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Parshas Korach – Understanding One’s Place

07/03/2017 09:55:05 PM


Rabbi Joshua Forgy

The basic message of Parshas Korach doesn’t need much explanation. Somebody starts up with Daas Torah; he and his family are immediately killed. Pretty straightforward. Still, like everything in Torah, there is depth beneath the surface.


The Arizal is cited as noting that קרח is sofei teivos (end-letter acrostic) of צדיק כתמר יפרח -- the righteous will bloom like a palm tree. What is Korach’s connection to righteousness? I would like to suggest an explanation for this allusion.


After Korach expresses his complaints against Moshe and Aharon, Moshe proposes a test: Aharon, Korach, and Korach’s 250 followers will all offer ketores to Hashem. One will be chosen; the rest will perish. Korach and his followers apparently agree to participate.


Is there a reason that ketores in particular was used for this test?


Most of the ingredients of ketores are, as one would expect, fragrant. One, however, stands out. Chazal tell us that chelbonah actually smells foul; only when mixed with the other ten ingredients is it pleasant. The Gemara (Kerisus 6b) derives a surprising hashkafah from this paradox: A public fast day which lacks the participation of Israel’s sinners is invalid. Just as chelbonah has a place in the ketores, so do sinners have a place in the nation’s suffering and introspection.


There’s more. Rashi notes that a “potion of death” is incorporated in the ketores. This is obviously allegorical; “potion of death” is a metaphor for some mystical connection to harsh judgement. This is evidenced clearly in two episodes: Nadav and Avihu were burned to death when they brought ketores into the Kodesh HaKodashim, and Korach’s assembly were burned to death after their ketores was rejected.


Yet, ketores is not all bad. After Korach and his assembly are dispatched, B’nei Yisrael accuse Moshe and Aharon of causing their deaths, and Hashem punishes them with an immediate plague. The plague is stopped once Moshe tells Aharon to go out amongst the people and burn ketores. Who told Moshe that ketores stops death? The Angel of Death.


The symbolism here is striking. Ketores incorporates chelbonah, and the very “potion of death” is mixed in. Yet, it smells beautiful, and it stops death. The secret of life lies in the potion of death – and this was revealed by none other than the Angel of Death.


More abstractly, this duality is rooted in a fundamental principle of Jewish thought. Ramchal (Daas Tevunos, siman 124) explains that "evil" can be viewed in two equally valid ways. In and of itself, it is truly, utterly, irredeemably evil. Yet, when considered in the light of Hashem's overall plan – which necessitates the existence of evil as an obstacle to enable free choice – it, too, is good. It is critical to understand that both of these perspectives are absolutely true. If we are drawn after evil, then it is truly evil; if we see it as a servant of Hashem whose sole purpose is to be avoided, then it is truly good. In the context of the grand cosmic scheme, it is good; out of context, it is bad.

Context is key.


The nature of ketores is symbolic of Korach’s mistake. Korach covets a leadership position. He wants to be front-and-center like Aharon. But this is not his place. Chelbonah can smell beautiful – but only if its identity is lost amidst a greater mixture. The potion of death can save lives – but only if it is used correctly. Korach, too, can contribute to Kedushah, but only if he realizes that his contribution is different from that of Moshe and Aharon.


קרח has a place in צדיק כתמר יפרח. His place is in the back.

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784