By Rabbi Chanan Morrison
"The entire congregation is holy, and God is with them! Why do you raise yourselves over God's community?" [Num. 16:3]
This was the battle cry of Korach's rebellion - a complaint that, at first glance, seems perfectly justified. Did not the entire people hear God speak at Sinai? It would seem that Korach was only paraphrasing what God Himself told Moses [Lev. 19:2], "Speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them: you shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy." Why indeed should only the Levites and the kohanim serve in the Temple? Why not open up the divine service to the entire nation?
What was Korach's mistake?
Havdalah and Chibur
Both in our individual lives, and in society and the nation as a whole, we find two general principles at work. This first is Havdalah - withdrawal or separation - and the second is Chibur - connection or belonging.
These are contradictory behaviors, yet both are needed. This truth is most obvious on the individual level. In order to reflect on our thoughts and feelings, we need privacy. In order to develop and clarify our ideas and insights, we need solitude. In order to attain our spiritual aspirations, we need to withdraw within our inner self.
Only by separating from society can we achieve these goals. The distracting company of others robs us of seclusion's lofty joy. It restricts and diminishes the creative flow from our inner spring of pure and joyful life.
This same principle applies equally to the nation as a whole. In order for the Jewish people to actualize their spiritual potential, they require Havdalah from the other nations. "It is a nation that dwells alone" [Num. 23:9].
Similarly, within the Jewish people it is necessary to separate the tribe of Levi, and from Levi, the kohanim, from the rest of the nation. These sectors have special obligations and laws, a reflection of their inner character and purpose.
Separation In Order To Connect
Yet separation is not a goal in and of itself. Within the depths of Havdalah lies a hidden aim of Chibur, being part of the whole and influencing it. The isolated forces thus have a positive impact on the overall character; their influence results in a tremendous inner advance in holiness. These forces specialize in developing talents and ideas that, as they spread, become a source of blessing for all. As they establish their unique traits and paths, life itself progresses and acquires purpose.
We find this theme of Havdalah-Chibur on many levels. The human race is separate from all other forms of life. Through this Havdalah, humanity can elevate itself and attain an encompassing character that contains the elevation of the entire world. The Jewish people is separate from the other nations, a separateness that enables them to act as a catalyst for the elevation of all peoples - a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" [Ex. 19:6].
The tribe of Levi, as it secludes itself with its special responsibilities, is ennobled and maintains its unique nature. It sanctifies itself until it becomes a blessing for the entire nation. And the kohanim with their special holiness are elevated until they draw forth ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) for the benefit of the entire nation, thus realizing its highest spiritual faculties.
The Correct Order
Now we can understand Korach's mistake. The Zohar [Mishpatim 95a] teaches:
"The Sitra Achra (the 'Other Side,' the forces of evil) begins with Chibur (connection) and ends with Pirud (division). But the Side of Holiness begins with Pirud and ends with Chibur."
The correct path, the path of holiness, follows this order: separation and then connection. Separation for the sake of connection. But Korach's philosophy (and similar ideologies, such as Communism) took the opposite approach. They sought the simplistic inclusiveness of all, binding everything into one uniform package, from the outset. They boastfully claimed to unite all together - "The entire congregation is holy" - but this approach causes all beauty and nobility to be lost in dull uniformity. In the end, darkness dims the clarity of thought. The repressive, totalitarian approach leads to disunity, as all parts yearn to break apart in order to express their unique nature. "The Sitra Achra begins with Chibur and ends with Pirud."
[adapted from Orot HaKodesh vol. II, p. 439]