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Korach – Take Two

In September of last year, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the UN from 2009-13 and a well-known writer, authored an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal: “Remembering the Yom Kippur War in a Divided Israel.” In the article, he reviewed the history of the Yom Kippur War and the negative effect it had on the Israeli public’s perception of their own government. He went on to detail what he termed the “crisis” of deep divisions and feelings of disgust and distrust within the country, and the Israeli public’s overall disillusionment with Israel today.

He closed the article with a quote from letters that commando leader Yoni Netanyahu (the late older brother of Bibi Netanyahu – who was the only fatality during the famous hostage rescue mission in Entebbe) wrote to his parents in 1973: “The wars of the Jews are always the ugliest. The Arabs won’t need to fight. The Jews, as usual, will destroy themselves.” That article was published on September 30th, less than one week before the horrors of October 7th.

Regular readers of this column may recall that, from the very beginning, I maintained that when the Jewish people are so deeply divided the Almighty sends a message to create unity and remind us how much we need one another. I once again raise the painful memories of October 7th because the most infamous episode of intra-Israelite division that we find in the Torah appears in this week’s portion.

Our sages have much to say about disagreements. There are those disputes that are considered admirable – as in the disputes of the schools of Hillel and Shammai – and those “arguments” will endure because they were “for the sake of heaven.” By contrast, the episode that appears in this week’s Torah portion is given as the quintessential example of a dispute that was not “for the sake of heaven” and thus “will not endure” (Pirkei Avot 5:17). Here is how it begins in the opening sentences of this week’s Torah portion:

“Korach son of Yitzhar (a grandson of Kehas, and great grandson of Levi) began a rebellion along Dasan and Aviram (sons of Eliav), and On the son of Peles, of the tribe of Reuven. They, along with 250 Israelites who were men of stature, had a confrontation with Moses” (Numbers 17:1-2).

This week’s Torah portion introduces us to Korach, a man who initiated a huge fight with Moses and Aaron. Korach, who was a first cousin of Moses and Aaron, was a man of some stature; he was fabulously wealthy and an erudite scholar. The great Biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) wonders why Korach, who was so intelligent, embarked on such folly.

Rashi goes on to explain that Korach was particularly incensed that he had been passed over as the head of the tribe of Levites – an honor that was given to a younger cousin. Korach then instigated a controversy regarding Moses appointing his brother Aaron as the High Priest. He publicly accused him of nepotism and of wishing to “lord over” the rest of the Israelites (see 17:3 and 17:13). Korach, a man of some influence, convinced some 250 community leaders to join him in this fight, and back his claim.

Moses, who had only appointed Aaron as the High Priest at the direction of the Almighty and knew that he had done nothing wrong, tried mightily to pacify them, but to no avail. Moses finally agreed to devise a test to see whose side the Almighty would take. Even after being unjustly attacked Moses still tries very hard to get his accusers to retract their complaints and walk back their unmerited dispute because he knew that the outcome of such a test would be disastrous for them.

They refuse to back down and, of course, this episode does not end well for them – the entire band of conspirators die a very public and gruesome death:

“The earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them and their houses, along with all the men who sided with Korach, and all their property. They fell into the depths along with all that was theirs. The earth then covered them over and they perished from among the congregation. Hearing their cries all the Israelites who were around them fled fearing that they too would be swallowed. A fire then came down from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense” (Numbers 17:31-35).

The Almighty created two miracles to eliminate those who generated this controversy; Korach and his closest conspirators were miraculously swallowed up by the ground, while the two hundred and fifty men who participated in the test against Aaron perish in a heavenly fire.

But there is a fascinating subplot to this story, one that is often overlooked – but one that the sages of the Talmud use to highlight the severity of maintaining fights and the prohibition against tolerating infighting.

According to our sages two of the “rabble rousers” – namely Dasan and Aviram – were long time antagonists of Moses, and had picked a fight with him, or sided against him on numerous occasions. It began back in Egypt when Moses came across them fighting with one another and he chastised them for it. They were resentful and eventually tried to eliminate Moses by informing Pharaoh that Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster. Moses was forced to flee for his life.

Later, when the Jews left Egypt, the Torah says that Pharaoh was going to inform the Jews left in Egypt that their brethren were trapped in the desert. The commentators ask, “What Jews? They had already left!” They answer that this refers to Dasan and Aviram who were unwilling to leave with Moses and had stayed behind. Later, when they finally rejoined the rest of the nation, they proceeded to fight Moses over the laws of the manna. In short, their fighting with Moses went back many, many decades.

So, knowing how badly the episode in this week’s Torah portion will end for those conspirators, how does Moses react to this latest indignity at the hands of Dasan and Aviram? He could have easily just left it alone and let them perish for their outrageous acts and claims against him. But no, Moses does the exact opposite. First, after trying to pacify his own tribe, Moses reached out to Dasan and Aviram individually and sent a messenger to invite them each for a one-on-one conversation with him to resolve their differences. They refuse.

Remarkably, Moses tries yet again. Moses, who was the leader of the entire Jewish people, and had done absolutely nothing wrong, is not satisfied to let this discord persist, he personally goes searching for them to try and have a conciliatory conversation and come up with some sort of solution to their complaints and to have them end their quarrel with him.  Again, his overtures are rebuffed.

Seeing the extraordinary lengths Moses goes to try and resolve a totally unjustified claim against him, Shimon Ben Lakish (AKA Reish Lakish) a third century sage of the Talmud concludes; “From here we see that one should not perpetuate a quarrel. This is supported by the statement of Rav; ‘Anyone who supports or maintains a quarrel violates a negative prohibition written in the Torah: ‘He should not be like Korach and his assembly’’ (Numbers 17:5)” (Sanhedrin 110a).

By the fall of last year (2023), the deep infighting and growing divide within the different segments of Israeli society (and mirrored of course within the various political parties) had reached a fever pitch, as outlined by Ambassador Oren in his article for the Wall Street Journal. It is, of course, no coincidence that the horrors of October 7th took place less than a week after that article was published.

As I was writing this column, I received a preview of an article about to be published by a leading American rabbi – one who heads a well-known Yeshiva (school of higher Jewish learning) – primarily blaming the horrors of Oct 7th on the irreligiosity and the perverse values of Israeli society. In my opinion, he is very wrong.

I believe he is right that Israeli society has been led astray by false gods and secular values, and has, sadly, drifted far from the Almighty and the Jewish people’s Torah values. However, the reason for such horrors, in my opinion, can only be attributed to the growing abyss between the divisions of Israeli society.

This is what we see in this week’s Torah portion as well. Even when you know you’re right (as our teacher Moses did) it is incumbent on you to find peace and a middle ground and prevent a greater harm from befalling those whom you know are in the wrong. Because the Almighty doesn’t tolerate infighting and division within His people – it causes Him great pain. Thus, the blame for the horrors of Oct 7th fall in equal measures on all segments of Jews, and particularly on those who should know better (as well as on Hamas, of course). We all must work together to heal this rift.

There are ways that we can all begin. Many, if not most of us have, unfortunately, ongoing quarrels; whether it’s with a neighbor, a family member, or a former friend. We must take the initiative to resolve these fights – even when we know that we’re right. It is, after all, according to one opinion in the Talmud, a negative prohibition to perpetuate any quarrel. So, let’s address eliminating the dissensions in our personal lives and try to pursue a life of brotherhood and peace. Perhaps in some small way those values of peace and harmony will snowball and begin to heal the larger community as well.


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