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Korach 5771-2011

“The Preciousness of Peace”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we learn of the infamous charges leveled against Moses by Korach and his compatriots, Datan, Abiram, On, and the sons of Reuben.

The principal complaint of Korach and his cohorts was that Moses and Aaron had usurped too much authority. The rebels exclaimed (Numbers 16:3): “Oo’ma’do’ah tit’nahs’oo ahl kehal Hashem,” Why do you [Moses and Aaron] exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?

To determine who was really G-d’s chosen leader, Moses proposes a test. He suggests that Korach and his entire assembly take firepans, place incense on them, and G-d will show who He will choose. Fearful of the consequences of rebellion, Moses pleads with G-d not to accept the dissidents’ offering of fire. Chagrined by the challenge to his leadership, Moses plaintively calls out to G-d (Numbers 16:15), “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.”

Despite repeated attempts on the part of Moses and Aaron to quell the rebellion, the rebels refuse to back down. Eventually, the earth opens up, swallows Korach and all his possessions, and a fire comes forth from G-d and devours the 250 people who offered up the incense.

The rebellion, however, does not end there. On the very next day, the children of Israel complain to Moses and Aaron saying (Numbers 17:6): Ah’tem ha’mee’tem et ahm Hashem,” You have killed the people of G-d! In response to this repugnant accusation, G-d announces His intention to simply destroy the entire assembly, right then and there. A plague breaks out among the people. Again, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces. Moses instructs Aaron to take a firepan with incense, and to walk through the stricken people to achieve atonement for them. Aaron does as instructed and stops the plague, but not before 14,700 people perish.

The many fascinating elements that are to be found in the story of Korach are a scholar’s fantasy. A number of the intriguing nuances are presented in the previous discussions of parashat Korach.

Particularly fascinating in the story of Korach are the number of times that Moses and Aaron attempt to quell the rebellion and to put the dispute to rest. Scripture informs us that as soon as Moses learns of Korach’s rebellion (Numbers 16:4), “Vayishma Moshe, va’yee’pol ahl pah’nahv,” that Moses heard and fell on his face.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) immediately comments that Moses fell on his face because this was already the fourth time that the people had rebelled. They had sinned previously with the Golden Calf, the Mitonenim (complainers, Numbers 11:1), the evil report of the scouts, and now Korach’s insurrection. Rashi states that an exhausted Moses could no longer summon the strength to plead on behalf of Israel. Rashi cites the parable of a prince who angered his father, the king, repeatedly. Each time, the king’s friend placated the king on the prince’s behalf. But after the third time, the friend acknowledged that he could no longer approach the king, since the monarch would no longer accept placation.

Again, in Numbers 16:8-11, Moses pleads with Korach not to rebel, explaining that G-d had appointed Korach to the lofty position of Levite, to serve the people of Israel. “Why should you,” Moses asks of Korach, “now seek the priesthood and why complain against Aaron?”

The Torah then reports (Numbers 16:12), “Va’yish’lach Moshe lik’roh l’Datan v’l’Aviram bnai Eliav; vah’yom’roo, loh nah’ah’leh,” Moses sent to call Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, but they responded: “We shall not go up!”  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) points out that Moses did not “order” Datan and Abiram to come. Rather, he extended to them a friendly invitation. But, Datan and Abiram regarded the invitation as a summons. Their answer, says Rabbi Hirsch, was: “We are not coming up to my lord, we do not take orders from him!”

When G-d sees (Numbers 16:22) that Korach has succeeded in stirring up the entire congregation, He tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the community so that He can destroy the rebels in an instant. Again, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and plead with G-d not to punish the entire community for the sin of a single person.

Finally, it seems that Moses and Aaron have exhausted all their options with G-d, who is determined to punish the rebels. In Numbers 16:24, G-d tells Moses to speak to the assembly to get themselves away from the dwelling places of Korach, Datan and Abiram. Clearly, punishment is about to strike, but Moses still refuses to concede.

Instead, Scripture relates that Moses stood and went to Datan and Abiram together with the elders of Israel. Despite being rejected repeatedly, Moses is nonetheless hopeful that the rebels would respond. However, Moses’ great hopes were soon dashed. The Torah tells us (Numbers 16:27), “V’Datan v’Aviram yahtz’ooh nee’tzavim petach aw’ha’lay’hem, oo’n’shay’hem, oo’v’nay’hem, v’tapam,” Datan and Abiram went out and stood erect at the entrances of their tents, together with their wives, their children and their infants. Rashi explains that Datan and Abiram’s posturing was intended to serve as a symbol of brazen defiance, to vilify G-d, Moses and the Torah.

Again, G-d speaks to Moses (Numbers 23:24) and tells him to inform the people that they had best get themselves away from the dwelling places of Datan and Abiram. Despite what seems to be imminent calamity, Moses again goes to plead with the rebels one last time (Numbers 16:25). In fact, it is at this point in the narrative that the Talmud in Sanhederin 110a cites Resh Lakish, who states that it is from this verse that we learn that one must try to avoid quarrels at all costs.

Finally, all options for reconciliation are exhausted, and terrible punishment is visited upon the rebels. But, the worst is yet to come. As mentioned previously, on the very next day, the people complain to Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of G-d.” A plague breaks out, and Moses instructs Aaron to take his fire-pan and walk through the people who are dying, in order to stop the plague. Clearly, the commitment of Moses and Aaron to the people of Israel knows no bounds.

The dedication of these two leaders is even more amazing considering whom they are trying to save. These two men, Datan and Abiram, were the same Jewish men whom Moses encountered in Egypt fighting with each other, and who, for decades, made Moses’ life miserable. They were the ones who reported to Pharoah that Moses had killed an Egyptian, forcing Moses to flee for his life to Midian. They were the ones who stirred up rebellion against G-d and Moses time and again in the wilderness. Nevertheless, Moses refused to give up on them, approaching them repeatedly in order to reconcile. Their response, however, was always derision.

Usually, when the story of Korach is told, it stops at this point, and the story of the subsequent plague is often seen as a new narrative. Several years ago, Gideon Schor, a young lawyer who attends Lincoln Square Synagogue, noted that the story really continues. The same uncompromising devotion to Israel is demonstrated by Moses and Aaron again, when Moses asks Aaron to stop the plague.

One might think that these rebels, who had the ultimate chutzpah to accuse Moses and Aaron, of “killing the people of G-d,” were far worse than Korach–after all, their charge against Moses and Aaron was murder! And, yet, without a moment’s hesitation, Aaron risks his life, takes up the people’s cause, walks through the plague, wrestles with the angel of death, and refuses to give up on the people who have hurt him so often and so profoundly.

All this is done in the name of peace. What greater proof can there be than the unremitting actions of Moses and Aaron to underscore that the pursuit of peace has no limits!

May you be blessed.