In Korach, this week’s parashah, three men - Korach, Datan, and Aviram - lead a rebellion against Moses. They argue against Moses’ power, but the details of their complaints are absent. The story ends with a showdown between Moses and Korach, where Korach and his followers are variously swallowed by the Earth and burned in a heavenly fire. What did they do that was so abhorrent that God would alter the world to punish them?
Korach is a Levite from the family of Kehat, and Datan and Aviram are from the tribe of Reuben. Rashi, quoting a midrash, suggests that the union that forms this rebellion results because the family of Kehat made its camp next to the tribe of Reuben. “Woe to the wicked one, woe to their neighbor,” Rashi quotes. The people amongst whom we live are important and influential and it would seem best to surround ourselves by good people. This idea is also emphasized in a story in the Mishna (Avot 6:9), in which Rabbi Yose ben Kisma is offered great wealth to move but insists on only living in a place of Torah. To be a good person, it helps to be in a place of good.
But while it is important to place ourselves amongst good people, it does not necessarily follow that having bad neighbors makes us bad. Nor, necessarily, does sharing the opinions of bad people make us bad. The Jewish proof for this in in Korach’s own children. Not only are we told in a later part of the book of Numbers (26:11) that Korach’s children did not die, we learn that they are also the composers or singers of several poems in the book of Psalms. One midrash (Midrash Psalms 45) refers to them as “a rose among thorns.” Psalm 45, which is either for or by the sons of Korach, begins, “For the conductor, on roses,by the sons of Korach.”
Another Midrash (Midrash Psalms 1) gives us a Rabbinic perspective as to what made the children of Korach a rose among thorns. It tells us that they, showing respect for their father, themselves brought Korach’s complaints against Moses to Moses. It was a legitimate complaint, too - that the Torah’s system of taxation was too difficult for a widow and her orphans. However, unlike Korach and his band, whom the Rabbis see as complaining against Moses in a mocking manner and for the sake of insult, the sons of Korach humble themselves before Moses and show him respect. They still argue, but they choose their words carefully and honor those with whom they disagree. In the Rabbinic imagination, the way we present our opinions is at least as important towards defining us as good or bad as are the opinions themselves that we hold. Argument and disagreement are fine - and, in fact, are necessary when one sees something wrong, as did Korach’s children and even Korach. The Rabbis teach us that doing so in a dismissive or mocking manner is not, so much so that in Korach’s case, it is a capital offense. Woe to the person who speaks to others disparagingly and woe to that person’s neighbor. However, arguing when we see injustice, and doing so in a proper manner is not just not-punishable, but is also an act that makes one worthy of having liturgy such as Psalms recited in one’s name. Let us judge people less by the opinions they hold and with whom they hold those opinions in common; instead, let us tend to judge them by the respect they show in presenting and espousing those opinions. May we all merit to fight those injustices we perceive, but may we learn to do so like the children of Korach: with humility and respect for those with whom we disagree.
Shabbat Shalom –שבת שלומ
Reb Joel Goldstein