Minutes of Torah

This week’s Parashat Koraĥ deals with strife between Moses and a group of Israelites. This is not the first time that the Israelites quarrel with Moses. But this is different. The rebels are led by respected people, with virtually no violence. And yet Moses’ reaction is much sharper than in other cases. Moses wants a supernatural end to this rebellion: the earth was to swallow them up alive. Even the spies were given the ‘respect’ of dying in an ordinary plague.

The most basic explanation for Moses’ reaction is that this was a dispute with a close associate. It is one thing to be in a clash with someone who hates you. But when the antagonist is a person who should be one’s ally, that is much worse. Koraĥ is Moses’ cousin, a fellow Levite. Recall, that after the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses calls out, “Whoever is for God, join me,” it was the Levites — including Koraĥ, who rallied to his side.

In addition, until now, the rebellions were opposing God. Here, Koraĥ and his party are complaining about what Moses seems to be adding to God’s words. This is a profoundly serious matter. According to Maimonides, faith in Moses as God’s prophet is fundamental to our faith.

Even the spies did not undermine this foundational message. To be sure, the spies lacked faith in God, but they did not show a lack of faith in Moses. Here, there is an attempt to separate God from Moses, which thereby undermines the people’s ability to continue receiving the Torah through the mediation of human hands.

The dispute of Koraĥ seems like a minor incident. Moses could have simply allowed them the additional duties. But the truth is that the dispute here touches upon a very deep point.

In the other quarrels, we see the people cry out for something for which there is an immediate solution, whether it be for water, meat, or manna. Here, logical arguments regarding basic tenets of our faith are being presented. And to support their claims, Moses’ own words are cited, as when he previously wished that all of Israel could perform the functions of prophecy now being claimed by Korah. Koraĥ is simply reminding Moses of this stated desire, and to ask him to carry it out.

There is much to be said, then, for Koraĥ’s demand to open the religious monopoly conferred upon the Levites and allow all to participate. This is not just a desire for honor but rather, to express oneself in the realm of holiness.

But the dialogue between Moses and Koraĥ’s party is odd. Moses’ responses do not seem to relate to their claims.  Koraĥ claims that they want to participate in the order of service to God, and Moses offers a reply that sounds like, “Aren’t you satisfied with the honors that you already have?” They accuse Moses of not fulfilling his promise to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and Moses replies, “I did not take a single donkey.” What does Moses seem to indicate with these non-sequiturs?

Moses believes that the reasons asserted by Koraĥ are pretextual and that they have no desire in advancing the interests of the Israelites, but rather to simply line their own pockets. Koraĥ and his followers use slogans implying that their motives are for the sake of the community at large. But the Midrash indicates that there was an ulterior motive motivating the rebellion: a personal grudge of envy and resentment hidden behind the rhetoric.

People often use slogans of holiness to advance community interests. But what lies behind these slogans is often nothing but personal pettiness. Even when slogans are for the “greater good,” it is often a matter of coincidence with some person’s secret interests that are the true motivators of the discussion.

It has been said that there is a remedy for every form of hatred except for that which results from envy. For hatred caused by envy as that generated by Koraĥ, gracious gestures from Moses would not have helped, because the source of the hatred is not an act of injustice, but a deep-seated feeling of jealousy.

In saying, “I have not taken a single donkey,” Moses pre-empts any attempt to establish the genesis of the dispute based on an injustice. In the dispute with Koraĥ and his followers, there was no such injustice; the whole incident was a direct result of envy.

And because there is no remedy for such hatred, Moses needed to eradicate them completely. Hence the need for the supernatural remedy.

So, too, we should understand the enormous powers that emotions of jealousy and envy can have when we allow them to take control of our decision-making process. Notwithstanding any claims of acting in the public interest, in effect we are now only advancing interests that benefit ourselves.  And any claims of our efforts also producing a ‘greater good’ should be examined quite closely to ensure that that this path produces the ‘best’ good — which is the standard to evaluate all our actions; and not just an ‘acceptable’ good, which could justify a whole array of actions; but not necessarily the ‘best’ good.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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