June 13, 2002
A One-sided Case
Parshat Korah (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
Ever meet someone who always seems angry? A person ready to bite at your every word? An individual before whom you need to walk on eggshells whenever you interact with them? Why is that? What is at the root of the problem and what should our approach be in dealing with them?
Looking into this week's parsha, we are introduced to Korah. Korah was a rights activist par excellence. He stirred the masses into a revolution against Moshe's authority, claiming that Moshe was no more than a self-serving despot who sought to choke the people into his total subservience and domination. Korah maintained that Moshe conveniently prophesied God's command that the priestly and other leadership positions are reserved for his family. Korah challenged Moshe's claim of divine nepotism. "After all," Korah said, "are we not all God's children? Didn't we all stand at Sinai? Were we not all slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?"
On the surface, Korah's points seem legitimate. He appears to be on to something of a smoking gun. Is Korah not entitled to his day in court? God felt otherwise. In a display like none other, God brought a miraculous intervention to push Korah and all of his cohorts into the earth. An awesome display of God's opinion of Moshe's righteousness. Truly impressive, but seemingly unnecessary. Should we not have all gathered for a session of divine justice with Judge God? Let Moshe present his case; and Korah his. Why did God choose such a radical form of justice, and what lesson is there for us to see?
Looking to Ethics of Our Fathers, we find Korah and his cohorts as an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven, contrasted with Hillel and Shammai as one for the sake of heaven. It is worth noting the names of the parties involved in these contrasting disputes differ. In the latter, we find both opposing parties named, i.e. Hillel vs. Shammai. In the former, we find Korah and his company listed without Moshe as the opposing party. Was Moshe not the defendant in the case?
The reason is that not every dispute has two sides. God's awesome display of strength was not so much to vindicate Moshe as it was to delegitimize Korah. God wanted to make it clear that Korah and his cohorts were only interested in seeking a platform to force their self-centered egocentric positions. Moshe is not listed as a party, because Moshe was not a party to the case, but merely a pawn in Korah's twisted plot to further his own cause. The wheels of justice and debate are reserved solely for those that are engaged in honest debate, where truth is primary and ego inconsequential.
Each day we read of the cycle of violence in Israel. The Palestinian bomber is placed in moral equivalence to the Israeli soldier who responds. If not the aggressor, Israel is certainly seen as the crux of the problem and not its victim. This week's parsha asks us to stand up and tell the world that, "We will not be fooled by your cries of anguish for the Palestinian people as historically they are nothing more than crocodile tears. We may be losing in the court of world opinion, but we will not let the world fool us into losing the battle for our own self-image. Not every conflict has two moral equivalents."
I began by asking if you know any angry argumentative people: The people whom you never can seem to please, and who you always have to walk around on eggshells for. Know that you are not alone. Moshe faced it in the form of Korah. The Torah and Midrash tell of Moshe's desperate attempt to make peace with each of his dissenters, but when that proved impossible, Moshe turned inward and upward and said boldly to all of Israel: "There are not two sides to this controversy. Do not be misled by the manipulations of these men. See them for who they are as self-promoting individuals who seek only their own gain."
Moshe held no lengthy public debates, not for fear for the truth of his position, but for fear of the future message such debate would bring. Both the victim and the unbiased observer must not allow themselves to give legitimization to the aggressor. We the public must not give platform for their cause or voice for their grievance. Negotiation and compromise in the hushed halls of private meetings should be attempted, but once the forum has transferred itself to the public, there is no logic or justice that will silence an argument of self-interest other than allowing it to be swallowed up into the earth.