We read in Parashat Korach that when Moshe heard Korach and his followers voice their complaints, and insist that they should all be granted the privileges of the kehuna, he fell to the ground helplessly (“va-yipol al panav” – 16:4). Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that whereas in previous instances where Benei Yisrael angered God, he was able to pray on their behalf, he now felt he could no longer petition for them, considering how many times they had sinned.
The Kotzker Rebbe, after citing Rashi’s comments, suggests a clever explanation for why Moshe felt unable to pray for the people in the wake of Korach’s uprising. Some sources tell that after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe successfully petitioned on the people’s behalf by claiming that they were unaware of the prohibition against idol worship. The Ten Commandments were said in the singular form, and thus the people perhaps presumed that the commands were issued specifically to Moshe. Hence, they were unaware that the first two commandments – to believe in God and not to worship other deities – were not binding upon them. As such, they should be forgiven for worshipping a graven image. This argument, however, instantly lost its validity the moment Korach and his cohorts came to Moshe and proclaimed, “…kol ha-eida kulam kedoshim” (16:3) – that the entire nation is holy, which Rashi explains to mean, “They all heard words from the Almighty at Sinai.” Once the people themselves “confessed” that they, like Moshe, received the divine commands at Sinai, Moshe could no longer excuse the golden calf by claiming that the people did not consider themselves bound by the prohibition against idol worship. Therefore, the decree of annihilation issued in the wake of the golden calf resurfaced, and Moshe felt helpless.
Underlying this clever insight is a profound understanding of the fundamental difference between these two episodes. The sin of the golden calf was borne out of the people’s sense of helpless dependency on Moshe. The moment it appeared to them that he was not returning, they frantically searched for an alternative, and this led them to produce and worship an idol. The cause of the golden calf was the people’s sense that they could not directly relate to God, as only Moshe was capable of receiving the divine command, and thus their connection to God was shattered once they concluded that he was gone. Korach’s revolt reflected the precise opposite mindset, one of complete confidence and an inflated sense of independence. As Rashi cites from the Midrash, Korach argued to Moshe that a garment dyed entirely with tekhelet does not require a tekhelet string of tzitzit, and that a room full of Torah scrolls does not require a mezuzah. His claim was that all Am Yisrael were sacred and had no need for religious leadership or a priestly class. They were all equally capable of serving the Almighty properly without any guidance or inspiration from leaders, and thus they did not need Moshe and Aharon filling their respective roles.
Moshe was able to petition on the people’s behalf after the sin of the golden calf, but not in response to Korach’s uprising. If the problem is extreme insecurity and lowliness, a sense that God’s word is relevant only to “Moshe” – to the exceptionally righteous – then the malady can, with time, be cured through education and training. If we fail because of despair, because we feel incompetent and incapable of meeting God’s expectations, there is the possibility of growth and learning, whereby we can gain the strength and resolve needed to fulfill our obligations. But in the case of Korach’s revolt, Moshe felt helpless. If we err because of overconfidence, because we assume we have all the answers and have nothing more to learn, then we cannot learn. And so Moshe could pray for the people after the golden calf, but not after Korach’s revolt. The precondition to growth and improvement is recognizing the need for growth and improvement. And thus while the tragedy of the golden calf demonstrates the grave dangers of under-confidence and despair, it was, at least in one sense, less grievous a mistake than the overconfidence that was put on display during Korach’s revolt, which can very easily quash all hopes of improvement and growth.