The punishment of Korach and his henchmen was that the earth opened up and swallowed them (Num. 16:32) – together with all their property and possessions.
Readers of the story have long puzzled over the reference to the possessions being swallowed up.
“Human beings can sin and be punished,”
the quite logical question runs,
“But did the property sin? How can anyone attach blame to the furniture, the household equipment and family clothing?”
What does King Solomon say in Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs (18:23)?
“Ashir ya’aneh azzot” – “The rich person speaks impudently”.
Riches and property have an effect on one’s character. King Solomon says that the poor man doesn’t speak so arrogantly (“Tachanunim yedabber rash”), whilst the rich is emboldened by his money.
The Torah doesn’t just blame the human beings who sinned, i.e. Korach and Company, but the possessions which led to their sinfulness.
TAKE SOMEONE WITH YOU.
When it was time for Moses to confront Datan and Aviram, the elders of Israel went with him (Num. 16:25).
One of the Chassidic rebbes explains that at difficult moments the representatives of the community need to show their solidarity. They don’t have to be the spokesmen, but they have to be there.
However, this is only when human beings are involved in an encounter with other human beings. If an individual has to face God, other people cannot necessarily help. Each individual must stand before the Divine Presence in existential loneliness, one human being facing the One God and Judge.
A FENCE AROUND THE LAW.
Towards the end of the sidra comes a grave warning to Aaron and his tribe that they “bear the iniquity of the sanctuary” if any unauthorised person enters the sanctuary or touches the holy objects.
Why blame Aaron if an Israelite gets into the sanctuary unlawfully? Surely it is the Israelite who is at fault, not Aaron! But the high priest has overall charge of the security of the tabernacle, and if an unauthorised person gets in it reflects on Aaron and the efficiency of the kohanim.
In Judaism it is not only the sanctuary that has to be protected from intrusion. The Torah too is accorded a security system by means of precautionary measures known as fences around the law.
If a house is to be kept intact it needs a fence; if the Torah is not to be intruded upon it needs precautionary measures. Hence for instance the practice of beginning Shabbat earlier than sunset and ending it later than nightfall the following day. The extension of time at each end protects Shabbat and keeps it holy.
Quod erat demonstratum… that’s the Latin tag which says that what you were meant to demonstrate has been duly demonstrated. These days it has another meaning. Whatever people can demonstrate about, they demonstrate about it. There are marches, vigils and pickets, and they make maximum use of media attention to ensure that however abstruse their cause, the public hears about it.
That is what happened in the days of Korach, except that at that point in history the media had not been invented. Korach and his henchmen were taking a stand for democracy, or so they said.
“All the congregation are holy,”
they said to Moses and Aaron,
“So why do you lord it over the congregation of the Lord?” (Num. 16:1-3).
Korach was the demagogue who coined the slogan; Datan and Aviram were the two chief followers, of the type that Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz called
“the professional troublemaker… who, whenever there is a chance of making mischief or causing trouble, is to be found in the forefront. They can derive no possible benefit or advantage to themselves from their machinations except for the sadistic satisfaction of knowing that they have thrown a wrench in the works, that they have caused strife and disharmony and disturbed the peace of the community.”
Korach, Datan and Aviram were not entirely wrong in drawing attention to what they thought was bad government of the congregation. Every community has its faults and failings, and the communal leadership everywhere ought to understand that their people are entitled to criticise.
Yet, in the Korach incident, the fact is that it was God who appointed Moses and Aaron, and the critics should have questioned Him if they thought there was a problem. But even worse than this was the fact that from none of the demonstrators did one hear a word of appreciation, encouragement or praise. You would have thought that nothing good was happening at all. There was no recognition of the good that had been done, however imperfect; of the dedication and effort of the congregational leadership, however much might have been done better; and no offer of help to put things right. There are times when to demonstrate and criticise is cheap and churlish. This is one of them.
Modern-day communal critics, please take note.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com