Parshas Korach

A Look At Schism


Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the grandson of Kehas, and the great-grandson of Levi; Dasan and Aviram, sons of Eliav; and On, the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuvain, began a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 Israelites who were men of rank and distinction. They assembled against Moses and Aaron ... (Bamidbar 16:1-3)
Reportedly, a Jew once told an enemy general, "Why have you come? To destroy us? If you wish to destroy us, then go home! Leave us alone! We'll do it to ourselves. But, if you attack us, then we will join together to fight against you, our common enemy."

I don't know if that statement was ever actually made, or if it was said to one of our enemies, but, tragically, it certainly rings true. Jewish schism seems to be an innate part of our national identity, at least until Moshiach comes to save us from ourselves. How many people make jokes about themselves, "Two Jews, three presidents," etc.?

We do.

Korach, in this week's parshah, was not the first or last leader to break away and challenge the existing Torah leadership. Nor was his movement the last to be extinguished over time, proving the validity, or rather, lack of validity of his complaint against the system. And yet, Jewish schism is about the only thing today that is alive and well, and showing few signs of weakening. Quite the contrary! It seems to be gaining momentum.

In fact, over the years, I have made many trips back from Eretz Yisroel to visit family in America, and I can often tell what's on the "community's" mind based upon the questions Jews ask me about life in Eretz Yisroel. In the beginning, before Oslo, people used to ask, "Aren't you concerned about living in such a small country surrounded by so many hostile neighbors?" (The answer was, no. Many were astonished by that answer, and wouldn't believe me.)

Years later, after Rabin went ahead and met with the PLO and signed the Oslo Accord, that question faded and the new one was, "How do you make a living there? Don't you have difficulity paying such high prices and making so little money?" (The answer was, "Somehow, often miraculously, we get by. You can see the hand of G-d in daily life much better that way." Many were agitated by that answer, and balked; others were impressed, and even envious.)

On this last trip to America, just before Shavuos this year, neither question came up. This time, the question was,

"Aren't you nervous about the civil war developing over there? Can you feel the hatred when you walk the streets?"
The answer--at least for the time being is--"Not really. However, given the recent elections, one wonders if that time is not too far away, G-d forbid." It is interesting to note that in the Haftarah for Shavuos, just after Barak was elected prime minister of Israel, there was the following posuk:
"The form of the Chayos was the appearance of burning coals of fire. Walking between the Chayos was a vision of torches, and a Glow for fire, and from the fire went forth sparks (Barak)." (Yechezkel 1:13)
Fire, for the most part, is a symbol of anger. For many, voting for Barak was a vote to move away from the religious parties in Israel, and the ongoing influence they seem to carry in the Kenesset, as if to say: From the anger went forth Barak.

Whether or not this is something Yechezkel prophesied thousands of years ago it matters not; it is still a true point. There is a lot of anger within the Jewish people today, and it seems to be a "burning bush" this time that is self-consuming. Schism is far too common a trait for such a tiny nation to be "natural." Innate, perhaps, but "natural"--unlikely.

Thus, Parashas Korach, especially at this time in history seems to be as good a place as any to begin to analyze the mechanics of this spiritual malady unique to the Jewish people, and what is necessary to bring rectification. This will be the subject of the following three divrei Torah, b'ezras Hashem.

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They assembled against Moshe and Aharon ... (Bamidbar 16:3)
Family schism can be traced back to Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel). However, it is most pronounced, and most relevant to the Jewish people when discussed in the context of the Twelve Tribes, from whom all Jews descend. There, the division was so intense that brother almost killed brother, and in the end, they sold Yosef into slavery.

Now, granted, the brothers did not set out to harm Yosef until after they convened a Bais Din, and came to the conclusion that "halachically," he had to be dealt with. Yosef was different from the rest of his brothers, ideologically different, and enough so that they believed him to be a threat to the future of the Jewish nation; he had to be stopped in his tracks.

