Aspiring to Greatness

  • Harav Baruch Gigi


Adapted by Lavi Bigman

Translated by Kaeren Fish



"And Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi; and Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav; and On, son of Pelet, [these latter] being members of the tribe of Reuven, took –. And they rose up before Moshe, along with personages from among Bnei Yisrael – two hundred and fifty princes of the people, called to the assembly – men of renown." (Bamidbar 16:1-2)


The midrash addresses the difficulty in understanding these verses: What does the Torah mean by telling us that Korach "took"? Seemingly, the object of this "taking" is missing. What, or whom did he take? The midrash, cited by Rashi, answers:


"He took himself to one side, to be separated from amongst the congregation, in order to question the priesthood."


However, as many commentators have pointed out, it would seem that the verse is describing two different groups of sinners whom Korach brought together. One group consisted of Korach and the two hundred and fifty "personages" who offered incense, the other consisted of Datan and Aviram. Indeed, later in the parasha, when Moshe addresses the sinners, we find that he addresses two separate groups. First he speaks to Korach and his company:


"And Moshe said to Korach: Hear now, sons of Levi…"


But his words fall on deaf ears. Immediately thereafter we read:


"And Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, but they said: We shall not ascend." (verses 8-11)


Datan and Aviram are not even prepared to make the gesture of coming to Moshe to hear what he has to say. Still, Ramban comments on the need for a special appeal to them:


"Those who had gathered included the company of Datan and Aviram as well, and therefore [Moshe] now wanted to speak to them, too, and to warn them for themselves and for all who gathered as their company, and to calm them with good words, words of comfort for [all of] Israel, since his words with Korach had represented calming of the sons of Levi alone." (verse 12)


A close look at the verses reveals a linguistic hint at a comparison between Moshe's appeal to Korach and the response of Datan and Aviram. The attempt to engage Korach and his company is worded as follows:


"Is it a small thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you closer to Him, to perform the service of God's Sanctuary, and to stand before the congregation, to serve them?" (verse 9)


The response of Datan and Aviram opens with a similar expression:


"Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?" (verse 13)


It would seem that Datan and Aviram use this expression deliberately, to hint to Moshe that while he is busy aiming criticism at Korach and his company, he should be examining his own actions and motives.


The protest, then, involves two separate groups of sinners: Korach and those who offer the incense, on the one hand, and Datan and Aviram, on the other. But while the sin of Korach is set forth explicitly in the verses, the sin of Datan and Aviram is not clear. The commentators offer various explanations; I would like to suggest a different possibility.


In their response to Moshe's attempt at reconciliation, Datan and Aviram needlessly refer to Egypt by the description that is reserved for the Land of Israel:


"Is it a small thing that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey…"


And they contrast this with the Land of Israel itself, from which they detract the same qualities:


"… nor have you brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey."


Behind this contrast there seems to lie a fundamental debate between Moshe and Datan and Aviram concerning the definition of a "land flowing with milk and honey." In order to understand the difference between the two countries, let us take a look at Parashat Ekev, where the description is attached to the Land of Israel and where the contrast with Egypt is set forth clearly:


"… and in order that you live long upon the land which the Lord your God promised to your forefathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land to which you are coming, to inherit it, is not like the land of Egypt, from which you departed, where you would sow your seed and water it with your foot, like a vegetable garden. The land to which you are passing, to inherit it, is a land of hills and valleys; from the rain of heaven shall you drink water. It is a land which the Lord your God is constantly watching; the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." (Devarim 11:8-12)


These verses describe the essence of the differences between the conditions characterizing the "land flowing with milk and honey" and those characterizing the land of Egypt. Life in Egypt is simple: there is no need for hard work; sustenance depends on the Nile, which can be relied upon, year after year, to flood its banks and irrigate the crops. There are no ups and downs, and the situation in both the economic and the spiritual realm is stable.


In the land of Israel, on the other hand – the "land flowing with milk and honey" – the situation is quite different. Here, everything is completely dependent upon God. In order to succeed in the Land of Israel it is necessary to set spiritual objectives, to nurture aspirations. The reverse side of this situation is that when Bnei Yisrael do not live up to the expectations of them – "and it shall be, if you do not obey…" – then, heaven forefend, we may find ourselves in a situation where "He shall shut up the heavens, and there shall be no rain." This is exactly the message that arises from the verses: the "land flowing with milk and honey" is not the land of the easy life, where there is no need to exert any effort in order to achieve. A land flowing with milk and honey is one in which one is required to invest one's energies and to live in a perpetual state of spiritual tension so as to aspire and to achieve new heights.


Thus, the sin of Datan and Aviram was that they did not want to work towards progress; they were against aspiring and setting goals. They preferred the mindset of the Egyptians and of the period of the wilderness, where no special effort was necessary in order to make a living.


However, according to the midrash there is another place where the same approach of Datan and Aviram finds expression:


"And Moshe said to them: Let no one leave any of it until morning. But they did not obey Moshe and some people left some of it until morning, and it yielded worms, and it rotted, and Moshe grew angry with them." (Shemot 16:19-20)


According to the midrash, the people who left some of the manna until the next morning were none other than Datan and Aviram. Why did they feel a need to leave aside some of the manna for the next day? Apparently, they were not ready to rely upon God. They were not willing to rely on miracles; they sought economic security and stability through hoarding. In light of this episode, we conclude that Datan and Aviram committed two different sins expressing the desire for stability and mediocrity.


Thus, there is a most significant difference between the sin of Korach and his company, and that of Datan and Aviram. While Korach's problem was an excess of motivation and a desire to replace the leadership, Datan and Aviram wanted no leadership at all. They were ready to return to Egypt, to a situation in which there was no need for any leaders trying to guide the people to any objectives at all.


In our times, general society is largely apathetic when it comes to spiritual progress and the setting of goals. People are tired of wars, uninterested in battles, and want to be left alone in peace. This outlook has seeped into our circles, too. We find ourselves confronted with mediocrity, a sense of resting on laurels, and a lack of goals. We must stand firm against this atmosphere, and aspire to greatness. We must set ourselves new challenges and goals and aspire to attain them. Every day is an opportunity to try to progress, to grow, to raise ourselves higher.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Korach 5768 [2008].)