[based on Rav Shimon Schwab ztl, and a dvar written by Rabbi Moshe Taub]
Rav Schwab ztl, in Ma’ayan Beis Hashoeva, based on an idea of Rav Yisrael Salanter ztl, has a fascinating insight into the psychology of Korach.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that Korach actually started out as a very righteous man; during Cheit Ha’eigel, when Moshe said “Mi LaHashem Eilai”, Korach followed him. What then, made Korach falter to such a tragic degree?
Furthermore, there exists a textual question about the timing of Korach’s complaint – if the section about Korach’s rebellion appears in its correct chronological order (as the Ramban maintains), why did it take so long for Korach to protest? Shouldn’t he have expressed is discontent with Moshe at the appointment of the princes in the opening of Bamidbar or when Aaron was first chosen as the Kohen Gadol?
In seeking to answer these questions, Rav Schwab turns to Gemara Sukkah 52a. There, the Gemara teaches that in the era of Mashiach, Hashem will slaughter the Yetzer Hara. Before doing so, inhabitants of the world will have the opportunity, for the first time, to actually see with their eyes this force with which they have tangled throughout their lives. The righteous will see a force of such might and size that they will proclaim “who can climb such a mountain!” The wicked, by contrast, will see the Yetzer Hara as something as small as a single hair.
This seems like the exact opposite of what we would have expected…The righteous, who have managed to overcome their evil inclination should be the ones to see the Yetzer Hara as a defeated entity, or a single hair. The wicked, who could not muster the strength (or interest) to defeat this foe, should be the ones to proclaim what a huge “mountain” they could not summit!
He explains that most people who fail in their existential religious struggles do not set out to be wicked; rather they strive to ignore the evil that exists. Additionally, the Yetzer Hara is focused on the external character of such a person, intent on getting the wicked individual to perform improper actions. The desire is put in front of the person, and he/she falls into the trap with very little thought involved. In the event they realize it was wrong, then there may be some remorse, but another improper action is sure to spring up again, because this person lacks the interest/strength to oppose it. This evil, having never been contended with is seen by them as trivial; like the addict who has yet to even try to quit, who confidently proclaims their ability to stop when they so desire. It is thus understandable why the Yetzer Hara appears small and insignificant in their eyes. If you never march onto the battlefield, then you have no knowledge of the identity and no concept of the strength of your enemy; you simply sit back, and it conquers you.
On the other hand, the righteous contend with their vices and desires, acknowledging how strong they can be and fighting them nevertheless. By a righteous person, instead of targeting mere actions, the Yetzer Hara tries to dig at his/her core. It tries to sully and erode the essence of a person motivations behind his/her actions. The righteous person is behaving properly, but the Yetzer Hara tries to poison those intentions. For example, a person might be learning lots of torah or giving massive amounts of charity, but perhaps he is doing so only to garner kavod from his peers, instead of performance l’sheim shamayim. People who contend with such a force – a force so strong that it can even infiltrate righteous deeds – see the Yetzer Hara as large and looming.
In the time of Mashiach, each person will see the Yetzer Hara the way in which it was regarded during his/her lifetime.
Korach began as a tzaddik, but a unique and dangerously self-assured one. His Torah study and spiritual growth was used subconsciously as a decoy against his own conscience. Instead of dealing with his jealousy and desire for power, he chose to ignore them, covering them up with acts of virtue. His good deeds were a habitual self-distraction that both fooled how others perceived him, and how he perceived himself.
It was only now, after the Cheit HaMeraglim, when Moshe’s approval ratings were at an all-time low, that there was a possibility of a coup d’état. Suddenly, Korach felt a stirring within; a desire that he had repressed for some time (since the beginning of Bamidbar), had now clawed its way back to the fore, having festered into a fiercer and more powerful entity.
Korach stood before a mountain that he could not climb.
(Perhaps that is one reason why his punishment was to get swallowed by the earth, almost like an inverted mountain (?).)
(I also saw an idea that may explain the choice Chazal made for the portion we read as this week’s Haftorah, taken from Shmuel I, in which Bnei Yisrael ask for a king. Despite the fact that a Jewish king is a concept which appears in the Torah, Bnei Yisrael’s asking for a one was viewed, at least partially, as a failing. Why? Perhaps because of our motivations behind the request. Asking for a king was fine, but convincing ourselves that this was for religious reasons was the error. We should have been conscious of our true motivations – which was that we wanted to be like other nations – and not have convinced ourselves it was to achieve greater religious inspiration.)
If I understood Rav Schwab correctly, I think this concept can be best summarized, that when we acknowledge and contend with our own human frailty, we actually move closer toward achieving G-dliness.
Perhaps the first steps in growing and trying to perfect ourselves are (a) wanting to do so, and (b) being cognizant of what is innate and being honest about our true desires and shortcomings – facing our Yetzer Hara head on. When challenges are discernible, they become exponentially easier to overcome.