(Even though they were wrong about Yosef in the end, obviously, G-d felt Yosef and the nation had to go through the entire process, as the following Midrash makes clear:

The tribes were involved with the sale of Yosef;
Yosef was immersed in mournful thoughts about his separation from his father;
Reuvain was involved with mourning over his sin;
Ya'akov was mourning for Yosef;
Yehudah was busy taking a wife for himself (Tamar).
And The Holy One, Blessed is He, was busy creating the light of Moshiach.
(Bereishis Rabbah 85:2)
Hence, it was not greed or pride that motivated the brothers, as the simple understanding of the story seems to portray, or, at least, allows it to be portrayed--just as in the story of Korach:
They assembled against Moshe and Aharon and told them, "You take too much for yourselves. The entire congregation is holy and G-d is with them [too]. Why do you elevate yourselves above the people of G-d?" (Bamidbar 16:3)
From these words, Korach sounds like a very humble man, given over to the concerns of his people. He is not demanding more for himself; rather, he is the champion of the man in the street (or desert, if you will). Likewise, it was a "cause" the motivated the brothers against Yosef; they acted on behalf of the future of the Jewish people, or, at least their vision of it. How could they be so wrong?

Moses told Korach, "Listen, I beg you, sons of Levi. Is it too little for you that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to perform the service of the Tabernacle of G-d, and to stand before the congregation to serve on their behalf? He has brought you near to Him, with all your fellow Levites. Do you request the priesthood also?! You and all your congregation are rebelling against G-d!" (Bamidbar 16:8-11)
That is, you may think, Korach, that you are rebelling only against me ... in the Name of G-d; you may fashion yourself as a champion of the people, and perhaps feel that G-d is on your side. However, know this day that it is just the opposite, and eventually, you will find this out for yourself! Your heart may tell you that you are really defending an important cause, but if you check out your heart-of-hearts, then you may find that ultimately, your claim is against G-d Himself!

The same thing can be said of Yosef's brothers. Their hearts directed them to act as they did, but, it was what was going on in their heart-of-hearts, that caused them to falter and to err in their judgment. This is the most frightening thing about being human: we can be so clever that we can even outsmart ourselves sometimes, and believe things about our intentions that just aren't true, and then disguise those faulty intentions in grand statements of righteous indignation. But, in the end, the Torah testifies and says:

When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than all the rest, they began to hate him. They could not say a peaceful word to him. (Bereishis 37:4)
Now, from that point onward, Yosef could do no right, because everything, through the eyes of hatred, seems wrong, unwanted, downright evil! Now, Yosef had to go--for all the right reasons, perhaps, but for all the wrong intentions too. So too was it with Korach, as the Midrash explains: with the help of his wife, he suffered indignation by his lack of position, and this colored everything else that he saw. Even the holy initiation of the Levites that he underwent became a source of pain, not pleasure, for Korach.

As we will see, it is only G-d who knows what is going on in our heart-of-hearts, and therefore, as Moshe proclaims, it is only G-d who can reveal on the outside, what is "swallowed up" on the inside. This is what Rashi writes:

"G-d, G-d of all spirits of all flesh--shall one man sin and You will be angry at the whole congregation?" (Bamidbar 16:22)

"The Holy One, Blessed is He, said, 'You have spoken well. I know and shall make known who has sinned and who has not sinned.' " (Rashi)

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Moshe said, "Through this you will know that it was G-d who sent me to do everything, and that I have not acted of my own accord. If these men die naturally, sharing the fate of most men, then G-d has not sent Me. However, if G-d creates a new thing, and the earth opens up her mouth and swallows them up with all their possessions, sending them to their graves alive, then you will know that these men have rebelled against G-d." (Bamidbar 16:28-30)
Korach and his company challenged the authenticity of Moshe's rulership and the "system" of Torah he promoted. It wasn't that Korach was looking to convert to another religion; he just wanted to do things the way they made sense to him, and therefore, he had to question Moshe's authority, and publicly too.

