Korach, the name alone elicits so many responses from tradition. This is one of the great confrontations in Torah. An open rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Have they distanced themselves from the people? Has leadership corrupted them? Is this a power play by people feeling out of the “loop”? Plaut, in his Torah commentary, notes that the rebellion is really in two parts. Korach against the entrenched priesthood headed by Aaron and Dathan and Abiram against the leadership of Moses. (Torah. P.1131). There is the “test” and the ultimate punishment, brought about by God, inflicted upon those who challenged leadership. You can read this text as religious literature or political science for these dynamics keep being played out centuries later.
Commentaries make mention of how Aaron, Dathan and Abiram speak, as well as Moses and Aaron, and even God. Indeed, several commentaries actually raise the issue regarding the fact that Korach and the sons actually may have had a legitimate complaint. They speak to the nature of leadership. We can see some of that even today. However, I wanted to mention another aspect of this passage that also gets mention and that may have meaning to us and our age. Some of the commentaries look at the words that are spoken and reflect again on the value of lashon ha ra, or evil speech/gossip and the differences between when one speaks behind one’s back or directly to someone.
In looking at this passage a thought came to me that how we speak to someone means so much and how we speak can, in itself, set a tone. Yes, there are times when diplomatic speech is not called for. Yet, within the context of Jewish life, we are often cautioned to speak so as to remember that we are speaking with an “image of God”. Indeed, the interpretations of the 5th Commandment of honoring and respecting parents (and thus people) stress the idea of respecting the dignity of another human being.
In a world in which we live that sees us being seduced by the sound bite, where speech is often “at” someone and not “with” someone, maybe we can take a lesson from tradition and remember that when we speak, to honor the dignity of people. To engage “with” people–even if they do not agree with us–may avoid conflict and disaster. To speak “at” someone reduces their sense of self and opens the door to mis-interpretation and possible conflict. There is no benefit in that. As we get older, we often hear this caution and remember that it is often not “what” we say, but “how” we say it that has meaning.
Rabbi Richard F Address