Parshat Korach tells the well-known story of the rebel Korach and his followers. They question and resist Moses’s authority, and the punishment for their rebellion is swift. The earth swallows them all up and all 250 of them die.
But is resistance always wrong? We know that it cannot be, and we have many examples in the Torah that teach us precisely that.
Think about Abraham’s resistance to God’s initial desire to destroy Sodom. Abraham challenges God, but God does not punish him. On the contrary, God allows Abraham to engage in a dialogue whose conclusion God must already know. Abraham is not punished, even though he ultimately loses in his attempt to save the city.
We can see another parallel in this week’s Parsha, where God is ready to strike all the Israelites dead. Again, we see a leader resisting—in this case Moshe. But, unlike Abraham, Moshe actually convinces God not to kill everyone. As he pleads, “Oh, God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” This question seems to calm God, and, though a plague follows, most of the Israelites are spared.
We see, then, that Moshe is an exemplar of someone standing up to God, of someone engaging in a controversy rather than passively standing by. Disagreeing or even rebelling is not always wrong; in some cases, issues are complicated and there may not be one definitive answer. In fact, different answers may help to shed even more light on a complex subject. Hillel and Shamai—whenever they argued Talmudically—each had such a strong and persuasive conviction that even today there are Jews who subscribe to each opinion. In fact, they are the paragons of a “controversy for the sake of heaven,” where each side offers something of enduring value.
We can also play this out on a secular level. During a trip to London, Diane and I saw a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo—over 200 years ago—where one side was defending monarchy and the other side supported self-proclaimed emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Another, maybe closer to home example is no-fault divorce, which has become a very common practice across the United States. No fault divorce is the state’s way of saying “each of you probably has a legitimate argument in this controversy. We don’t need a resolution in order to fix the problem.” In fact, to try to determine who is right and who is wrong may only make matters worse.
So this gives us the beginning of an understanding of justified resistance. When an argument is for the sake of heaven, that argument—that resistance—has merit. Korach’s challenge to Moshe was NOT for the sake of heaven and was therefore without merit. Obviously, making this distinction is part of the challenge of being human.
One of the greatest deficiencies of Korach and his infamous followers was their failure to recognize miracles. No matter what marvelous gifts God gave the Israelites—the manna, the water from Miriam’s well, the pillar and the fire to guide them, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and—of course—the parting of the sea, Korach refused to see them as miracles and was blind to God’s will. All he could see was his own ego, his own jealousy of Moses and his leadership. As a result, another miracle appears—the earth swallows them all up.