As a result, there was nothing Moshe could say or do to show Korach the truth, and therefore, Moshe was forced to invoke Divine judgment (which would have come anyhow). But what is this "creates a new thing" business, especially since it says:

There were ten things created [the first] erev Shabbos at twilight, and they are: the mouth of the earth ... (Pirkei Avos 5:8)
Apparently, the mouth of the earth was not so new after all ... to creation, but to Korach and his followers, it was very new. [Rashi says that the form of death was new to creation (16:30).] Otherwise, they would have thought twice and three times before challenging Moshe's leadership.

Even still, why did Moshe speak about the earth opening its "mouth" and swallowing Korach's group in the first place? From where did that idea come to him? The answer to that question is right in the Torah, in this posuk:

Then [G-d] said [to Kayin], "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood shouts out to Me from the ground. Therefore you are cursed by the land that has opened its mouth, taking your brother's blood from your hand ..." (Bereishis 4:10-11)
Hence, Moshe understood, the way of all insincere controversy is to "naturally" be "consumed" by the ground--a condition built into creation itself as it was completed, just before the first "Shabbos of Peace" (i.e., "Shabbat Shalom") in the Garden of Eden. Moshe knew this to be a condition of creation, for G-d punishes "measure-for-measure": use your mouth to divide people, and a mouth will divide to punish you.

Perhaps, this was also alluded to and witnessed by the spies in last week's parshah:

They said, "It is a land that swallows up its inhabitants ..." (Bamidbar 14:32)
It is? All of its inhabitants? Or just the ones like you, spies, who will divide the people and turn them against Moshe and G-d? Apparently, Eretz Yisroel hates schism, and will do whatever she can to bring about achdus--unity. Sadly, we've seen that many times over our history, and there is warning throughout this week's parshah:
"Moshe sent [for Dasan and Aviram] ... (Bamidbar 16:12): From here we learn that one should not persist in strife ..." (Rashi)

"Come and see how terrible argument is: A humanBais Din only punishes one who has reached puberty, and the Heavenly Bais Din only punishes those above the age of twenty years. Yet, here, even nursing children were lost as well." (Rashi, Bamidbar 16:25)

Hence, the Talmud makes the appropriate connection that we, thus far, have only implied. After all, let us not forget that Korach was the reincarnation of Kayin, and Moshe, the reincarnation of Hevel (Seder HaDoros, Arizal, Shem M'Shmuel):
Rav Yehudah the son of Rav Chiyah said: Since the earth opened its mouth to receive the blood of Hevel, it has not done so since ... Chizkiah his brother questioned this--it says:

[As he [Moshe] finished talking, the ground split under them.] The earth opened her mouth [and swallowed them up with their houses, and all the men who joined with Korach, as well as all of their possessions.] (Bamidbar 16:31-32)

He answered him: For bad things, it has opened its mouth, but not for good things ... (Sanhedrin 37b)

Whether or not the ground actually opens its mouth today underneath argumentative people, as it did for Kayin and Hevel, and later, for Korach and his group, is irrelevant. The bottom line is that people who argue for reasons of their own, and not for reasons of Torah from Sinai, are going to be "swallowed up" at some point, some way, by creation. And, though one can fool himself, and sometimes others about his intentions, he can never, ever, fool G-d--never.

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Elazar the priest took the copper fire pans used by those who were burned up, and made them into a covering for the altar, as a memorial to the Children of Israel that no person who is not of the seed of Aharon can burn incense before G-d. They should not be like Korach and his congregation, as G-d said through Moshe. (Bamidbar 17:4-5)

Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven will result in a constructive outcome; but one not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What is an example of a dispute that was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his company. (Pirkei Avos 5:20)

There are many ways to analyze what went wrong with Korach, and all the Korachs of history. It is interesting to note that the word for "bald" shares the root of the word "korach," because the Midrash says that it was Korach's baldness that pushed his wife to push Korach to rebel against Moshe. As a Levi, Korach was completely shaven as part of the initiation process into the Mishkan-service.

