Torah for the Times  

Friday, June 7 - Sivan 29, 5773 

Torah Reading: Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32)
Candle Lighting Time: 8:07 PM

Shabbat ends: 9:17 PM  



Entrance to Gehinnom

Korach, Moses’ cousin, symbolizes rebellion and discord, two of the most egregious and destructive forms of behavior.

Korach’s punishment, as recorded in this week’s parsha, was for him, his family and all his cohorts and their belongings to be swallowed up in the earth. In the words of the Torah: “They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit...”

The word “pit” in this verse is understood by our sages to refer to Gehinnom, the Jewish version of hell. Gehinnom is usually understood to mean a purification process for the soul after it separates from the body. Korach, the arch rebel, obviously needed to go through this purification process.

In a cryptic passage (Eiruvin 19a), the Talmud makes reference to three entrances to Gehinnom: “One was in the desert, one in the sea and one in Jerusalem.” The existence of an entrance to Gehinnom in the desert, the Talmud states, is derived from the abovementioned verse: “‘They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit...”

The sages were obviously attempting to impart a moral lesson from the Biblical references to Gehinnom. There are three places or mindsets that can become the entrances to this nether place.  In this essay we will focus on the entry/mindset to Gehinnom that is in the desert. This is the mindset that caused Korach to rebel.

The Vast and Dreadful Desert

The desert the Jews were in and that provided the stage for Korach’s rebellion is described in the Torah (Devarim 8:15) in the starkest of terms: “the vast and dreadful desert, with serpents, vipers and scorpions, and of thirst, where there is no water.”

The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos, volume 2) explains that this description is a metaphor for the present period of Galus. The vastness of the area of desolation is a metaphor for a Jewish person’s sense of isolation.  The Jew in exile sees himself or herself as living in a world that is not habitable for a Jew. The Galus Jew sees his Jewishness as an aberration from the world at large and seeks to be like the rest of the world. The Jew fails to recognize that he or she is a member of the Chosen People; chosen to be a “light to the nations” and not the other way around.

This, then, is what the Talmud means when it states that the entrance to Gehinnom is in the desert. When one loses self-respect, overwhelmed by the perception that he or she is insignificant, it can cause the Jew to degenerate and descend to the abyss—the entrance to Gehinnom.

The question, however, can be asked, how does this tie in with Korach’s rebellion? Korach did not seem to be suffering from an inferiority complex. On the contrary, he suffered, it seems, from a robust superiority complex. Korach sought to unseat Aaron and Moses and arrogate the leadership of the Jewish nation to himself. Why would the desert/inferiority complex mentality discussed above have precipitated his downfall?

Korach’s Devaluation of Everything

In truth, Korach’s bluster and arrogance was not a product of a superiority complex but of his lack of understanding of what happened at Mount Sinai and devaluation of the true worth of Torah, the Jewish people, Moses and Aaron and even of his own spiritual role.

In Korach’s mind, the Torah was a Divine source of guidance for society.  To keep the world from degenerating into anarchy there must be an ideal system of government. To guarantee that there is equality and equity in society, we must have a system of government that is not subject to the biases and caprices of humans. G‑d therefore gave us the Torah, which is an infallible system of laws, to protect society.

Korach also recognized the need for the observance of the Mitzvos that deal with our relationship with G‑d. However, he considered them as mere symbolic actions that help remind us of our obligations.

The Midrash relates that Korach challenged Moses by asking whether a house filled with Torah scrolls required a Mezuzah. In his mind, the Mezuzah functioned as a reminder of G‑d’s authority. Why does one need a mere symbolic reminder of G‑d’s authority, contained in a Mezuzah, when the entire house is filled with Torah scrolls that speak of G‑d’s role in our lives in vivid detail? Korach’s challenge/question to Moses revealed his limited understanding of the nature of Torah and its Mitzvos.

Korach viewed the Mitzvos given at Sinai as extensions of the Seven Noahide commandments that were given to all of humanity after the Flood. These commandments were essential to ensure stability and civility in society. The difference between the Seven Noahide commandments and the 613 commandments given at Sinai, in Korach’s mind, was merely quantitative. In addition, he believed that G‑d chose the Jewish people simply to be the managers of the Divine legal system, and the Jewish leaders were no more than His upper level mangers and Torah-technocrats. To Korach, Moses was the CEO of the Jewish nation whose job it was to ensure compliance with the dictates of the Torah.

