The Top 50 Rabbis In The Desert


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:04 p.m.
Torah: Num. 16:1-18:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-64
Havdalah: 9:15 p.m.

A rabbi friend recently joked about the “Top 50 Rabbis in America.” He said he figures he is somewhere around 1,367; Rabbi No. 1364, he says, speaks better than he does, and Rabbi No. 1,368 has visited fewer sick people than he has, so he must be right in between them. He’s hoping that next year he’ll move up to the 1,350s, but who knows? As long as he’s in the Top 2,000, he says, he should be fine.

When thinking about it rationally, the rankings seem to make little sense, and it is hardly just rabbis who struggle with this issue. In our culture today, we have become obsessed with rankings: the best grade, the highest status, the most money. As we learn from Korach in this week’s parasha, there is nothing more painful than wanting more. Craving the top post, poor Korach was never happy with his own position, or anyone else’s. As he said to Moses and Aaron, “Rav lachem! Ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim u’vetocham Adonai, umadua titnas’u al kehal Yisrael? You have too much! All of the congregation is holy and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”  [Numbers 16:3].

Sadly, Korach didn’t even realize that he was competing against people who would have happily given up their spots at #1 and #2. Moses and Aaron didn’t need to be at the top. Only two weeks ago, Moses, known for his humility, expressed his own comfort with Eldad and Meidad prophesying in the camp. “If only all of Gods’ people were prophets!” [Num. 11:29]. And yet, the name of our parasha goes to Korach, because it is his lesson that we must learn.

It is easy to relate to Korach. Even with his family’s important role (the Kehati were responsible for carrying the Ark through the wilderness) Korach looked hungrily upon the roles of Moses and Aaron. And can we blame him? There is hardly a more human emotion than desire. Each of us wants to feel essential, and we may look with a sense of loss or envy at what others have achieved. No wonder Korach and his people got swallowed up by the earth [Num. 16:32]. Living with envy and desire can make it difficult to feel the ground stable beneath our feet. Having such uncomfortable feelings can make it feel like we are being swallowed alive.

The Torah reflects no compassion for him: Korach and his company are “resha’im” — evil. And God’s plan is to “finish them off.” How can we understand this harsh judgment for an emotion that so many of us feel?

Perhaps Korach’s sin was in his behavior, rather than in his feelings. According to the biblical translator Onkelos, “Va’itpaleg Korach,” Korach split off from the people. Or, as Rashi explains, he took himself off to the side to complain. Korach’s real sin was not that he felt envy but that he acted upon it. Attacking Moses and Aaron, he tried to take them down when they had done nothing wrong. “Why do you raise yourselves,” he asked them, cutting down their leadership instead of building up his own.

It is human to feel desire or envy, to want what we may see in others. But to condemn those who have what we want is to be like Korach. As the rabbis in Mishnah Avot say about the argument of Korach and his clan, “ein sofah lehitkayem” [Avot 5:17]. It can come to no good end. It just doesn’t work.

Reflecting on Korach’s sin, the Izhbitzer Rebbe quotes a Midrash from the Talmud in Masechet Taanit: “In the days to come, the Holy One Blessed Be He will make a dance for the righteous” [Taanit 31a]. A dance, the Izhbitzer explains, happens in a circle, where no one is closer or more prominent than any other. Korach, he writes, forgot this lesson.

But Korach, we know, did not live in the redeemed world. Sure, in the next world, we may all be equal. Until then, however, we live in a world with rankings and status updates that may challenge even the most spiritually adept among us. In this world, the story of Korach and his punishment can remind us of how important it is to keep our own desires from bringing others down.

May we be lifted up by the models around us, and may we learn to use our desires for the greatest good.

Rabbi Abby Sosland is Morah Ruchanit (spiritual adviser) of Solomon Schechter Westchester, where she teaches Talmud, Bible, philosophy and prayer.