Grave of Rebbe Nachman - circa 1920 (man at entrance - Reb Alter Tepliker הי"ד)

Friday, July 5, 2024

Parshat Korach - Emunah Comes First


This week’s Parshah is Korach. It’s truly amazing—we read it every year and are still shocked: how could people oppose Moshe Rabbeinu? Today, we all seem to believe in Moshe Rabbeinu. Any Jew who observes even minimally the Torah, mitzvot, and Shabbat surely stands with Moshe Rabbeinu. The perennial question remains about Korach: how could someone as great as him oppose Moshe Rabbeinu? Where does this audacity come from? How could he deny that Moshe Rabbeinu led the exodus from Egypt, split the Red Sea with his staff, and was instrumental in the miracles at Mount Sinai, including receiving the Torah for 40 days and nights?

Reb Noson delves deeply into this issue in several places. Essentially, it boils down to this: every Jew operates on two levels: of faith—emunah, which is blind faith, and sekhel, which involves intellectual understanding. As active Jews, we engage with both: we apply intellect when learning Torah, delving into the Gemara, Chumash, Midrash, and halacha, etc., seeking to comprehend their intricacies. But also, we exercise pure and simple Faith, following the instructions with complete belief. Yet, the question remains: what takes precedence? What should be foremost in our minds? Judaism emphasizes that emunah must come first, with intellect serving as its companion. When a person studies Gemara, their subconscious belief underpins every word of Rashi, Tosfot, Rosh, Rif, Ran, or any other commentary. Similarly, when studying Chumash and Rashi, the foundational belief in every word guides their understanding. The goal is not to challenge or deny, but to deepen understanding within the framework of faith.

This is where a person practices what’s called Tzidkut, also known as faith in the Tzaddikim—faith in the sages who transmit the Torah to us. We firmly believe that Moshe Rabbeinu received the Torah directly from Hashem, word-for-word. The five books of Moshe Rabbeinu, Tehillim by King David, the Mishnah compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rav Ashi, the Gemara, Midrashim, the Zohar by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and later works by figures like the Arizal, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and Rebbe Nachman—all these, we believe in. They wrote, and we have emunah, unwavering faith in them and what they transmitted. Then, we seek to apply intellect to understand them.

The flaw arises when a person reverses this order. Reb Noson explains that one should first act out of faith, seeking understanding and growth thereafter, but always rooted in emunah. This principle is hinted at in the phrase Na’aseh VeNishma. The Jewish people are praised for accepting the Torah with “Na’aseh VeNishma,” meaning “we will do and we will hear” (understand). What’s the praise in this order? What’s so remarkable that they said “Na’aseh VeNishma” and not “Nishma VeNa’aseh”? It signifies their readiness to act first, even without full understanding. If Hashem commands Tefillin, we wear Tefillin; if Shabbat observance is required, we observe Shabbat—no questions asked. This is Na’aseh. Subsequently, we strive to understand—this is Nishma. Rebbe Nachman and Reb Noson term this approach as “T’zeL’”: first Tzaddik (righteousness, faith in the sages), then Lamdan (learning and understanding). First, we act in righteousness, guided by emunah, and then we engage in learning.

In contrast, there are those who reverse this approach: they insist on understanding first. They want to study the Torah and dissect every detail before committing to practice. This is Lamdan first, seeking understanding before faith. They decide to believe only after thorough study, which Rebbe Nachman abbreviates as “L’eT’z” (Lamdan, Tzaddik). Such an approach, delaying commitment until full intellectual satisfaction, mocks the simplicity and directness of emunah in Hashem, Torah, and the Tzaddikim. It places learning above faith, which Rebbe Nachman critiques as being akin to a “Letz,” someone who mocks the straightforward path of emunah, and is also a mockery in himself.

Reb Noson elucidates that this was Korach’s fundamental flaw. He could not accept with emunah the role he was assigned within the tribe of Kehat, over the prestigious positions held by his uncles and relatives as Nesi’im (leaders) of the tribes of Shevet Levi within the larger tribe of Levi. Korach struggled with his perceived low status, feeling disrespected and undervalued. His response was to challenge and attempt to uproot the entire hierarchy.

Korach and his assembly said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?'” (Numbers 16:3). Rashi explains that they all heard the Divine words at Mount Sinai spoken by Hashem Himself, not just Moshe and Aharon. Therefore, Korach questioned why Moshe and Aharon assumed leadership over the entire community when everyone present had heard Hashem’s words and bore the Divine Presence.

Korach’s approach was fundamentally one of rationalization, rather than emunah. Instead of accepting with simple faith that Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen by Hashem, Korach sought to argue his case logically. Even though the Torah clearly depicts how Moshe did not appoint Aaron as Kohen Gadol out of personal favoritism, but because Hashem commanded it, Korach remained unconvinced. He questioned why Moshe, as leader, also elevated his brother, Aaron, to such a high position. All of Korach’s arguments were rooted in intellectual reasoning, attempting to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership.

The core issue here, Reb Noson explains, is that Korach placed “lamdan,” scholarly argumentation, ahead of emunah. This reversal was Korach’s flaw which led to the severe consequences outlined in this week’s Parshah. The earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his followers, an unprecedented punishment, underscores the gravity of diminishing emunah. Those who aligned themselves with Korach’s dissenting view suffered the same fate, emphasizing the danger of deviating from faith.

Emunah, Reb Noson emphasizes, must always come first. It is foundational and non-negotiable. If a person relies solely on their intellect without grounding their actions in emunah, they are inviting severe consequences. Emunah precedes everything else; without it, one risks grave spiritual peril.

Rebbe Nachman, in Likutey Moharan lesson 24, emphasizes that the key to prioritizing emunah over intellect is cultivating joy (simcha) in performing mitzvot. The Midrash highlights that Korach’s rebellion stemmed from sadness and humiliation. During the Levites’ inauguration, they were required to shave all their hair, including eyebrows, eyelids, beard, and peyos. When Korach returned home shaven, his wife ridiculed him, triggering his feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. This emotional turmoil, the Midrash suggests, fueled Korach’s dissent.

Had Korach embraced simcha in fulfilling Hashem’s will and accepted his role without resentment, his path might have been different. Emunah and simcha are intertwined—if one has joy in performing mitzvot, it reflects a deep-rooted faith, and vice versa. Korach’s downfall lay in lacking this essential connection.

Despite Korach’s stature as a Torah scholar and his wealth, his deficiency in emunah and simcha led to his tragic end. The Torah underscores the severity of Korach’s punishment to caution against prioritizing intellectual pursuits over emunah. Such an approach risks spiritual loss.

Rebbe Nachman teaches that cultivating simcha is pivotal in strengthening emunah. Happiness awakens the dormant emunah within every Jew, inherent in their spiritual DNA. Building strong emunah ensures that intellectual pursuits in Torah study enrich rather than diminish faith. Treating emunah and simcha as inferior is akin to Korach’s misguided attitude—a stance that Rebbe Nachman likens to being a “Letz,” a mocker. Instead, we should strive to be “Tzel”—prioritizing emunah (Tzaddik) before intellectual pursuits (Lamdan)—to dwell in the shade (Tzel) of Hashem’s guidance and protection.

(This article also appears in the BRI website:

For a video presentation of this article:

Shabbat Shalom Umevorach,
Meir Elkabas

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