The title verse of this week’s parashah reads “ויקח קרח” (Bamidbar 16:39). The simple translation would be “And Qorach took”. However, the Midrash Rabbah takes it slightly differently, using an equally valid if less obvious translation. “‘And he took Qorach’ — meaning, his heart took him.” The Ramban notes that the word “vayiqach” consistently refers to a non-physical move. This connects our chapter to the previous one of tzitzis. “And you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes, after which you stray.” (15:39). Rashi explains that the heart and eyes are spies for the body. The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body commits the sin.
Why was he moved to rebel? In what direction did Qorach’s heart take him? Moshe appointed Elitzafan ben Uzi’el to be the leader of the clan of Kehas. The Tanchuma (ch. 1) writes that Qorach, being older than his cousin Elitzafan, thought that the job would be his.
Had they focused more on character development than on theology, their fates would have been much more for the better.
Qorach could not belittle Moshe’s authority — the Jewish People all saw the beams of light radiating from Moshe’s face when he came down from Sinai. Instead, Qorach built up the masses. “The whole community, every one of them is holy, and Hashem is among them; and why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of G-d?” (16:3) He attacked Moshe politically by trying to make him redundant religiously.
This is the meaning of the two slogans a third midrash (Midrash Rabba, quoted by Rashi) attributes to Qorach. “If a garment is all blue, does it need tzitzis?” The whole garment is techeiles, reminding us of heaven and of G-d, so why would we need an additional blue thread? The whole community was at Sinai and had experienced the heights of prophecy at the Red Sea; we do not need priests and leaders. Similarly, “If a room is full of Sifrei Torah, does it need a mezuzah?”
R. Moshe Feinstein (Derash Moshe), stresses a second aspect that builds on the first. As his very examples show, Qorach assumes that anyone can interpret the Torah for themselves. That, somehow, at Sinai they were imbued with the “spirit of the law” and can use that to guide practice.
The meaning and purpose behind halakhah is critical. It is true that we rule that mitzvos do not require intent. However, as the Mishnah writes, “From [acting] shelo lishmah, not for its sake, one comes to act lishmah.” The purpose in the mitzvah performed by rote observance is in its bringing the person closer to later performing it with intent.
Rav Hirsch likens the relationship between halakhah and lishmah to that of experimental data and scientific theory. G-d gave us the halachic process; its results are the objective data with which we work. Our theories about the meaning and purpose are just that — theories. In a scathing comment against Reform, and Geiger’s notion of a “science of Judaism”, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch likens deriving practice from ideas about the purpose of the law to alchemy. (The 19 Letters of Ben Uziel)
Qorach’s rebellion is held up by the Mishnah as an archetype of lacking lishmah. “Any controversy which is lesheim Shamayim, for the sake of [the One in] heaven, will in the end persist; and that which is not lesheim Shamayim will not in the end persist. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Qorach and his entire congregation.”
Amazingly, Qorach was not inherently an evil person. The Arizal associates his name with the last three letters of the words “צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח— the righteous shall blossom like the date-palm.” (Tehillim 92:13) The Ari concludes from this that Qorach will eventually have a place in the World to Come.
Where did the gap emerge between this Qorach and the one who challenged Moshe’s authority? He was hurt by being passed over for an honor. He did not rebel for the sake of heaven, although he might have convinced himself that his position was the more reasonable way to worship Hashem. A tiny seed of jealousy, and all objectivity was lost. Without deriving values from the grounding of halachah, all was lost.
A tiny gap opened between his heart and his mind, between his subconscious and his righteous ideals. And so Qorach “explored after his heart”. Such gaps are all too common. As we say in Aleinu, “וְיָֽדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵֽׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒– And you will know today, and you will respond to your heart.” (Devarim 4:39) The mind can know something even while it must still be answered to the heart.
Through the study of Mussar one can close that gap. Bridging mind and heart, mitzvah and lishmah, is critical. From the smallest of imperfections in his control of his inner self, Qorach took to leading a full rebellion. Mussar has the power to cleanse our hearts from all impurities — both conscious and subconscious. It gives depth and meaning to our observance of halakhah; it connects the act to the lishmah.