Former Shaliach in Cape Town (1996-7)
Korach and his community are caught trying to undermine the authority of Moshe Rabenu as Israel’s authentic leader. A simple reading of the biblical text would lead us to conclude that their reasoning is purely democratic. Korach throws the claim at Moshe and Aaron; “Why then do you set yourselves above Hashem’s assembly”? Or in other words – ‘Who appointed you above from the leaders of the people, without the process of re-election?’. Korach presents a seemingly fair suggestion: “The man that Hashem chooses will be the one who is holy.” Korach is actually asking what the term of an elected leader is.
Moshe responded to the criticism and was ready to face the coming ‘elections’. He called Korach and said: “You and all your followers are to appear before Hashem tomorrow–you and they and Aaron.”
At this point, God enters the ‘democratic discourse’ and predicts the destruction of Korach and his followers to Moshe. Moshe then hears the ‘election results’ from God, and tries, along with Aaron, to mitigate the bitter punishment inflicted on Korach. The result is, of course, well known – the gaping earth swallows up Korach and his following. Why does God require such a severe punishment?
In ‘Parshat Naso’ we were blessed as a nation with a special blessing to be delivered by the priests: “May Hashem bless you, and keep you; May Hashem make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you, May Hashem lift up His countenance on you and give you peace“.
The endings of the blessing indicate the substance;’ VAYISHMARECHA’ (And keep you), ‘VIYECHUNEKA’ (and be gracious to you) ‘SHALOM’ (peace). Divine safe-caring, Divine grace and Divine peace. It seems that the blessing teaches us in the reverse order, that the ability to create peace between people depends on their wisdom, their human grace and social sensitivity. Those who possess those are protected from any blight. It is their social involvement and their concern for others that causes them to be protected. This is due to the human love they will receive back, out of concern for their safety, by those who were on the receiving end of their concern beforehand. ‘Measure for Measure’ – a person will be saved if they themselves had treated people with grace, and by so doing, bring peace to the world.
Towards the end of Parashat Korah, we are told to perform the mitzvah of PIDYON HABEN. This commandment is relatively rare, and comes to teach us that the first and oldest son is holy. That holiness was given by God and transferred to the priesthood. This holiness necessitates the new father to meticulously pay a personal price in order to redeem his child from that holiness. Immediately after, comes the mitzvah of the giving of ‘priestly gifts’ to the Kohanim and Levi’im. Interestingly enough, the word ‘sin’ appears several times in the text, reminding us of Korach, who in his eagerness to serve God, sinned against heaven. The Torah teaches us that when we come to keep the mitzvot, we should make sure to perform them meticulously, but without taking ownership of them. Just as the position of the cohanim and the Levi’im, along with the gifts given to them are due to them being Hashem’s representatives, are not private gifts for them personally. Each mitzvah should be performed individually, detached from other mitzvot, as each one has its own particular reasoning and set of rules. Each tribe and its own role, every leader and his election process.
We, as followers of the slogan ‘Torah & Avodah’, Holiness and secularism, nationalism and Zionism, should serve the people of our community, in Israel and the Diaspora, while firmly clarifying difficult messages in numerous ways. The short distance between serving God purely and falling into the trap of extremism and fanaticism leads to sin. We see this very fact when Nadav and Avihu tried, in their desire to serve God more sacredly, to sacrifice ‘strange fire’ which had no room in the Divine worship.
We need to know the power of words to hurt and humiliate so much so, that God indicates that Korach and followers had in fact crossed the thin line between serving God purely, and sinning against Him. Therefore, they were punished so severely.
The ‘priestly gifts’ are lovingly given to the priests, and they have to give thanks to the people. Similarly, the priests are commanded to bless the people with love, and thus they are rewarded for their holy service to the people. Nevertheless, they are not allowed to demand these gifts or coerce the people into giving them by force. If they did this, they would find themselves crossing that fine boundary and committing sin.
In the modern era, we live in a culture of widespread mass advertising on the Internet at a lightning speed, and immediate exposure to vast audiences. We have to therefore remember the power of evil and bitter words. When using the media, we must respect the Divine spirit in us. Furthermore, we should respect the country’s laws and divine morality, and thus write or respond and comment mildly and peacefully, lest we sin. We must say to the world that the culture of shaming and public humiliation is foreign to us, and that the culture of embarrassment has no forgiveness.
We should renounce extreme expressions and behave respectfully towards all people especially toward the Halacha and laws of the state. We must use the internet as a ‘sanctification of the new’, to spread pure ideas and engage in decent moral mass discourse, using any platform to distribute the sanctity of the Torah, encouraging discussion, with respect, courtesy and pleasantness. We should be mindful of sin, we should accept authority, treating all living beings with due respect, and in so doing, spread peace in our world.