Teacher, on the other hand, fled from honor: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11); “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God put His spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29); “Now Moses was more humble than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3).
This contrast between Moses and Korah reminds us of the verse in Proverbs (29:23): “A man’s pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor”. And so we have learned in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b): “Why did Bet Hillel merit to have the halakhah follow them? Because they were easy-going and humble … to teach you that whoever humbles himself, God lifts him up; and whoever lifts himself up, God puts him down. Whoever runs after greatness, greatness runs away from him; and whoever runs away from greatness, greatness runs after him…”.
This idea is nicely illustrated in the hassidic story about the “misnaged” who asked the “Seer of Lublin” why so many go to the Seer to study, and why they do not come to him to study since he is a greater scholar? The Seer replied: “It is also surprising to me that they come to me! I know how little I am worth. Who am I and what am I that many should come to me to ask help from God? And why indeed don’t they go to you whom I know to be a real genius, both knowledgable and sharp? But maybe that is the reason: since I am surprised that they come to me, that is why they come especially to me; and since you are surprised that they don’t come to you, that is why they don’t come to you!” (Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, Sippurey Hassidim, p.362).
Indeed, this is the message of many biblical tales: Aaron and Miriam ran after honor which eluded them (Numbers 12), while Saul ran away from honor which succeeded in catching him (I Samuel 10:22-24). Gideon ran away from honor which succeeded in catching him (Judges 6:15), while his son Avimelekh ran after honor which eluded him (Judges 9). Avshalom ran after honor which eluded him (II Samuel 15), while Jeremiah ran from honor which succeeded in catching him (Jeremiah 1, 4-10).
There are two practical implications of this message for our time:
On the national level, we have witnessed during the past year that the race for the Knesset is, to a large extent, a race after honor. We can only hope and pray that our leaders will stop emulating Korah and start emulating Moses.
On the personal level, there is another way to attain honor. As Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honored? He who honors other human beings.” In other words, we gain honor and respect by honoring others.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.