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The concept of doing something Lishmah (for its sake) is a key concept in both living in alignment with oneself and living in alignment with our Source. It’s the inner spiritual work, when done with the physical performance of a mitzvah, that sanctifies our outer being. The Zohar stresses that ahavah (love) and yirah (fear) are the two main ingredients needed for Torah and mitzvot to affect their ultimate purpose.

The chassidic concept of dirah b’tachtonim (a dwelling for the Infinite Light in the lower realms) is an oft-repeated teaching by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It’s expounded by the verse, “They shall make for Me a dwelling, and I will dwell amidst them (veshachanti betocham).”1 Grammatically, the text should have said “veshachanti betocho” — “I will dwell within it [the Mishkan].” According to the Shelah,2 this indicates that in addition to building the physical Mishkan, Hashem wants every Jew to make themselves and their home a holy place so that He can dwell among every Jew. So, we are each tasked with building a personal Temple from the inside out. The more we work on building and revealing that holiness within ourselves and each other, the more Hashem’s presence is fully revealed in the world (and the closer we get to the third and final Temple and redemption). It’s a fundamental lesson: “think globally, act locally.” 

The chassidic masters explain that this, “is what man is all about; this is the purpose of man’s creation, and of the creation of all the worlds, supernal and terrestrial: to make for G‑d a dwelling in the lower realms.”

So, this system and teaching of dirah b’tachtonim shines light on the role of the physical mitzvot: that it is these acts that some might view as mundane and less spiritual that bring us to the greatest spiritual heights. It is the seemingly “lower” acts of worship that bring about the greatest unification with the Infinite Light. Historically, there has always been a danger when one begins to act in a fashion that separates the physical mitzvot being done lishmah with ahavah and yirah and attempts to transcend based on their feeling of personal spiritual status. This week, we are introduced to Korach, who did reach great heights but fell short, because his actions were born of self-gratification. They weren’t lishmah, which is when one acts only in accordance with their Nefesh HaElokit (which desires self-nullification towards a complete union with Hashem). 

Selfish or Selfless?

וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם ה’ וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל ה’. ה

They demonstrated against Moses and Aharon and declared to them, “You have gone too far! All the community are holy, all of them, and God is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above God’s congregation?”3 

Korach’s argument of everyone being equally holy was motivated by spite and not selflessness. He convinced his faction that there was no need for tzadikim, forgetting for a moment the tradition of Judaism, where the Oral Torah and Kabbalah is passed through the tzadikim. As we read in Pirkei Avot, the first major principle of faith is that Moshe “received” (Kibel) the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua.4

The Ibn Ezra holds that Korach’s rebellion actually took place earlier than when we encounter the story in the Torah. He says, “the Torah text is not chronological”, and that this rebellion actually happened when the Levites replaced the bechorah (firstborn) in the Temple service. Korach and his faction demanded that the honor and status that the firstborn once had, prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, be restored. They believed that Moshe had acted on his own, giving the honors and duties of the High Priest to his brother, Aharon, and his tribe. When Korach shouted, כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים, “all of the nation is holy,” he was referencing Hashem’s command: “Sanctify for me every firstborn.”5 

Korach is said to have been a perpetuator of disunity, sowing seeds of doubt, trying to plant a new seed, not of revolution but of jealousy. The word/name Korach means “bald spot.” The Midrash says it allegorically means ‘making division’, just as a bald spot is something that creates division where unity once existed. Rashi explains throughout the beginning of this parashah that Korach tried to rally the people, countering the commandments. He explained, for instance, that if one wears a begged (four-cornered garment) made only of techelet (ancient purple-blue dye), then there would be no reason to wear tzitzit on them, since the begged is already a reminder of all of Torah, something the tzitzit with techelet are meant to do. He also said that if one’s house is filled with books of Torah, there would be no need to put a mezuzah up, since it’s already a house of Torah.

The Zohar teaches that it is the tzitzit when attached to the begged that signifies yirah (fear, reverence) and self-negation.6 And a house full of sacred texts that contain Torah teachings still needs a mezuzah, the scroll inscribed with the ‘Shema’ verse which contains the precept, “You shall love your God,”7 and  ‘Vehayah’,8  which contains the warning about retribution, signifying yirah (fear of God). The mezuzah protects the house through the surrounding ahavah and yirah. A house full of sacred texts is a beautiful thing, but as it’s written in the Zohar, without the ahavah and yirah represented by a mezuzah, “Torah will not soar upwards.”9 As we learn in Pirkei Avot, Yirah must precede wisdom; in fact, it is the only way for wisdom to endure.10 

Korach wasn’t questioning lishmah, in order to understand and to keep the commandments in the best way; he was questioning in a way that lacked faith in these mitzvot being Divine decrees.