Elsewhere, the Talmud says that Korach was a very wealthy man, and this may have led to his having too much confidence. Riches empower, and can give people the wrong impression about themselves, and what G-d really thinks of them.

As well, Rashi writes:

" ... How did Korach, a clever man, make such a mistake? His 'eye' misled him. He saw by a prophetic vision a great line of people descending from him, among them Shmuel the Prophet who was equal in importance to Moshe and Aharon together. He said to himself, 'On his account I shall escape punishment!' ... But he had not seen correctly, for his sons repented [at the last minute and did not not die at that time, and it was from them that these great people descended] ..." (Rashi, Bamidbar 16:7)
In other words, be careful about using perceived success as the basis for going against traditional Jewish values. You never know how G-d looks at what we deem to be success. Sometimes what we determine to be a sign of Divine approval is really just a test to see how honest we are about our plans.

There are many deep, psychological reasons for why people rebel against G-d, most too complex to discuss here. However, perhaps we can take the "advice" of the Mishnah above, and rather than focus on the negative, focus on the positive, by understanding what Hillel and Shammai did right.

What does it mean to "argue for the sake of Heaven"? That is obvious. It means to stand up on behalf of G-d, to be zealous for His sake, just as Pinchas will do a few parshios from now:

G-d told Moshe, "Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon the priest, stopped My anger towards the children of Israel because he was zealous on My behalf, which prevented Me from destroying them because of jealousy. (Bamidbar 25:10-11)
But how do you know? How do you know when you are arguing on G-d's behalf, and not on your own behalf? There are a lot of "zealots" out there doing all kinds of things "in the name of G-d," and upon a deeper investigation, it is clear that they are working for themselves. How does one avoid such a tragic error?

One such way is to ask yourself, "If I were wrong, could I accept the other point of view as truth, and live by it?"

If the answer is yes, then it means that you are not arguing for the sake of arguing, or in order to be correct, or, in order to justify a less moral lifestyle. The Talmud says:

Even though these [Bais Hillel] forbade and these [Bais Shammai] permitted, still, Bais Shammai did not prevent marriages with women of Bais Hillel, nor did Bais Hillel prevent marriages with the women of Bais Shammai. (Yevamos 14a)
Even though, halachically, one might have assumed that there would have been reason to do so. So how could they be lenient in so important an issue? The answer was, each knew that the other "camp" would accept and adopt the other's opinion, if it was proven to be true, and therefore, each was arguing for the sake of G-d and His Torah.

If so, then neither side may be wrong. Sometimes a Torah law can have different applications based upon the nature of the one who is perceiving it (assuming he is also a G-d-fearing Torah scholar). This is how two opinions can be called "words of the Living G-d." Hence, Bais Hillel and Bais Shammai could differ with each other, and yet, respect each other's opinion as law, to an extent. This is why the students of Shammai could live by the halachos of Bais Hillel, once the law was decided in accordance with the latter.

However, the starting point of this is fear of G-d. When a person decides that he is prepared to live for G-d, and to act as an extension of His hand in this world, in spite of what it might mean in terms of a loss of personal comfort and status, then, he can move with confidence knowing that his vision of reality will come close to G-d's. Such a person is never going to be a part of an argument "not for the sake of Heaven." Such a person will instead be a builder of peace:

Rabi Elazar said in the name of Rabi Chanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it says, "All your children will be students of Hashem, and your children will have peace" (Yeshayahu 54:13). Do not read "banayich" (your children), but "bonayich" (your builders) ... (Brochos 64a)
The "Master-Builder," of course, will be Moshiach himself, as it says:
The basic difference between "This World" and the "Days of Moshiach" is the lack of oppression by nations ... (Brochos 34b)
When Moshiach comes, and the yetzer hara is terminated, and people will once again only be able to think of doing the right thing, then all division will end, once-and-for-all.

Have a great Shabbos,
Pinchas Winston

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