“The Power of Strife”

(updated and revised from Korach 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we learn of the frightful rebellion of Korach and his followers. Whatever Korach’s differences were with Moses and Aaron, the issues ultimately prove to be unresolvable. Despite Moses’ numerous attempts to reconcile with the rebels, they were unwilling to listen, and eventually, the earth opens and swallows Korach and his cohorts.

Among the well-known protagonists in this rebellion are the familiar names of Datan and Abiram, who have been thorns in Moses’ side since before the exodus from Egypt. As noted in a previous parasha study (Emor 5764-2004), the Midrash maintains that Datan was the man whose life Moses had saved from the Egyptian who was beating him, and it was this very Datan who told Pharaoh that Moses had killed an Egyptian, causing Moses to flee to Midian for many years.

How did Datan and Abiram become involved in the rebellion of Korach? According to the commentators, the tribe of Reuben, Datan and Abiram’s tribe, were encamped on the southern side of the Tabernacle next to the camp of Korach. Our rabbis exclaim, (Midrash RabbahBamidbar, 18:5): אוֹי לָרָשָׁע וְאוֹי לִשְׁכֵנוֹ, “Woe to the wicked one, and woe to his neighbor,” implying that Datan and Abiram became embroiled in the rebellion of Korach because of the friendship they developed living side-by-side with each other.

Other commentators suggest that all the members of the tribe of Reuben were unhappy since Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob, and they felt shortchanged by not having been given significant leadership roles. So, the Reubenites rebelled along with Korach, who also felt shortchanged that he had not been chosen to be a leader of his Levite family.

Korach, Datan, Abiram, and On, the son of Pelet, together with 250 leaders of the children of Israel, gathered together to confront Moses and Aaron, insisting that the two leaders had taken too much authority for themselves. The rebels said to them, Numbers 16:3: רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם, “It is too much for you, Moses and Aaron, for the entire assembly, all of them are holy, and G-d is among them. So why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?”

Moses suggests a Divine test. The unhappy tribesman must take a fire-pan, and in the morning, G-d will choose whether to ignite their fire-pans or Aaron’s fire-pan. He then pleads with Korach (Numbers 16:9): “Is it not enough that G-d has chosen you from among all Israel to be near to Him, by performing the service of the Tabernacle, to stand before the assembly to minister to them?”

Scripture thus indicates that Moses made a special plea to Datan and Abiram calling on them personally to reconcile, but they answer brazenly (Numbers 16:12-14): לֹא נַעֲלֶה! “We will not go up!” There is nothing to talk about! “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey (sic!) to cause us to die in the wilderness? Yet, you seek to dominate us, even to dominate further. Moreover, you did not bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor did you give us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you think that you can blind the eyes of those men? We shall not go up!”

Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchumah, says that by virtue of the fact that the great Moses tried tirelessly to reconcile with Datan and Abiram, the Torah teaches how improper it is to maintain a dispute.

The man Moses had done so much for the people of Israel, and yet the people are totally ungrateful. He had done so much, particularly for Datan and Abiram, but there was no way to convince them that everything that Moses did was for the benefit of the people.

Moses humbly beseeches Datan and Abiram to separate from Korach, but his words fall on deaf ears. And yet, to the very last minute, Moses persists in his efforts.

One of the most beautiful prayers that is recited at the conclusion of each Amidah (Shemoneh Esreh) is the meditation known as אֱ־לֹקַי נְצוֹר. We pray to G-d that He guard our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from uttering falsehood. Let our souls be silent to those who curse us. Let our souls be as lowly as the dust to all things.

Moses reduced himself to be like the dust of the earth. ‘Whatever your grievances, Datan and Abiram, I will listen! If I have wronged you, I will apologize! I will drag myself to you, wherever you may be, no matter the distance, so that we can reconcile!’ But Datan and Aviram could not, or would not, hear. They only heard in Moses’ words his summons to appear in front of him as one who comes before a judge. And, therefore, they vehemently responded, “Who do you think you are to command us? We will not come up before you.”

The Talmud in tractate Chullin, 89a, offers a very insightful interpretation of the beautiful expression that is found in the book of Job 26:7: תֹּלֶה אֶרֶץ, עַל בְּלִימָה–He, [G-d], hangs the world on nothingness. Rabbi Ila’a says: The world exists only in the merit of those who stifle themselves (בּוֹלֵם–bo’leim-become nothing) in a time of quarrel.

It’s a tall order to control oneself when tempers become heated.

But our sages say that we have the G-d given ability to control ourselves and to save the whole world. Korach was unable to conquer his rage. In his wrath, he succeeded to stir up hundreds of people. Consequently, the world ended for Korach and his cohorts, and now there’s nothing left of them. Had he been willing to get together and discuss his differences with Moses, there might have been a reconciliation.

And so, when Datan and Abiram said: לֹא נַעֲלֶה, “We shall not go up!” They actually prophesied, that not only would they not go up to see Moses, but that they would actually go down, and be swallowed up alive into the bowels of the earth.

How powerful is the force of jealousy. How mighty is strife. How potent is hatred.

May we all develop the ability to rise above our vanity, and to spare no effort to resolve our differences in a civil and peaceful manner.

May You Be Blessed.