The centerpiece of this week's portion, Korach, is Korach's challenge of Moses and Aaron's leadership. Dathan, Abiram, and two hundred and fifty elders join Korach in the revolt, claiming that they have an equal right to lead. Moses responds by telling Korach and the others to bring their fire pans the next day and lay incense on them: God will decide who should lead.
To this point, the only characters mentioned are Moses, Aaron, Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the elders. The people are not involved. But when the hour of the test arrives, Korach "kicks it up a notch" by gathering the people to observe the event. He turns his attempted revolt into an attempted revolution.
The text makes if clear that the congregation plays no part in what happens: They have been called by Korach to witness. Yet God speaks to Moses, saying: "Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!" (Numbers 16:21) Whereupon Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and plead with God: "O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (Numbers 16:22)
Apparently God listens and reconsiders. God's response is: "Speak to the community and say, 'Withdraw from the abodes of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram.'" (Numbers 16:24)
The question is, Why did God want to destroy the entire nation in the first place? What did they do? Some commentators are so puzzled by this episode that they say Moses misinterpreted God's original command. By "community," God meant just the rebels. But Moses misunderstood and thought that God meant the entire people.
In his book Torah Concepts:The Source of Jewish Values, my Orthodox colleague Rabbi Joe Radinsky points to the Malbim's commentary as the best explanation. He posits that, in fact, God did originally intend to destroy the entire nation because they were guilty of a great sin: "They had committed the sin of fence-straddling, the sin of indifference." It was for this that God wanted to destroy them-for not taking a stand against evil.
The text doesn't in any way suggest that the people supported Korach, but they didn't oppose him, either: If Moses should win, they'd continue to work with him. If Korach should win, they'd work with him. They saw their community threatened, but they didn't want to get involved.
Moses didn't understand this at first. He protested, "But God, they haven't done anything!" To which God responded, "That's exactly the point: They haven't done anything. Let them stand back from Korach and Dathan and Abiram. If they want to be saved, let them dissociate themselves from the evil around them." Is there a message more enduring than this one: Evil in a society or a nation endures when the people stand by and watch! By not condemning Korach and his followers, by their silence, the people of Israel condoned the former's actions. No less today, when we stand by and allow evil to go unchallenged, we share responsibility with those who are perpetrating it. The only way to prevent ourselves and our world from falling prey to the evil that others propose to do is to stand up against them with our words and our deeds.