The Kotzker Rebbe used to refer to Korah as "Our Holy Grandfather," or unzer hailigeh zaideh in Yiddish. And even if he meant it ironically - a Kotzker trademark - the phrase remains provocative. Wasn't Korah the scoundrel who challenged the leadership of Moses, only to arrogate power for himself?
In his work called Pri Tzadik, Rabenu Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) views Korah as a religious romantic, a member of the "We feel Moshiach now" movement - a spiritual dreamer who believed that the millennium had already arrived!
The Pri Tzadik alerts us to a concept of creation found in the teachings of the Holy Ari, who says we can view people as either yashar/linear or igul/circular. In a circle the distance between center and edge is always the same: everyone is equally important; there's no head, no tail. But a linear reality implies different distances from a starting point; some progress more rapidly, some less rapidly, and some don't progress at all!
How does this relate to Korah? The Pri Tzadik cites a Talmudic passage which speaks of a time, "in the days to come, when God will hold a circle for the righteous; He Himself will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden, and everyone will point with his finger toward Him..." [B.T. Ta'anit 31a].
Apparently the Talmud is teaching us that at some point in the future, human development will resemble a circle in which everyone is equidistant from God. Korah maintained that this equality had been achieved at Sinai, when even the servant girls had visions as profound as those of the prophet Ezekiel! Korah, like the rest of the nation, saw the thunder and heard the lightning, and believed these to be the signposts of a new era - an ending of the linear reality which had been humanity's fate since the expulsion from Eden, and the crowning of circular reality. With Sinai, Korah believed everyone had become equals, like the angels.
It was these beliefs that prompted Korah's audacious questions to Moses as to whether a garment which is wholly blue requires a blue string, or if a house filled with Torah scrolls requires a mezuza.
If all of Israel is equally imbued with the regal mission of being a kingdom of priests, what need for a single Moses, a king apart? If every Israelite is a living Torah scroll, why require Moses to provide his individual imprimatur? In the era which is now igul, circular, all of us must be equal!
Alas, Korah had "jumped the gun." The Jews at Sinai were commanded to become holy precisely because many had not yet achieved holiness. There have been similar times when well-meaning movements - such as Christianity - have declared that the millennium has arrived, going on to question the necessity of painstakingly performing the commandments in order to climb the "ladder" connecting heaven to earth.
We remain in the era of yashar, and still await the circular igul before we can declare not only potential equality but actual equality.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.