What did Korach see that caused him to err? Answers the midrash: Parah Aduma –i.e. the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.  You may ask – how does the response answer the question – so let’s try to tackle this in two ways: first what Korach actually saw, and then what he should have seen.

The Red Heifer comes to purify and atone.  For example there is no other way of removing  impurity from corpses besides with the ashes of the red heifer, and thus we are all today in the status quo of being impure in this regard (which restricts entering certain places on the temple mount, for example, or the eating of certain offerings).  In a nut shell, the entire exodus from Egypt parallels a betrothal of the Children of Israel to The Creator, culminating at the foot of Mount Sinai which Hashem held over us like a wedding canopy.  When Moses saw the nation involved in the idolatry of the Golden Calf upon his return from receiving the Tablets, he decided to brake them.  The significance of this move was to annul the marriage before the ring (Tablets) would be handed over, and thus releasing the nation from being unfaithful (idolatry is compared to adultery) post-marriage.

In the mitzvah of the heifer, Korach presumed that this was a sign that we had been forgiven and that everything was back to the way it was.  According to some this reversal includes the designation of worship to the Temple (and thus the members of his party offered their incense outside of the Mishkan).  Furthermore, at Sinai the entire nation was elevated to achieve a supreme level of prophecy, for the first and only time in history, the Creator revealed Himself to an entire people.  Now that their sin had been wiped away, Korach figured that the nation was once again united in holiness, and that Moses and Aaron and the Cohens were unduly foisting themselves as leaders upon the holy nation.

The truth is, that although the Red Heifer testified to a forgiveness, nevertheless the relationship was not the same as it was before the sin (the continuation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) itself, which limited our interface with the Divine to a relegated space, and with added restrictions and hierarchies testified to this reality).   The truth is that the way the creation was set up is that the higher is to give to the lower, and that each facet must receive its flow from above itself.

One of the central edicts of guidance laid forth in Pirkei Avos is “make for yourself a rav (teacher).  Many commentators note the unusual language ‘make for yourself’ (as opposed to ‘have’ or ‘get’ or seek’, etc), and by this the mishna is teaching us an additional lesson, that even if the only available person is only the level of your peer, still you should make him into your teacher, for the way of learning and spiritual flow is maximized in the mentor-disciple relationship. In anthropological terms, the community needs a leader, the yeshiva needs a Rosh Yeshiva,  the leaders need superiors, the family needs a patriarch and matriarch, and so forth.  (We touched on this with the delegation of the sun and moon in last week’s parsha.  Interestingly, we have a midrash that says that the sun and moon joined up with Moses to defeat Korach, and that Moses alluded to this when he told Korach: “(come the) morning and we will settle this”.)

What Korach should have gleaned from the Red Heifer is that its unfathomabililty (it purifies the impure and impurifies the pure) demonstrates that the Torah’s wisdom goes beyond the grasp of man.  the Or HaChaim notes that this is why the verse states “This is the Chok (Decree) of the Torah, and not “this is the decree of the Heifer”. This is such a fundamental principle that it cannot be overstressed.  This is one of the reasons why on the way to Mount Sinai when Hashem gave the Jewish people a sampling of mitzvos as a preparation for the big show, He chose shabbos, laws of damages and the Red Heifer. At first this last choice would seem most odd, and to be in the stead of many more relevant and urgent mitzvos.  However, the lesson of the Heifer, that through it we see that the roots of all mitzvos lay beyond human reason, and cannot be limited to our paradigms, needs to be there at the outset of our initiation into yiddishkeit.  The Torah was offered to all the nations all were limiting in their acceptance. Only the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”; in other words, we did not found our service on our understanding, but simply by virtue of it being a command and will of the Creator.

Korach relied too much on his intelligence and character, even though it infringed on the explicit will of the Creator.  He led himself and others astray, and had he not lived at a time when Hashem, and His servant Moshe were ready to cause the Earth to swallow him alive, he would have been a perfect candidate to lead a break-off religion.  Today we, the Jewish people suffer immensely from fractures resulting from people giving preference to their ideologies and evaluations, rather than sublimating all their creative and intellectual energies into knowing and fulfilling that which G-d wants.

On a different note, Rabbi Yosef Salant (20thC Jerusalem) has a beautiful essay on the Red Heifer, and how it teaches us how to relate to history and cope with exiles.  Just as we don’t comprehend the working of this mitzvah, so too we cannot always comprehend His ways, for just as the Red Heifer makes the pure impure and vice versa, so too we often see the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Even Moses was left in the dark on this challenging issue, and King Solomon thought he understood all the mitzvos until he approached the Red Heifer, and he realized that he did not truly understand any of them.  This, Rabbi Yosef explains, is the meaning of the statement “at the end of days Hashem will open our eyes to understand the Red Heifer”, that is, when the show is over and the curtain is lifted, we will at last have the ability to understand all the enigmas and apparent contractions which confounded us from our limited vantage.

(The commentators in the Shulchan Aruch bring a custom to fast on the day before our parsha is read.  This is in commemoration of the day in the 1200’s when the goyim gathered and set ablaze all of our books and manuscripts (in the days before the printing press, and computers and saved files, this not a loss that could be easily recovered).  Being that there were men of supreme piety in that generation they were able to ask Hashem in a dream why this tragedy befell them.  The response was ‘This is the ‘Chok’ (statute) of the Torah – the beginning of our parsha.  It is worth noting that the term ‘Chok’ generally refers to laws which are beyond the realm of human reason (e.g. Shatnes, tsitsis, impurity, the Red Heifer).  In other words to paraphrase the prophet, “your ways are not My ways, and My thoughts are not your thoughts”, our challenge is to perform all the mitzvos with a complete heart, and endure all challenges of history with total faith.)

To enhance the efficacy of this lesson, the parsha of the Red Heifer is placed right before the death of the saintly Miriam, in whose merit we had water in the desert, and whom we may be troubled to grasp why she did not merit to enter the land of Israel.  In the same vein, right after this mitzvah was given as a precursor to Sinai, we were victimized by Amalek, a nemesis whose hate and historical persecution of us seems irrational.  It is no surprise then that the sages expound each of the words in the verse of the Red Heifer to refer to each of our different exiles.  For the present we can take heart when we conclude our Aleinu prayer “on that day He will be One and so will His Name (i.e. revealed expression) be One”, even though the nations of the world don’t know this for Hashem’s presence is deeply veiled at this stage in history.  We can also strengthen our emuna (faith) when we consider the Red Heifer, and how, seemingly irrationally, purity and impurity both come from the identical source, so too we must know that there is no multiplicity of powers in the world, and that what may seem to us as negative is ultimately sourced in the Absolute Benefactor of all worlds, the selfsame Divinity from where our joy, and health, fortune and wonder come from.

Wishing y’all a pure and uplifting Shabbos,