One of the most famous and, often perplexing Torah portions is this week’s read of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron led by Korach and his sons.
Numbers 16 begins this story as Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of loosing touch with the people, saying they place themselves above the community (16:3). Moses, in good leadership mode, asks Korach’s sons Dathan and Abiram to see him. Maybe to see if they could talk sense into their dad. The sons, however, reject Moses, heightening the tension by accusing him of leading them from a land of milk and honey (Egypt) into a wilderness so they could die (16:13,14).
Moses sets up, under Gods’s instruction, a test. Obviously Moses and Aaron emerge as victors and Korach, his family and followers are immediately killed.
For generations, commentators have played with this passage. Why was the rebellion taking place? Was it a fit of jealousy? Was it a naked grab for power? Is it a lesson in Biblical terms that the rebellion against Moses and Aaron was really a rebellion against God, and, in Torah terms, those actions (see Golden Calf) are met with harsh and immediate punishment. And what lessons for us as we get older can be gleaned from this event?
Commentators, both traditional and modern reflect back upon the previous portion and the incident of the spies. Was Korach, like the 10 spies who reported back that they felt like insects, projecting his own insecurities on leadership? Rabbi Twerski, in his Living Each Week” cites Talmud Kiddushin 70a: “One who seeks to disqualify another, projects his own defects upon him”. He also cites the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) in saying “that the world around us acts as a mirror, and that what we see in others is generally our own reflection.” Certainly these interpretations relate to much of our contemporary world. All we need to do is to watch TV news or read the papers to reflect upon how speech, especially attack speech, may be seen as a projection of the speaker’s own self image.
What also is important, as tradition tells us, is how one speaks. Often, as we get a little older and our soul mellows as a result of life experience, we come to realize that how we seek to raise an issue, even a contentious one, is as important as the issue itself. How we speak does impact how the message may be received. We can speak in a negative destructive way. Or we can choose to speak in a way that can build and create conversation and dialogue. In Mishnah Pirke Avot we read an instructive passage that details a distinction of speech. The passage describes a controversy that is “l’shem shamayim” for the sake of heaven. This is a discussion that is rooted in respect, not self motivation for self gain. As the Mishnah Avot (5:20) states:
“Every controversy for the sake of heaven will ultimately endure, but any controversy which is not for the sake of heaven will ultimately not endure. What is the prototype of a controversy which is for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shammai. What is the prototype of a controversy which is not for the sake of heaven? Korach and his people.”
Again, a great Torah message. Speak with respect even in controversial moments. Elevate the discussion for the sake of heaven.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.