His most pronounced dissent, however, was against the Priesthood and their special status. Korach questioned how one group within the Jewish people could be viewed as holier, if everyone received the Torah at Sinai. But, as we see when we look further into it, he was actually driven by his desire to be High Priest himself, not to be the great equalizer. 

The rebellion, ultimately, was born of safek (doubt) and envy. The ‘Children of Israel’ started to question Moshe’s motives, thinking somewhere along the way he might have become selfish, no longer purely obedient to the word and command of Hashem. That is why Moshe replied, “…you shall know that Hashem has sent me to perform all these deeds.”11

The deepest part of the Korach rebellion is that it questioned the way fate is orchestrated by people of faith in concert with Hashem. Had Korach been successful in any way in reverting all status and honor to the default of firstborn, it would have meant that the status and blessings given from Yitzchak to Yakov as the forefather of the Chosen People would be questioned and, in a sense, revert back to Esav. That is why Rashi explains that when the Torah states, “Korach, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi,” it stops just before it would otherwise mention “son of Yakov”. Rashi says that Yakov sought mercy, i.e prayed over his name, “To their assembly let my honor not be joined.”12 In a way, not mentioning Yakov in relation to Korach in this verse is pointing out to Korach that Yakov, with his blessing, reversed the standard of the pagan world that the firstborn always receives the highest status. And he did the same when he blessed Ephraim before Menashe. So, this verse acts as a reminder to Korach that if his wish for status to always go to a firstborn were to come to fruition, Korach would actually not be a part of the Chosen People, as that status would have gone to Esav and his descendants. Korach’s entire rebellion was motivated by his own selfishness, as a firstborn being named the High Priest would have been self-destructive. 

The rebellion only grew in strength when Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven joined. Since the status of Yakov’s firstborn was transferred from Reuven to Yosef, Datan and Aviram suspected that Moshe was showing favoritism to Yehoshua (“the moon to his sun”), who was from the tribe of Yosef. R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (of Constantinople, 1450-1525), in his sefer Siftei Chachamim, points out that Datan and Aviram were not firstborn and had no claim to the priesthood, and that it was only because they were neighbors of a wicked person that they were influenced to join the rebellion. This teaches us how important the company you keep really is– it can be a matter of life and death.

Healing the Division

Chazal (Our Sages) teach in Talmud Avot, “What kind of controversy is not [lishmah] for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his assembly.”13 They say “Korach and his assembly” and not “Korach and Moshe”, because within Korach’s assembly itself there wasn’t a consensus regarding the end goal. In fact, their opposition to Moshe was their only unifying element; otherwise, they did not share a common goal. They all had different grievances, and, after the bitterness of the spy episode from last week’s Parashah, they took this opportunity to unify. Their argument wasn’t for the sake of Heaven but built upon ulterior motives. 

The Zohar explains Korach’s quarrel with Moshe from the verse, “And G-d said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.”14 The Zohar says, “The quarrel of Korach and Aharon is similar to this.” R’ Wisnefsky articulates from Arizal on the Zohar: 

The division of the water into two– atmospheric and ocean water– presaged the division of Korach. 

The seven days of the Creation week manifested the seven sefirot of the emotions. Sunday light was created and chesed became manifest, pure giving. Monday, when the primordial water was divided into atmospheric moisture (the upper water) and the oceans (the lower water), gevurah (restraint) manifested. Water is naturally heavier than air, so in order for it to be suspended in air, it had to be restrained from precipitating, and this aspect of the hydrological system/ cycle is referred to as the “firmament.”

In particular, however, the upper and lower waters manifested chesed and gevurah, and the firmament manifests tiferet, which harmonizes chesed and gevurah. This is why the work of creation involving water was not finished until the third day (when the oceans were “gathered” in order for the dry land to appear), for the third day manifested tiferet.15

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that on the second day of creation, Hashem did not say, “And it was good,”16 because the firmament– division– was created on the second day. It wasn’t until the third day that Hashem said “it was good” and included the second day in this blessing, because the firmament had been purified, healing the division it created the day before. This teaches us that constriction and concealment create division, leaving us with the task to reunite all of the elements that were once whole. Our entire purpose is to take the fallen sparks of disunity and elevate them to their source, the Infinite Light itself. 

