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Evil Flourishes When Good People Do Nothing

  • Evil Flourishes When Good People Do Nothing

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Korach's Rebellion and Not Ours
Davar Acher By: 
Louis Bordman

When I dive into a Torah portion as I did with this week's parashah, Korach, I usually encounter a few very basic questions: Did this happen or not? What really occurred? Is it my obligation to believe every word I read or to analyze the Torah to discover what relates to my life and society today? I always choose the latter, andParashat Korach makes this endeavor great fun.

The parashah gives details about a rebel, Korach, and the conflict that ensued when he challenged Moses for authority over the Israelites: "[Korach, his gang, and two hundred and fifty Israelites] combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and Adonaiis in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Adonai?'" (Numbers 16:3) It is clear to me that behind Korach's words lie deceit, selfishness, and betrayal. Hence the result of this rebellion was the demise and destruction of Korach and his followers.

Since the process of commenting on the Torah has been around almost as long as the Torah itself, the questions about Korach's motivations and intentions have spanned the spectrum and the ages. According to the classical commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, Korach's rebellion was in response to Moses' granting the religious leadership to the tribe of Levi (instead of to the firstborn, Reuven) and appointing his own brother, Aaron, and his family as the priests over the Levites. (Numbers 18:1-10)

Ramban, who read the text differently, felt that the rebellion had more to do with Korach's own ambitions. Last week's parashah told the story of the spies. The Israelites were afraid of being overpowered and outmaneuvered. Ramban points out that Korach waited until the Israelites were scared for the perfect time to stage a rebellion and expect the best results. This premeditated and extreme behavior demanded extreme retribution.

Reading about this incident, I thought about the Reform Movement's relationship (or lack of it) with extremists in the Jewish community. This week, all of the Jewish world is reading this portion, the story of Korach, probably from different perspectives. Questions arise: Since our commentators didn't agree on the portion, can we? Whose perspective is correct? Korach points out that all the community is holy. (Numbers 16:3) With whom in the Jewish community does God have a relationship? I don't know who the Moses of today is, but each movement certainly has its own leader.

In thinking about the power struggle referred to in Parashat Korach, I wonder where the Jewish people will be in the next hundred years. Will one group be swallowed by the earth as Korach's followers were, or will mutual understanding, dialogue, and respect enhance the Jewish people?

I don't view us, the Reform Movement, as a rebellion against Orthodoxy, nor do I view the Orthodox as rebels against us. We need to remember that among the Israelites traveling through the desert, there were many individuals, each of whom had his or her own relationship with God and the community at large. Moses had his relationship with God; Aaron and the priests had theirs; the elders had their own relationship, etc.

This is no different today. All of us can have a relationship with God, Torah, and the Jewish people as long as none of us regards differing ideas, differing views, and differing relationships as rebellions. Let us all strive for tolerance, which will lead to communication among and understanding for all of the Jewish people.

Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914