parasha

Which Side to Choose?

  Parashat Korach

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

Again, we read about a dispute.  This time, Korach and his followers rebel against Moses.  At Korach’s side there were “two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute” (Numbers 16, 2).  But there is a significant difference between Korach’s claims and the attitude of Datan and Aviram.  Korach actually makes a pretty good initial impression, until we delve into his personality and statements.  He claims to be standing up for equality when he says “for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above…?" (Ibid, 3).  In contrast, Datan and Aviram do not hide their animosity toward Moses and their lack of faith in the destination to which Moses is leading the nation: the land of Canaan.  They blatantly present their main claim against Moses:

Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us? You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up."

(Ibid, 13-14)

We listen to their words and can’t help but shake our heads in wonder.  Was Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey”? It is possible that ancient Egypt was a land blessed with relative abundance since the Nile watered its fields.  But that didn’t change the fact that the Jews’ state in Egypt was, as we recall, absolutely terrible!  Did Dotan and Aviram miss the slavery, the humiliation, the flagellations? Did they miss the Jewish babies being tossed into the river directly into the mouths of crocodiles?  Was this the land that Dotan and Aviram were dreaming of?

We can see that this pair of charlatans was taking advantage of the time that had passed since the exodus from Egypt to deceive the nation and reframe the past with an optimism that completely revised history.  Or, we can suppose that Datan and Aviram were not lying, and that they actually considered Egypt to be a blessed land.  Maybe Datan and Aviram cooperated with the Egyptian rulers against their Jewish brothers, as is suggested by an early commentator, Rabbi Tuvia ben Eliezer (Northern Greece, 11th century) in his commentary “Lekach Tov”.  It would be no wonder, then, that these traitors, who lost their standing and their assets since Moses appeared to liberate the enslaved nation, are accurately expressing what they truly feel.  Perhaps they feel that Moses is gouging out their eyes.

Moses’ reaction to Datan and Aviram’s incitement does not speak directly to them.  He turns to G-d in a short prayer in which he proclaims his integrity and actually positions himself as the polar opposite of Datan and Aviram:

"…I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them, and I have not harmed a single one of them."

(Ibid, 15)

If we search for the polar opposite of a traitor willing to cooperate with his nation’s enemy for money, we would find a leader who is loyal to his nation, incorruptible, who works tirelessly and devotedly and without compensation.  The significance of “I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them” is far-reaching.  Moses is declaring that – in today’s terms – he has not used public funds for himself.  Moses was a volunteer.  It was not always easy for him.  We have already seen Moses despair from the nation’s complaints, but he recovers and returns to carry the heavy burden of leadership with no compensation.

When we read this story, we can clearly distinguish the “bad guys” from the “good guys”.  We see money-hungry traitors versus a devoted and incorruptible leader.  But when the story was happening, things were not this clear.  The biblical story describes good people who followed Korach, Datan, and Aviram.

So how are we to know, in situations we encounter in our lives, how to make the right choices? Parashat Korach teaches us the ultimate test: loyalty and incorruptibility versus treachery and greed.  That’s how we’ll know how to choose.

 

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