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Korach(Numbers 16-18)

Peace and Strife

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his entire company. (Avot 5:20)

The Mishnah describes Korach's rebellion as the epitome of machlokes (strife) that is not for the sake of Heaven, and juxtaposes Korach and Aaron as the exemplars of contentiousness and peacefulness, respectively.

To properly understand the curse of machlokes, we must first investigate the meaning of shalom. Shalom is not merely the absence of strife or disagreement, but a state of peaceful serenity. It is precisely through the interaction of opposites, of fire and water, that God is described as the One Who makes peace. Machlokes leshem shamayim, argument for the purpose of reaching truth, is the epitome of shalom.

The Kohanim, who are the representatives of shalom - servants in the Holy Temple, the place of shalom - were consecrated by killing their relatives who served the Golden Calf. And Pinchas was initiated as a Kohen by God and given the "covenant of shalom" as a result of his slaying of Zimri and Kosbi.

True shalom is the achievement of perfection, the harmonious functioning of the world. As long as evil and evildoers destroy this harmony, there can be no shalom. There is no shalom, says God, concerning the wicked (Isaiah 57:21). Hence, true shalom is conditional on destroying evil.

* * *

BUILDING THE TEMPLE

When David sought to build the Holy Temple, he was told by the prophet that he could not build the house of shalom because his hands were covered with the blood of battle. At the same time, God told David that he could not build the Holy Temple because if he were to build it, it would be eternal, and God reserved the option to destroy the Temple - to vent his anger on wood and stones - if the people sinned (Midrash - Eicha Rabba 4:14).

The tranquility and shalom of Solomon's reign was marked by the absence of war. Such a passive shalom could not produce an eternal House of Peace. David, however, was the epitome of an aggressive shalom, one that included the preservation of harmony through aggressive means when necessary. Such a shalom could create an eternal House of Peace.

* * *

AUTHENTIC APPROACHES

Perfection is not the province of any individual. The Jewish people, says the Chafetz Chaim, are like an army, which can only be successful if all its varied divisions are represented and united toward a common goal. Today there are a variety of authentic approaches to the Torah - all faithful to the observance of the 613 mitzvot as elucidated in the Written and Oral Torah. These approaches differ only in emphasis, but there is a natural tendency for each group to feel that only its approach is correct.

In the World to Come, however, says the Talmud at the end of Tanis, God will make a great circle dance for all the tzaddikim, with Himself in the middle. Then, says the Chafetz Chaim, two tzaddikim who had diametrically opposed approaches will find themselves facing one another across the circle. Each will realize that he and his opposite are both equidistant from the center.

Nor will the circle be stationary. Each tzaddik will dance around and occupy the positions of every other tzaddik, for in the future world every Jew will be able to identify and incorporate all paths. In this world, however, perfection is reached when each group follows its unique path, while acknowledging and respecting all the other paths.

That does not imply that all paths are valid. Sometimes it is necessary to give tochacha - rebuke or reproof - to criticize those who are not in the circle at all. True peace must include rebuke and criticism, for this is necessary in order to achieve perfection. Any peace that does not include tochacha is no peace, say the Sages (Midrash - Bereishis Rabba 54:3). But the tochacha must be the result of love and concern for the one rebuked. It must be done in a way that reflects this motivation. Criticism must be directed to the negative behavior of individuals or groups, and not to the person or to the group itself.

* * *

KETTLE, RIVER, BIRD

The Talmud relates that one who sees a kettle, or river, or bird in a dream should expect to find shalom. The three factors that prevent the achievement of perfection are jealousy, lust and haughtiness. All three drive wedges between people and destroy harmonious cooperation and co-existence. The pot unites the power of fire and water to cook food for our sustenance. Yet the pot itself gains nothing and is burnt and blackened. The lustful individual, by contrast, seeks only his own gratification and bases his conduct on one consideration: "What's in it for me?" The pot negates this attitude.

Contemplation of the river is the antidote for jealously. The river is so beautiful and useful when it stays within its boundaries, and yet so destructive when it overflows those boundaries. Shalom requires each person to recognize his place in the world and the unique role he has to play, while at the same time recognizing the contributions and worth of his fellow man. To combat haughtiness, one must learn from the bird. The bird is flexible and light, ever ready to make way for others and fly away.

* * *

"KORACH TOOK"

Rashi comments on the opening words of the parsha, "Korach took - He took himself off to one side." Korach separated himself. He did not see himself as a part of the community, but rather as a detached, isolated individual. His sense of separation caused his jealousy of Elizaphon ben Uziel, when the latter was appointed as the family head, and led to his lust for the glory of being Kohen Gadol. His attitude was the very antithesis of shalom, which depends of each Jew fulfilling his unique role without jealousy or selfish motivations.

Reb Zusya was asked if he would accept the opportunity to switch places with Abraham our forefather. He replied, "What would God gain? There would still be one Abraham and one Reb Zusya."

Each individual has to aspire to achieve the maximum he can in his individual role and not to duplicate the role entrusted to another. There can be only one Kohen Gadol. Had Korach taken the attitude of Reb Zusya, it would have made no difference to him whether it was Aaron or himself, as long as the duties of the office were performed in accord with God's will.

* * *

ORAL LAW

Chazal called Korach an apikorus (heretic) for denying the validity of the Oral Law. That denial was a direct consequence of his stirring up contention. Torah is based on shalom and harmony among the Jewish people. A commitment to the totality of Torah is impossible on an isolated, individual level. No individual can fulfill 613 mitzvot; there are mitzvot that only a Kohen can perform and others that require a Yisrael. There are mitzvot that apply only to men and other mitzvot that apply only to women. Torah in its totality requires the united community of the Jewish people. Only as one individual with one heart can we accept the Torah and fulfill it.

Argument for the sake of Heaven, the collective quest for truth, is the essence of the Oral Torah. But one whose contentiousness is not for the sake of Heaven negates the foundation upon which the Oral Torah stands. Thus Korach was labeled an apikorus.

* * *

SWALLOWED ALIVE

Korach's punishment perfectly reflected his sin. He who sees his fellow men only as objects of jealousy or lust or as means of obtaining honor, will in the end swallow others alive to advance his own goals. Korach was such a person, and the earth swallowed him alive - measure for measure.

The very capacity of the earth to serve as a firm base for man depends on the unification of the individual grains of sand into terra firma. One who denies the necessity of unity, who fails to see that the fulfillment of God's will is a collective enterprise, causes those grains to break apart, and finds himself cast down alive into the netherworld.

Just as strife is generated by individuals, peace and harmony must begin with an individual effort. The story is told of a man whose five-year-old son was constantly interrupting him as he read the newspaper. Finally, in desperation, he tore off a page of a magazine with a map of the world and ripped it into small pieces, telling his son not to return until he had reconstructed the map. He assumed he had gained for himself several hours' respite. Fifteen minutes later, however, the child returned and gleefully announced that he'd finished the task.

His father was dumbfounded. "How could you put the map together so quickly and accurately?" he asked. "Dad," the little boy replied, "it was simple. On the other side of the map was a picture of a person. I simply put the person together, and the world fell into place." It is the perfection and harmony within the individual itself that ultimately leads to the more global shalom.

May we learn from the tragedy of Korach to flee from all strife that is not for the sake of Heaven, and thereby help to bring the ultimate shalom, the entire world united in the service of God.

Published: June 13, 2004

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