This week’s Torah portion tells one of the saddest stories in the Torah. A cousin of Moses and one of the leading Levites, Korach ben Izhar is angry. He feels that he has been passed over for leadership of the family; he also feels that Moses and Aaron have taken all the power for themselves. In talking with his neighbors in camp, some Reubenites, he got angrier and angrier, until he and his friends have decided to make a rebellion. They and 250 men, leaders of the Israelites, come to Moses and tell him that he has to share the power. “All of Israel is holy!” says Korach, “Not just you!”
If you want to know the rest of the story, you can read it here. It’s very, very sad. Also violent. God rejects the rebels and they die horribly. We are left to wonder, where did Korach go wrong?
My favorite commentary on this story is from Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli philosopher and Torah scholar. Dr. Leibowitz points out that Korach misread the Torah. In Leviticus 19, God says, “Ki-do-sheem ti-hi-yoo:” “Be holy.” It’s a command, not a statement.
Israel is not yet holy. We are commanded to work towards holiness by doing mitzvot and studying Torah.
Korach’s feelings had been hurt and it clouded his judgment. Because his judgment was impaired, he made the command into a statement, to hear what he wanted to hear. Then, to compound the trouble, instead of talking it over calmly with Moses and Aaron (his cousins!) he talked up his anger with Dotan and Abiram, his neighbors from the tribe of Reuven. Everybody got madder and madder, and before they knew it, they were rebels, shouting at Moses. Things got out of hand.
That’s what happens when hurt festers, and is magnified by conversations with other angry people. In this case, a lot of people died. But I imagine if you think about it, you can think of other times when someone got their feelings hurt, and spread stories around among other angry people, and a community was damaged.
The lesson? That’s in the passage from Pirkei Avot that opened this post. The mishnah tells us that the 1st century students of Hillel and Shammai would argue in the academy, but then they’d hang it up for the day, and share meals. There were marriages between the two groups. They spoke with one another outside the study hall, sharing food and joy, despite the fact that they had serious disagreements about matters of Jewish law. Korach, on the other hand, stayed separate and angry, only talking to Moses after the trouble had blown up into a full rebellion. The students of Hillel and Shammai did not invest their egos in their arguments; Korach was all hurt feelings and ego.
For an argument to be “for the sake of heaven” it needs to be conducted properly, and it needs to be about the issues, not about personalities. May we learn this lesson before we wind up like poor Korach.