The Rebbe explains further that the spies incorrectly considered it a spiritual descent to give up the manna (bread from heaven) they had in the desert in exchange for fulfilling the mitzvot. Moshe taught them that man’s purpose is to unify with the earth and elevate it through Torah and knowledge of Hashem. But Korach and his assembly opposed this, stating that if the purpose is to descend from the ethereal to the concrete, then that would mean that every person has their own path to Hashem, and there would be no need to have Moshe or Aharon be “superior” to the nation. 

Korach was haughty, which is associated with idolatry, as is stated in Talmud Sotah, “Lest your heart grows haughty and you forget the Lord your God.”17 Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that the antidote to haughtiness is to attach oneself to a tzaddik, being mindful of the fact that there is always someone greater and wiser than oneself. Instead of doing this, Korach led a rebellion against Moshe.18

The spies were wrong in thinking that we must engage in only heavenly matters, and Korach and his cohort were wrong in thinking there isn’t a tzaddik that gives his spirit to all of Creation. As we know, Torah is a combination of the ethereal and the concrete, of heaven and earth, of the finite and the infinite, and so we need tzaddikim and priests in order to help us ascend and spiritualize reality.

Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev teaches in Kedushat Levi that Korach didn’t think that Torah could assume the trappings of this world. It was at that moment that the earth “opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.”19 Levi Yitzchok explains that it was as if the earth was saying, “If you are unwilling to sanctify me through your deeds and to purify me through your service, then there is no place for you in this material existence. Man’s task is here on earth, not in heaven. Whoever is unprepared for this will return to his spiritual source. Let him not waste his time here.”

Rebbe Nachman teaches, “When judgments are secondary to kindness, suffering can be avoided. Suffering comes from the power of the yetzer hara (evil inclination), which is another source of judgment. Sin causes arousal of judgments, while serving God causes arousal of kindness… a person must create unity and peace between opposing sides. That is what mitigates Divine decrees. 20

The lesson, especially in times like these, is that pointing fingers and blaming others, feeling as though airing a grievance while hoping for a self-serving resolution, only creates more division, hate, and unrest. It is only by taking what feels divided and bringing it together that harmony can be achieved. Our task is to bring Godly awareness into physicality and, by doing that, every element and person is elevated. The tzaddikim are tapped into levels of spiritual reality and Divine consciousness that most of us could only hope for; which is why in Pirkei Avot it says, “Make for yourself a Rav (a teacher); acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person on the positive side.” Because no one is meant to be alone, and no one should think they have all the answers. A teacher will show you otherwise, and a friend will hold you accountable for the times you may feel haughty. Judging others and yourself favorably is the only way to not let the fallen sparks and division create further disunity. Redemption is harmony, a feeling of spiritual alignment, while rebellion, when not for the sake of Heaven, will leave the person lost, out of alignment, and maybe even feeling as if they have been swallowed up by the earth.

I pray that we can begin to eliminate doubt and division and usher in the expansion of an ever-broadening spiritual reality and the Moshiach, speedily in our days!


Erez Safar

Please note: You can read the full and final version of this Dvar/Article in my third book, ‘LIGHT OF THE INFINITE: IN THE DESERT OF DARKNESS.’

info: The book parallels the parshiot (weekly Torah reading) of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we are reading now! I act as your spiritual DJ, curating mystical insights and how to live in love by expounding on the infinite light of Kabbalah radiating through the Torah.

Just like on the dance floor, where the right song at the right moment can elevate our physical being, this book hits all the right beats for our spiritual being.

We cannot choose our blessings or how much light we will receive, but we can continually work to craft ourselves into vessels that are open to receiving – and giving – blessings of light.

All five books in the series, titled, The Genesis of Light, The Exodus of Darkness, The Sound of Illumination,Transformation in the Desert of Darkness, and Emanations of Illumination are available now at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. 
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Notes & Sources

  1. Exodus 25:8
  2. Sha’ar Ha’otiot, ot lamed
  3. Numbers 16:3
  4. Avot 1:1
  5. Exodus 13:2
  6. Zohar II:152b and III:175a
  7. Deuteronomy 6:4-9
  8. Ibid 11:13-21
  9. Tikuney Zohar X:25b
  10. Avot 3:9
  11. Numbers 16:28
  12. Genesis 49:6
  13. Avot 5:20
  14. Genesis 1:7
  15. Arizal, Apples from the Orchard
  16. Bereishit Rabbah 4:6. Cf. Zohar, Part I, 46a
  17. Deuteronomy 8:14; Talmud Sotah 4b
  18. Likutey Moharan I 10:5, 9
  19. Numbers 16:33
  20. Likutei Halachot V, p. 264-134a, Likutei Moharan I, 46:3