At the end of the fascinating episode with Korach and the rebellion that he planned the Torah tells us:
“It will be a remembrance for Am Yisrael so that no stranger, who is not from the children of Aharon, will approach in order to bring the Ketoret before Hashem; and they will not be like Korach and his group…”
What is meant by the phrase “They will not be like Korach”? (“Ve Lo yeheye ke Korach)
The Rambam in his introduction to the Sefer Hamitzvot (Rule #8) makes an important linguistic point. The term “lo” in Hebrew has a dual meaning. On the one hand it can mean “you will not be” in the descriptive sense of the word while on the other it can mean “you should not” in the prescriptive sense. His main argument being that when we decide which items are to be counted amongst the 613 mitzvoth we must be sure to distinguish between the two possibilities and count only those that are prescriptive in nature. (As an example of the descriptive “lo” he uses “ve lo kam navi od beyisrael ke Moshe” “And there has not been (or there will not be) another prophet like Moshe”. In this context the word “lo” clearly is not a command but rather a statement of fact).
Amongst the examples the Rambam discusses he quotes our passuk and posits that our “lo” is merely a description and therefore should not be seen as a negative commandment. His reading of the passuk is that any future rebellion, similar to that of Korach will not end in the same manner but rather will be punished by leprosy.
The Rambam says this despite the fact that the Gemara in Sanhedrin (110a) states “anyone who continues (or supports) strife is in violation of the negative commandment not to be like Korach”. The clear implication of the Gemara is that the passuk is to be read as an imperative- do not conduct yourself as Korach. And this is clearly labeled a “lav” – a negative mitzvah. The Rambam is quite familiar with the Gemara but feels that the term “lav” here is a borrowed phrase and is meant simply to reinforce the gravity of the situation but not to indicate a legal obligation.
The moral bankruptcy associated with strife is included in another mitzvah according to the Rambam. In his listing (negative #45) the Rambam remarks that in addition to the simple meaning of the passuk in Vayikra “lo titgodedu” “do not mutilate your body” (in response to a death) it is also to be understood as “do not create factions” (a play on the word “agudah” a bunch or group as in “agudat ezov” or in the Rosh Hashannah teffila “agudah echat”). Here again the Rambam goes out of his way so discuss our passuk and clearly states that despite his agreement with the content of the “prescriptive reading” and all that stands behind it he thinks that the simple reading of the passuk is descriptive.
[As an aside I saw an interesting explanation of the seemingly farfetched connection between the prohibition of self-mutilation and promoting strife. Mutilation is prohibited as it was the pagan manner of expressing grief and it is not the Torah’s wish for us to imitate such behavior. Strife as well is an expression of idolatry. The Sifri in Devarim (33:19) describes a scene where the nations of the world arrive in Yerushalayim on a business trip and they decide to investigate Judaism. They are amazed to find that all the Jews are serving one God and eating the same food. The visitors are accustomed to a wide variety of both deities and diets al of which are mutually exclusive and here they see a united people in both religious observance and social practice. The experience is so overwhelming that they are convinced as to the authenticity of Judaism.
lack of unity and mutual respect reflects a pagan society. (I don’t think the point needs to be made any more clear, and how said is it that we are light years away from the beautiful scene described in the Sifri)].
As opposed to the Rambam many of the other Rishonim did count this as a separate mitzvah. The Behag, the Semag and others all took the gemara in Sanhedrin at face value and claimed that supporting mackloket constitutes a violation of an issur deoraita.
[This is not the only instance that we have with such an ambiguity concerning the word “lo”. In a very creative sense one of the early Achronim uses this reading to require a community to appoint a Rabbi, and force all members of the community to participate in all expenses related to this. His proof is the pasuk in Pinchas when Moshe asks God to provide the next leader of Am Yisrael and is concerned that they might be left as a Shepard less flock. The phrase Moshe uses is “velo tehiye adat Hashem ketzon asher ain lahem roeh”. The “lo” here is read not only as a description but as a prescription as well.]
Amongst those who count this as a mitzvah is the Sefer HaYeraim (Rabbi Eliezer M’metz) (#357). The Yeraim however puts an interesting spin on the issue. As opposed to the Behag and Ramban who simply quote the line of the Gemara in Sanhedrin implying that all machloket is included the Yeraim limits the scope. The prohibition is limited to rebellion on religious grounds. The claim of Korach against Moshe and Aharon of “why are you any better than any of the people” is the crux of the matter. It is under these circumstances only that the issur exists. (I would assume that he is equally opposed to fighting over mundane issues, however it is only is the religious realm that the Torah has specified the special mitzvah).
This is a very interesting reading of the issue and reflects many of the themes that have come up throughout Sefer Bamidbar. The Mishkan forms the centerpiece of life in the desert and we are constantly warned about getting carried away and attempting to enter areas that are off limits to us. Parshat Korach teaches us this lesson not in a geographic sense but rather in a social sense. I am not a Kohen and therefore I must accept my position in the role that I have been given vis a vis avodat Hashem.
Korach’s “question” to Moshe (as quoted by Rashi) concerning the tallit that is fully colored with techelet represents the same concept. In his mind if one strand of techelet works how much more so the entire garment. In fact, he was very wrong. A single strand in the correct time and place is far more effective than the abundance of misplaced techelet.
While we constantly strive for more and push to achieve greater and greater levels the individual is kept in check but being reminded that they are limited in their abilities. Knowing that I have a unique role to play and doing my best to fulfill it to my utmost ability is the truest and most genuine form of avodat Hashem.