The Followers of Korach Were Good People
Parashat Korach, 5773
This past week our congregation placed a new parochet cover on the Aron Kodesh in our chapel. The parochet is dedicated to Lila Morse, or in Hebrew, Bracha Avigail.
The parochet will be formally dedicated in the month of Elul at our inaugural Elul lecture series in memory Bracha Avigail and we will hear more about it at that time, but for now I wanted to focus briefly on the very meaningful quotation that is embroidered on the parochet itself.
The quotation comes from the last words of the very last Mishnah in the entire Talmud, Tractate Uktzin 3:12. The Mishnah states: “R. Shimon b. Chalafta said: Hashem found no container of blessing for Israel other than peace, lo matzah Hakadosh Barukh Hu keli machazik brecha leyisrael elah ha-shalom.”
The concept of peace, shalom, as a container for brachah, blessings for Israel, is relevant to Parashat Korach.
The story of Korach is on the surface just about dissent and struggle of a few renegades and how a revolutionary movement brought great damage to the Jewish people. But if we look beneath the surface and read the story through the eyes of some of our great commentators then we see another layer to the story. In the second layer it becomes not only a story about dissent, but also a story of how very good people become so caught up in their mission that they act in a self-destructive way. Having set themselves upon this path, they are unable to extricate themselves from a great disaster.
This story contains great relevance to our own lives today especially as it relates to a cause that I personally support.
The Mishnah from Uktzin mentions shalom as a container for bracha. It is interesting that our portion also refers to another vessel that contains a bracha of peace.
After the men of Korach are killed, we are told that the people turned against Moshe and Aaron and started complaining to them, “You killed the people of Hashem” (17:6). So Hashem brings a plague upon the Jewish people and the people started to die. Moshe then turns to Aaron and says take a fire-pan, place fire upon it from the altar, and then place Ketoret (incense) upon it and run into the people, and stand between the living and the dead, bein hameitim u-vein hachaim (17:12). Aaron does this and stops the plague.
The Talmud Shabbat (89a) tells us that when Moshe went up to Mount Sinai the Angel of Death himself revealed a powerful secret to Moshe: the fire-pan of Ketoret has the strength to stop a plague.
The Ketoret are considered so magical and forceful that that anyone who replicates the Ketoret exactly is worthy of death. This sin is so severe that it is one of only 36 sins worthy of the karet punishment.
On the other hand, from our later tradition and minhag, we also know other things about the Ketoret. For example, we know from the Talmud (Yoma, 26a) that Ketoret are considered a segulah (a good sign) for wealth. For this reason some people today read the passage of Ketoret every day from a parchment.
The powerful, yet dangerous, potency of the Ketoret is equaled by the concept of peace. Like the Mishnah in Uktzin taught us there is no force more powerful in the world than peace, and yet, the concept of “peace” is very dangerous as misguided efforts for peace can cause great damage.
Recently I saw a dispute going on in the larger community and I rushed to get involved. I was discussing this with a friend and he kindly told me a teaching in the name of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz. Rav Chaim said that he used to watch business machers get into fights and then people would step in to make peace. In the end the machers would make-up, but everyone would be mad at the people who tried to make peace. Peace is like the Ketoret. It is a very dangerous place to get involved in. Yet, it is so important that we all try to bring peace to the world, and working towards peace requires our focus and attention.
Parashat Korach has many life lessons about peace and dissension in the community. Literally we could write a book about the communal lessons learned from Korach’s dissent.
For now, let us start by focusing on one simple lesson regarding communal dissent that we learn from the Korach story and then draw a lesson for our modern-day larger community.
The simple lesson is that when it comes to communal dissent very good people can be led astray and cause a major communal disaster. In order to guard against this flaw we must demonstrate humility in our communal dissent.
This idea is taught by R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) in his classic work, Meshech Chochmah (16:17-18). He argues that the two hundred and fifty men who accompanied Korach in his dissent were good people—even great people, who were led astray by the wicked Korach. Some of these men were actually the neseim, the leaders of the tribes. His proof for this is both an ancient Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 18:2), and the fact that the Torah actually calls the people, “neseiei eidah” and “anshei shem” (16:2).
The Neseim had literally just dedicated the entire Mishkan. They were selected as the twelve people to bring their offerings to God and dedicate the Mishkan. They were the holiest of men. How could these holy men make such a colossal error and challenge the great Moshe Rabbeinu?
Meshech Chochma explains that they believed with all their hearts that Moshe Rabbeinu was wrong in not giving them more power. They felt they were even greater than Aaron. When the text says that they gathered on Moshe and Aaron and said, “Kol haiedah kulam kedoshim” (16:3), they were saying our “edah—the princes”, we are all holy. They were saying to Moshe and Aaron: “Why are you elevating yourself over the holy servants of God?”
