What is more important, Torah knowledge or good deeds? Is it intellect or piety that determines a jew’s spiritual level? This question sounds a little like a primitive view of the original debate between chassidim and their opposition, but is important for all of us to contemplate to some degree.
There is no question that being a good Jew requires both intellect and deeds. The mishnah teaches us (Avos 2:7) “the ignorant cannot be a chassid” , since without knowledge, piety will be lacking and often misdirected. On the other hand, knowledge and intellect alone does not guarantee a person’s spiritual superiority, as Rebbe Nachman taught that there can be evil scholars.
So, since a tzaddik requires both a great deal of intellect and piety (Likutey Moharan I:31), and we all have different capabilities in each of these areas, what is the proper balance and how do we view their relationship with each other?
The harmony of study and action:
Since we explained that each area of service cannot help us attain our goals on their own, we need to understand how they are dependent on each other. Intellectual Torah knowledge on its own can certainly bring a person close to Hashem, but that is not always a given. The gemara says regarding Torah study “if he merits it is a potion of life, and if not it can be a potion of death” (Shabbos 88b). R’Noson understands this to mean that intellect alone that doesn’t serve to heighten one’s actions, can sometimes have an opposite effect.
This explains the thought process of many groups who arrogantly oppose the tzaddikim. By viewing intellect and knowledge as an independent factor that determines a person’s spiritual level, it is easy for someone to oppose the tzaddik by virtue of his perceived comparable knowledge, since Torah knowledge is somewhat tangible and measurable. The mistake in their logic is that we have to look deep inside ourselves to see what effect our intellect is having on our actions and character traits. The tzaddik is not only one who excelled in Torah, prayer and mitzvos, but someone who makes sure that all these areas compliment and raise each other to greater heights.
According to this, we have to constantly examine ourselves to see how our knowledge and study is affecting us? If we can see our Torah study raise our level of prayer, mitzvos and character, we have truly benefited from both aspects of our service.
The lesson in the parsha
The Parsha begins with the words “Vayikach Korach”, “And Korach took”. Onkeles translates this as “And Korach separated”. Meaning that Korach separated the concepts of knowledge and piety, failing to recognize that a person’s level is judged by the purity of his actions and not just his intellect.
The Midrash further supports this, explaining that Korach felt that since we all experienced the giving of the Torah laws together, why should Moshe be considered any higher than them. By viewing his intellect as an independent sign of spiritual perfection, his knowledge was a great danger to him, allowing him to oppose the greatest tzaddik of all time. Moshe therefore instructed him to bring ketores, which similar to Torah knowledge, can be an elixir for life or death depending on who is offering it.
Let’s strive for harmony between our knowledge, prayer and action, to allow each area of our service to compliment each other in a way that brings us life.
Likutey Halachos CM Umnin 3:35