In Korach’s mind there was nothing transcendent about Judaism or about Moses and Aaron.  Despite the fact that Korach argued “all of the Jewish people are holy and G‑d is within them,” he did not see anything that would render them particularly special. He certainly did not recognize that any special status had been conferred on Moses and Aaron.

Thus, in a subtle way, Korach was indeed a product of a “desert-inferiority complex.” He saw the role of Moses, Aaron, the Jewish people as extensions of all the other nations of the world and the Mitzvos as extensions and amplifications of the Noahide laws given to the other nations. Korach certainly could not countenance the notion that Moses and Aaron were infinitely more receptive spirituality than he was or that they were qualitatively on an entirely different level of spirituality.

His failure to appreciate the uniqueness of Moses and Aaron stemmed, ironically, from his failure to appreciate his own uniqueness.

The Mother of All Revolutions

In truth, what happened at Sinai was an unprecedented G‑dly revolution. It revolutionized the magnitude of G‑d’s revelation to the world. It revolutionized humanity’s understanding and appreciation of G‑d’s utter transcendence. It revolutionized G‑d’s relationship with the physical, demonstrating how the spiritual and the physical are not mutually exclusive entities. It revolutionized the concept of how a Mitzvah is not merely a device to make us more aware of and sensitive to our obligations, but is also the channel of Divine energy into the world. The revelation at Sinai enables the world to realize its very raison d’être—to be transformed into a dwelling place for G‑d. It revolutionized our view of the Jewish soul and the notion of a Chosen People. The Jew is a conduit to bring G‑d’s presence to the world through his or her performance of the Mitzvos. Sinai also revolutionized how we view the role of Jewish leaders. They are not just teachers who guide, inspire and uplift the people; they are the “head souls” who channel Divine energy to the entire Jewish nation in the same manner the brain energizes the entire body.

A desert mentality is not exclusively reserved for those who suffer from an acute inferiority complex, thinking they are worthless. It also affects those who underestimate their own significance.  These people suffer from the Korach syndrome and will also underestimate the value of others. Tragically, the road to Gehinnom is paved with the failure to appreciate our own uniqueness. Minimizing our importance or selling ourselves short can have the same tragic consequence as an unhealthy inferiority complex.

We are Special

There are many lessons we can learn from Korach’s ill-fated rebellion.

One lesson especially relevant to our times is that we too may suffer from an inferiority complex.

There are some who misapply Talmudic statements about the relationship between our generation and our forebears. While we are indeed spiritually inferior to bygone generations in some areas, we enjoy superiority over them in many other significant ways.

First, we are the beneficiaries of all of their past greatness. We have been compared to the dwarf standing on the shoulders of the giant who can see further than the giant precisely because he enjoys the giant’s height in addition to his own.

Second, despite the tests and trials to which the last few generations have been subjected—both in terms of persecution and the pressures of assimilation - we have, as a people, tenaciously held on to Judaism.  This makes us unique even in regard to the greatest and most noble souls of the past.

Third, we have been given a taste of the future Messianic revelations in preparation for the future Redemption, when all the fountains of G‑dly knowledge will be accessible to us.  This “foretaste” is contained in the teachings of Chassidus and has been fed to us by the unprecedentedly lofty souls of the great tzadikim of the recent past, most notably from the souls of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the other Chassidic Masters through our Rebbe, who have introduced unprecedented G‑dly knowledge and kindness to the world.

Fourth, the great Kabbalist, the AriZal, writes that the last generation of exile is a reincarnation of the generation that left Egypt and witnessed the revelation of G‑d at Mount Sinai. In light of the Rebbe’s pronouncement that we are the final generation of Galus and will be the first generation of Geulah, it is we who are the reincarnation of that lofty generation. (All of the negative features of that generation have long since been expunged leaving only the positive energies in their souls that we have inherited.)

Finally, as the Rebbe stressed on many occasions, we have already witnessed some of the events and miracles associated with the future redemption which serve as a sample and the beginning of Moshiach’s efforts to change the world. The Rebbe referred specifically to the miracles of the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in this regard.

With all of the incredible spiritual wealth that we possess we must not underestimate our ability to change the world and usher in the final, true and complete Redemption. 



Moshiach Matters 

In the days of Moshiach, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid... Ramban takes this verse literally and documents his stand profusely. Yet he maintains that such coexistence will not necessitate great changes in creation, because wild animals were originally peaceful creatures, becoming predatory only after Adam's sin.

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit