Essay Shlach/Korach
Three Jewish Revolts—Then & Now
And the Response of a Jewish Leader

Five Mothers

Four Catholic mothers and a Jewish woman were having coffee.

The first Catholic woman tells her friends, “My son is a priest. When he walks into a room, everyone calls him Father.”

The second Catholic mother chirps, “My son is a Bishop. When he walks into a room people call him Your Grace.”

The third Catholic mom says, “My son is a Cardinal. When he enters a room, everyone says Your Eminence.”

The fourth Catholic woman declares, “My son is the Pope. When he walks into a room people call him Your Holiness.”

They all turn to the Jewish woman, and give her a subtle, “Well?”

She replies, “I have a son. He’s argumentative, confrontational, self-centered, narcissistic, impulsive, impossible and irrational. When he walks into a room, people say, Oh My G-d!”

Disaster

It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation.

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are ... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

The spies Moses sent to survey the land convinced the entire nation that the advance to the Land of Israel was doomed and that Moses has misled them by taking them out of Egypt. Hysteria consumed the nation. They demanded a new leader who would return them to Egypt.

Moses, in response, chastised the nation severely. He communicated to them G-d’s oath that they would not enter the land but rather roam the wilderness for forty years. Only their children, anyone younger than 20 at the time, would enter the Promised Land.

Defiance and Mutiny

This part of the story is relatively well known. What is often overlooked is that this story is followed in the Torah by three narratives of rebellion—two in Shlach, the third in Korach. The implication behind the chronology of these events seems clear. All three scenes of mutiny were a response to the new and harsh reality of the nation destined to wander for four decades in the desert.

The first rebellion happens, the Torah says, immediately, the following morning after Moses gave them the news that they would not enter the Land. A group known as the “Maapilim,” the defiant ones[2] (we don’t know their exact number, but it seems like it was a sizable group) assembled and decided to advance toward the Holy Land. They exclaimed: “We are ready! We shall ascend to the place G-d has spoken; indeed, we have sinned.”

This time, though, Moses refuses to go along. “Why do you transgress the word of G-d, it will not succeed! Do not ascend, for G-d is not in your midst! And you will be smitten before your enemies.”[3]

But they disobeyed. They were determined to enter and conquer the Promised Land. “They defiantly ascended to the mountaintop, while the Ark of G-d’s covenant and Moses did not move from the camp.” It was an ill-advised move. They were struck down.[4]

The Wood Chopper

The second rebellion is recorded a few verses later.

“And the children of Israel were in the desert—an apparent reference to the fact that the Jews were to remain in the desert long-term—and they found a man chopping wood on the Sabbath.”[5]

Let us recall that the day of rest has been held sacred by the Israelites, even before they left Egypt. Later it was enshrined as one of the Ten Commandments, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work and the seventh day is the day of Sabbath to your G-d, for G-d created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day He rested.”[6] It was one of the commandments heard by the entire nation from G-d directly at Mt. Sinai, encapsulating the core Jewish belief that the cosmos was fashioned by a Creator with purpose and love, and that one day a week we needed to cease from the rat-race and pay tribute to the mystery, grandeur and purpose of creation. It was also the sign of the covenant between G-d and His people,[7] G-d sharing His day of rest with His people. The Sabbath was a testimony to the special covenant with Israel.

Yet this fellow, defiantly, chose to reject the Sabbath and what it represented. The man meets a tragic fate; he is killed.

Korach’s Mutiny

The third episode opens next week’s Torah portion, Korach. This too happened right after the episode with the spies.[8] Korach, a Levite, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron, stages a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. “The entire community is holy, and G-d is within them. Why do you exalt yourselves above the community of G-d?”

Korach, the first one ever to contest the leadership and authority of Moses, assembles two hundred and fifty prominent figures to join the mutiny. They, too, meet a tragic end.

Three Responses

What is the meaning behind these three ill-conceived revolts? They represent three reactions to the Divine edict that the Jews remain in the desert for 40 years.[9] The three uprisings are understandable. Frustrated by their reality, searching for a way out of the quagmire, they attempted to find alternatives.

The revolts came in three forms.

Some said, we shall go up to Israel without the guidance of G-d and the Torah. There was no need any longer for the Divine Cloud and the Torah’s Ark to serve as the guiding force of Jewish history; the Jewish nation ought to recast its identity as a free nation not under G-d, and forge its destiny in complete autonomy, divorced from the Torah.

The second perspective, represented by the wood chopper, denied G-d’s existence and Jewish nationhood (the main theme of Sabbath) all together. It was not that the Jews ought to ascend to their homeland with or without G-d; but that there was no distinct Jewish nation or Jewish homeland.[10] If G-d was irrelevant, He certainly made no covenant with the people. The very notion of a unique Jewish people was an invention. The famous Midrash states that every day of the week had a partner, Sunday was paired with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, Thursday with Friday. Shabbat complained of its loneliness, and G-d said, “I also have one people alone, let me pair you two together.” Shabbos and the Jews entered into a “marriage.” Denial of Shabbat was denial of Jewish nationhood.[11]

The third group directed their wrath on the spiritual leadership of Moses and Aaron, the teacher and the High Priest. Korach and his men accused them of nepotism and totalitarianism. If we can get rid of them, our future might be brighter.

History Repeats Itself

What is fascinating about these three responses to the story of the spies is that they repeated themselves in Jewish history in the modern age.

As the Jewish exile continued for so long, and our people felt trapped in a seemingly endless wilderness of anti-Semitism, pogroms, persecution, bigotry, and savage suffering—three divergent paths emerged in the Jewish world: Enlightenment and secularization, secular Zionism, and reforms and changes in the Jewish religion.

One response, replicating the “wood chopper” in our portion, felt compelled to bid farewell to G-d and to Jewish nationhood. They would “chop up” all the sacred beliefs and traditions of the Jewish people. Sabbath would become a semi-regular day, and Jewish nationhood came to be seen as an obstacle for progress.

As the walls of segregation crumbled with the French Revolution and the age of “Enlightenment,” many Jews seized the opportunity to dispose of the burden of Jewish identity that, they felt, plagued them for millennia. Voltaire replaced Moses, Rousseau replaced Rashi, Kant and Nietzsche supplanted Abaye and Rava. German nationalism or Russian socialism became their new identity. In the mid of the 19th century, forty percent of Berlin Jews converted. In America, over one million Jews assimilated between 1840 and 1930 alone. Jews felt that modernity has at last given them a way out of the wilderness, if only they would get rid of the Sabbath and all it represents—the notion that they had a unique and singular covenant with G-d.

A clarifying example was the French Revolution’s formal emancipation of the Jews, checked by the declaration of Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, the 1789 Revolutionary Assembly member, “For the Jews as individuals, everything; as a people, nothing.”

“As happy as a Jew in France” became the Jewish response for nearly a century, smashed into smithereens by the 1894 “Dreyfus Affair.” France was riven by the fabricated trial for treachery of the Jewish captain, with a wave of antisemitism that astounded our people.

Another segment of our people, like the Maapilim, decided that it was time to grant the Jewish people a national identity. They saw Zionism, not socialism, as their future. This was the way out of the wilderness. The founding fathers of Zionism (at least many of them) did not wish to abandon Jewish identity all together, but to replace Judaism with nationalism. The new course of Jewish history did not require G-d and His Torah leading the way. It required a strong national homeland.[12] Theodor Herzl’s historic Jewish State manifesto aspired to create a new definition for Jewish nationhood.

Finally, the modern era had also seen a mutiny against “Toras Moshe,” against the institution of Halacha, of Jewish law, articulated by Moses in the Torah, and passed down orally from Moses throughout the generations. Many Jews, some with noble intentions, replicating Korach’s outcry “The entire community is holy!” They felt that the advent of modernity called on them to cut, paste, and edit the Torah according to their sensibilities and the climate of the age. “Why do I have to listen to Moses? Who gave the Rabbis in the Talmud all their power? I am also holy! G-d is in me too, and I feel this is the new way Judaism should be practiced. Only a new version of Judaism will be acceptable in the modern age!”

New denominations were formed; new definitions of Judaism were created. Three hundred years ago, all Jews practiced their religion the same way. Today the question becomes what type of Jew you are? Are you an orthodox, conservative, or reform Jew? Are you a reconstructionist Jew or an ultra-orthodox Jew? There were, of course, different types of Jews at earlier times too, but the definition of Judaism was uniform and universal.[13]

Don’t Abandon Your Roots

As these three volcanos were transforming the Jewish world in the 18th, 19th and 20th century, a soul was born in a small city in the Ukraine.

The year was 1902. At this point, it is estimated that half of the Jewish people have abandoned Jewish faith and practice in search for a newer, better future. Within two decades, the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution would change the map of Europe and the living conditions of millions of Jews. Within five decades, the Holocaust—that began in the country where Jews assimilated most successfully and mainstreamed remarkably well—would wipe out a third of our people. Three years after Auschwitz, in 1948, Israel would be born.

Two years later, this young man, age 48, would assume the leadership of a small Chassidic group in Brooklyn. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)—whose 26th yartziet will be commemorated next Thursday, 3 Tamuz, June 25th —took a long, hard and deep look at a world gone up in smoke and ashes on one hand, while confronting a deep spiritual crisis on the other. He set out on a courageous mission; to re-embrace and unify all the segments of Klal Yisroel, of the Jewish people, and help redirect their course out of the wilderness of exile toward the spiritual and physical Promised Land.

Together with other great spiritual and intellectual giants in the Jewish world, the Rebbe set forth to rebuild a shattered Jewish world.

His message was at once simple and profound. Rather than feeling encumbered by the flag of Jewish faith and the blueprint of Torah, all of our people needed to be shown how, to the contrary, their most powerful ambitions could be achieved most successfully through a strong and powerful Jewish identity, rooted in the eternal values of Sinai. 

Addressing the Three Revolts

The Rebbe lovingly spoke to the hearts and minds behind all the three revolts.

You want to become universal and part of the larger society? You want to get out of your cocoon and have a real impact on the larger human conversation? The more you will be etched in your distinct Jewishness, the deeper and broader your impact will reach, the Rebbe taught. It’s like with love: the more you love your family, the more you can love other people outside of your family. Or like the shofar: if you blow from the narrow side, your voice will resonate far and wide. If you blow from the broad side, no voice will be heard. If you forfeit your identity for the sake of a universal identity, no voice will emerge.

You want our people to have a strong national identity? You want them to feel confident that they are not thieves occupying another nations’ territory? You want them to feel deeply connected to their homeland and not feel apologetic about their existence in Israel? You want them to stop apologizing for Jews to have the right to own one land on the entire planet? Then do not divorce Israel from the Ark of Torah. Do not climb that mountain without G-d in your midst. The Rebbe always taught that only when we will link up the State of Israel with the Holiness of Israel will we respect ourselves and the world will respect us too.

To the third group who wished to create new versions of Judaism to make it more appealing to the young modern Jew, the Rebbe’s message was moving. Your intentions may be noble, but you lack both belief in the integrity of our youth and in the power of our Torah. You want to inspire the youth? Don’t give them a watered-down Judaism. Give them the full truth. They want to be challenged, and are capable of real devotion and growth. Don’t underestimate their potential, nor should you underestimate the eternal relevance of a manual written by the Creator of mankind.

Herman Wouk’s Question

Back in the 50’s, the late Jewish American novelist, Herman Wouk once asked the Rebbe, “Do you really believe that you can tell young American Jews what to do?”

And the Rebbe responded: “The American youth can’t be told to do anything; they can be explained to do everything.”

The Rebbe, together with other great Jewish teachers and leaders, began to change the vocabulary in the Jewish world. The shift began. Over the following decades, millions of our people would rediscover the infinite truths of Judaism, and the infinite radiance of their own Jewish soul.

Don’t Settle for the Small

The Rebbe’s message, though, went one step deeper. The Rebbe turned to all three groups and declared: You and we deserve much more and much better than what you are opting for. We are all annoyed and frustrated with our long, arduous, torturous, and bitter Galut (exile). But don’t sell yourself cheap! Don’t settle on a superficial Messiah. “The great test of our generation,” the Rebbe once remarked,[14] “was our temptation to settle for all forms of false messiahs in order to numb our pain.”

“We are not thinking big enough,” the Rebbe said. The fact that Jews can live in their ancient homeland is an awesome miracle. The fact that Jews can and must protect themselves unapologetically is our most sacred duty. The fact that we have integrated and reached success in every facet of secular life is a blessing. Yet we have not endured 2000 years of suffering just to be able to drink coffee in Dizengof and eat falafel in Ben Yehuda. We have not endured millennia of blood and tears just to reach the highest echelons in Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington. We have not endured Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau just to raise a flag and have our own air force, like 191 other countries. We have not sacrificed for millennia just to be able to feel accepted by CNN and the New York Times! Is the sum total our entire blood drenched history—that that the UN stops condemning us for wanting to breathe?

We need and yearn for the ultimate redemption! It is Moshiach that we want, and want him now. It is the revolution that will transform the world and bring the Divine presence into our cosmos that we yearn for; an era when the “earth will be filled with Divine awareness like the waters covers the sea.”

As the Rebbe wrote in a letter to the second Israeli President, Yitzchak Ben Zvi (dated 11 Nissan 5716, April 1956):[15]

מיום הלכי ל"חדר" ועוד קודם לזה התחיל להתרקם בדמיוני ציור גאולה העתידה - גאולת עם ישראל מגלותו האחרון, גאולה כזו ובאופן כזה שעל ידה יהיו מובנים יסורי הגלות הגזירות והשמדות. וכחלק מעתיד מזהיר זה וכחלק מגאולה זו יהי' "נשיא זה מלך, לא נשיא שבט - אלא שאין על גביו אלא ה' אלקיו" (הוריות יא, סוף ע"א), והכל יהי' באופן אשר בלבב שלם ובהבנה מלאה - "יאמר ביום ההוא אודך ה' כי אנפת בי". ולכן כל כך קשה לי להשתמש בתואר זה [נשיא] בקשר עם בני ישראל בעת אשר יעקב קטן הוא ובני ישראל "דווים דחופים סחופים ומטורפין ויסורין באים עליהם". יכולתי להשתמש במלה זו מן השפה ולחוץ, אבל כיון ששמעתי אשר כ' "אמתי הוא - לא רציתי לכזב" בנפשי, ואתו הסליחה.

“From the day I went to kindergarten, and even earlier, I began to weave in my imagination the picture of the future redemption, the liberation of the Jewish people from its last exile, a redemption of such magnitude that it will allow us to understand the purpose of the pain of exile, the horrific decrees and the exterminations…”

We are looking for something so gigantic, so unprecedented, so mind boggling, that it will be able to justify all we have been through. A type of redemption that will allow us to finally say, Ah! Now we get it! And until we do not reach that point, let us not delude ourselves that we have achieved our real success; let us not settle for “poker chips.” We want the best and brightest during the last days of exile; but what we really need to fight for is the ultimate revolution, when the entire purpose of creation will be fulfilled, when Divine infinity will fill our entire consciousness and the innate harmony of all existence will come to the fore.

They Came to Get You

I heard the following story from Rabbi Aaron Lispker, the director of Aleph institute in Bal Harbor, Florida.

It was summer, 1995, one year after the Rebbe’s passing. Aaron and his friend Shlomie Grossman were traveling across Florida on a mission for the Aleph Institute, visiting Jewish inmates in jail. One evening, they were running out of gas and they also needed to find a place to stay for the night.

As they drove through some backwoods town near Daytona, some 250 miles North of Miami, they found a gas station. A man who seemed like the owner, a big and burly guy, filled up their tank with gas. As he looked at them, he asked them if they could accompany him to a back office. 

The two young Chassidim got nervous. "I don't know why we agreed," Aaron recalled. “It did not make sense to follow him to an unknown location, but for some reason we complied.” Aaron and Shlomie followed him to a back office behind the gas station. An old man was sitting there.

The younger man turned to the older man, pointing to the two Chabadniks: “Dad! They came to get you!”

The two yeshiva students were dumbfounded. This seemed absurd. They came to get gas and here they were in some forsaken office.

The old man turned to them and asked in Yiddish, "vemens zeit eir?” Who do you belong to? Where are you guys from?

Aaron, a witty young man, replies: “We are Rabbi Schneerson’s boys! We're Chassidim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe wanted each of his pupils to try and help every Jew in need. So we have been traveling this week to visit Jewish inmates in the area, Jews behind bars who may want to learn Torah, wrap tefilin, do a mitzvah, or yearn for some encouragement and inspiration to try and rebuild their lives for the future.”

The man burst into bitter tears. It took some time for him to recover and to tell them his story.

His story began before the Holocaust when he was a newly wedded young man from a Chassidic home living in Eastern Europe. Just as he began his new life, his entire family, including parents, brothers, sisters, and wife, were transported to the death camps and murdered by the Germans. Out of his large family, he was the sole survivor.

He survived the camps, but he was completely devastated. He arrived in the U.S. and settled in Williamsburg, but could not fathom how Jews could go on living normal lives. In particular, he could not understand how religious Jews could continue keeping Torah and Mitzvos after the war. He was so angry, bitter, and broken. He was determined to leave behind every trace of Judaism and Jewish identity. He would run as far as he can to try to forget his past and begin anew.

At first, he lived in a different town in Florida, but since there was a Reform Temple, this wasn't remote enough from Judaism for him. He moved to this town near Daytona, with nothing Jewish in it at all. He married a gentile woman, and had three sons, one of whom had filled their tank with gas.

Years passed, life was not very eventful for this former Chassidic Jew who was now completely estranged from his people. He never even shared with his own family about his Jewish origins.

One night, when he could not sleep, he turned on the TV and began flipping channels. To his surprise, he discovered a channel on Cable TV, where an elderly man, a bearded Chassidic Jew, was speaking in Yiddish.

He was stunned. He has not heard this language in decades. His childhood memories kept him glued to the screen, listening to the rabbi speak on TV for an exceptionally long time.  The subtitles that scrolled across the screen said this was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, addressing an audience at a “farbrengen,” a Chassidic gathering at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

Suddenly, all of the Chassidic memories of his youth returned to him. He was overtaken by deep emotions, but he knew that it was too late. He has made his choices decades earlier. “I am lost to my people forever,” he thought.

And then he heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe say on the screen (it is actually something the Rebbe would day frequently), “We were promised that that G-d will gather every Jew, one by one, taking each of them by his or her hand, and bring them to the ultimate redemption. No Jew will be forsaken, no Jew will be left behind. When Moshiach comes, G-d will gather every Jew from wherever they are, no matter their level of observance. No Jew will be lost to our people.”

This man felt the Rebbe was talking directly to him. The words made such an impression on him that in the morning, he gathered his family and told them he was Jewish.  At first, they didn't know what he was talking about since they had never been in contact with Jews before. He explained to his children where he came from and about his Chassidic origin. He told them that one day, The Rebbe promised, Moshiach, G-d, or some Jew would come to get him …

"That is why," he concluded, "when you came here, my son came to me and said, 'Dad, they came to get you'”!

Aaron and Shlomie sat with this older Jew and sang Chassidic melodies from his youth. They came back the next day and put on tefillin with him. They kept up a connection with him via letters; they sent him a Chanukah menorah to light candles on Chanukah and got him involved again in Jewish life. Around a year later, they heard that he had passed away.

This remains the legacy of the Rebbe. In our final journey from exile to redemption, no Jew will be left behind, not even a forsaken Jew somewhere near Daytona. All the three groups will ultimately unite, redefining themselves as Divine ambassadors to reveal cosmic oneness.

 

[1] Numbers 13:27-33.

[2] See Rashi to Numbers 14:44

[3] Numbers 14:41-42

[4] Numbers 14: 40-45.

[5] See Tosefas Bave Basra 119a that this happened after the story of the spies. (Rashi here is of a different opinion.)

[6] Exodus 20:8-10

[7] “Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign” (Exodus 31:17).

[8] Seder Olam Rabah ch. 8. Rashbam and Tosefos to Bava Basra 119a

[9] Frankly, this was not so bad a fate. For forty years they would live a utopian existence. Moses would be their leader, their food would fall from heaven, they would have G-d in their midst in the Sanctuary, they would be led by the divine GPS; they would be granted all of their material needs and would be led and taught by the greatest prophet in history without a worry in the world. Not so bad if you ask me.

[10] Bereishis Rabah 11:8

[11] בראשית רבה יא, ח: תני, ר"ש בן יוחאי: אמרה שבת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, רבש"ע! לכולן יש בן זוג ולי אין בן זוג? אמר לו הקב"ה: כנסת ישראל היא בן זוגך, וכיון שעמדו ישראל לפני הר סיני, אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא: זכרו הדבר שאמרתי לשבת: כנסת ישראל היא בן זוגך, היינו דבור, (שמות כ) זכור את יום השבת לקדשו:

[12] See the letter written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 19 Sivan 5713 (June 2, 1953), published in Igros Kodesh vol. 7 (pp. 280-81), where he compares the modern Zionist movement to the Maapilim. Note a fascinating comment written in the 19th century by the great Chassidic master Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin that Moses intimated to the Maapilim that now their ascent will not succeed, but there will be a time in the future it would. (Tzidkas Hatzadik section 86).

[13] You had in history groups like the Sadducees and the Karites, who tried unsuccessfully to redefine Judaism. Almost nothing remained of them.

[14] Sichas 11 Nissan 5736 (1976).

[15] Published in Igros Kodesh vol. 12

 

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Class Summary:
The story of the spies is well known. What is often overlooked is that this story is followed in the Torah by three narratives of rebellion—two in Shlach, the third in Korach. The implication behind the chronology of these events seems clear. All three scenes of mutiny were a response to the new and harsh reality of the nation destined to wander for four decades in the desert. One group, the Maapilim, said: Let’s go to the Promised Land with or without G-d. The second mutiny was a public violation of Shabbos—a public denial of G-d as Creator and of G-d’s covenant with the people of Israel. The third mutiny was that of Korach, blaming Moses and his fierce leadership for all their problems. The three uprisings are understandable. Frustrated by their reality, searching for a way out of the wilderness, they attempted to find alternatives. As the Jewish exile continued for so long, and our people felt trapped in a seemingly endless wilderness of anti-Semitism, pogroms, persecution, bigotry, and all forms of suffering—three divergent paths emerged in the Jewish world; Enlightenment and secularization, secular Zionism, and reforms and changes in the Jewish religion. As these three volcanos were transforming the Jewish world, in the 19th and 20th century, a soul was born in a small city in the Ukraine. The year was 1902. At this point, it is estimated that half of the Jewish people have abandoned Jewish faith and practice in search for a newer, better future. Within two decades, the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution would change the map of Europe and the living conditions of millions of Jews. Within five decades, the Holocaust would wipe out a third of our people. Israel would be born. Two years later, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, age 48, assumed the leadership of a small Chassidic group in Brooklyn. He took a long, hard and deep look at his world gone up in smoke and ashes on one hand, while confronting a deep spiritual crisis on the other hand. He set out on a courageous mission: to re-embrace and unify all segments of Klal Yisroel, of the Jewish people, and help redirect their course out of the wilderness of exile toward the Promised Land.