The root of their mistake was the ketoret. The Neseim thought that they were holier than Aaron because they were the only ones who were able to bring an individual ketoret offering. During the dedication of the altar, we are told that every nasi brought a series of offerings. One of the offerings they brought was called kaf achat asarah zahav meleiah ketoret, one gold bowl, weighing ten shekel, filled with incense” (Numbers 7:14).
The ketoret offering was a unique privilege to the neseim. Aaron never brought an individual ketoret offering. Moreover, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, died when they brought their own individual ketoret offering.
The fact that the neseim were the only ones who brought this powerful offering caused them to believe that they were holier than Aaron. Thus, when Moshe challenged them to bring their own ketoret offerings in the morning, of course they jumped at the test. In their minds the history of the ketoret offering was proof that God favored them over Aaron.
The Meshech Chochmah is clear to distinguish between Korach and these 250 men. The men, led by the neseim, were good people who were led astray by the wicked Korach. Korach did not bring a Ketoret offering to challenge Moshe because he knew he had no real standing in the eyes of God. However these 250 men believed with all their hearts that they were holy as they were so designated by God. They were the only ones in history who merited to offer a personal ketoret offering. This is why, even though they died, their Ketoret fire pans were eventually incorporated into the Mishkan and used as a covering for the altar. In the words of the Meshech Chochmah, “they merited that their pans were used as a covering for the altar because the name of Heaven was sanctified through them.”
The overwhelming majority of the people involved in Korach’s dispute were good people. They were just very misguided. The fact that they were good people did not prevent a colossal tragedy.
These 250 people who followed Korach were very good men; amongst them were the 12 leaders of the Jewish people—the neseim. They had just dedicated the Temple with sacred, ketoret. They were full of spiritual confidence.
This confidence caused them to assume the mantle of God. They were so sure that they were right that they proudly challenged Moshe and took the ketoret as a test in the morning.
Their self-assurance came from the fact that they were such distinguished people who had already been selected for greatness, but in their efforts to prove that they were right they caused dissension. The dissension was so overwhelming that it led to one of the greatest tragedies in our history.
The lesson is that when we involve ourselves in communal matters, then for the sake of peace we must always carry ourselves with tremendous humility. The lesson is that we all need humility in our disagreements (and God knows I have plenty of disagreements with people so I am talking to myself and letting you all listen). None of us can claim that we are anywhere close to the spiritual level of the neseim. If these holy people, can be so wrong how much more so can we be wrong?
This message is on my mind because it is Rosh Chodesh Tamuz today and tomorrow. During the month of Tamuz we begin the Three Weeks, a period of time that reflects the internal Jewish fighting that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Rosh Chodesh is supposed to be a joyous day for the Jewish people, but it has become for me a day of sadness.
Last Rosh Chodesh was a time of great sadness for the Jewish people as there was infighting amongst Jewish people at the Kotel. Hareidim versus Women of the Wall. Violent confrontations. Rocks were thrown at the Women of the Wall. Inexcusable language was used. Death threats have even been issued against the Chief Rabbi’s office. The situation is only getting worse.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not comparing anyone or any party involved in the struggle for the Kotel to be in any way shape or form a descendant of Korach and his followers. But I am saying that we should learn from this lesson to seek peace and embrace humility in our communal dissent.
I have been a passionate supporter of the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel. I am proud of the fact that our shul is allowing Women of the Wall to pray in our shul tomorrow in solidarity with their right to worship. I take second place to no one in my vocal support for Women of the Wall. But along with that strong support I believe deeply that Women of the Wall and the Hareidim should both show humility in their dissent. Each side should be willing to share the Wall for the sake of the Jewish people.
Natan Sharansky put forth a compromise position that there should be another part of the Kotel—the Southern Wall, known as Robinson’s Arch—that is open to a different style of prayer that would include full access for Women of the Wall. This strikes me as very fair solution and one that both sides should embrace for the sake of peace and in a show of humility.
The first Beit Hamidash was built by Shlomo Hamelekh. Everyone is familiar with the famous story of two women who brought a baby to Shlomo Hamelekh. He knew who the real mother was when he saw who was not willing to allow the baby to die for the sake of winning the argument. Here too, whoever is going to be the more humble one in this argument will be the true heirs to our spiritual child, the Beit Hamikdash.
The parochet in our main sanctuary has another quotation about peace. It comes from the Mishnah in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot that states, “ohev sholom, rodef sholom, kekhabed et habriot, umekarvan letorah, love peace, pursue peace, honor people, and bring them close to Torah.”
Last week my daughter taught a class on this topic and she cited the midrash about what it means to bring people closer to Torah. According to the Midrash, when Aaron saw people who did something wrong, he would embrace them instead of rebuking them. This brought more people closer to Torah than any rebuke he might have offered.
Sometimes we have to full-throated in our defenses of our rights and our liberties, but sometimes we must strive to be true students of Aaron and humbly accept a compromise for the sake of our community. If we want to be able to hold the brachot of the state of Israel then we need to find shalom at the Kotel.
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