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Torah Attitude: Parashas Korach: Like water off the duck's back
Korach started this revolt against Moses because he resented that his cousin Elizaphan, the son of Uziel, was appointed by Moses to be the leader of the family of Kehos. The majority of the 250 leaders also came from the Tribe of Reuven. Jealousy is one of the three things that take a person out of this world.
It becomes even more difficult to understand the participation of the leaders after Moses warned them that only one would survive. Three things can cause a person to lack cautiousness in his actions: (1) a pre-occupation with worldly matters and affairs; (2) mocking and cynicism; and (3) the influence of bad company. The children of Korach did not follow their father' counsel. Korach spun a tale of a poor widow and mocked Moses by making a blue garment made entirely with Techeilis. Mockery causes a person to be illogical and act like a drunkard who cannot think straight. In our day and age, where we are so influenced by the media and other sources of information that infiltrate our homes, we must be careful to protect ourselves from "the counsel of the wicked", "the ways of the sinful", and "the company of the mockers."
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Bamidbar 16:1-2) it says "And Korach … and Dathan and Aviram … and On … the offspring of Reuven … and they stood up before Moses with two hundred fifty men of the Children of Israel, leaders of the assembly … " Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma (para.1) who explains that Korach started this revolt against Moses because he resented that his cousin Elizaphan, the son of Uziel, was appointed by Moses to be the leader of the family of Kehos. Korach claimed that this job belonged to him as he was the son of Itzhar who was older than Uziel.
Tribe of Reuven
Korach obviously had his agenda but, asks Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits, why would the two hundred fifty leaders join in such a revolt? Rashi explains, in the name of our sages, that just like Dathan, Aviram and On, the majority of these leaders also came from the Tribe of Reuven. They were camping near Korach and his family in the wilderness, and therefore they got drawn into the quarrel. The Midrash continues to point out that from here we learn how careful one has to be to chose a good neighbourhood and social circle for oneself and one's family, as these have a major influence on every individual.
However, there must be more to joining a revolt than just being loyal or influenced as neighbours. One call well understand that Korach's initial aspiration to become the leader of his family strongly affected his emotions and perceptions. This is what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:28) teaches when it states that jealousy is one of the three things that take a person out of this world. This can be understood to mean that a jealous person loses his common sense and equilibrium and does things that are illogical. But these leaders were Torah scholars, students of Moses, and if they had no personal benefit by Korach's revolt why did they join him in his revolt?
It becomes even more difficult to understand the participation of the leaders after they heard Moses' warning regarding the incense offerings in their fire pans. Moses said to them: (Bamidbar 16:6-7) "And the man who G'd will chose, he is the Holy one." With this he indicated that only the one chosen by G'd would survive and everyone else would perish. They had already seen how Nadav and Avihu had died when they brought unauthorized incense offerings. So how could they join in this test well knowing that only one would survive? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) relates how the wife of On told her husband that he had nothing to gain and could only lose his life if he stayed with the revolters. For either Aaron or Korach would emerge as the chosen one and certainly he would not be the one. So how could these leaders not see that their participation was doomed?
The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 20b) advises that Torah study brings a person to be cautious. This makes it even more perplexing. How could these students of Moses act in such a fashion that was anything but cautious? Says Rabbi Shmulevits, we can find an answer to all this in the words of Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto. Rabbi Luzatto writes (Path of the Just Chapter 5) that there are three things that can cause a person to lack cautiousness in his actions even if he studies Torah: (1) a pre-occupation with worldly matters and affairs; (2) mocking and cynicism; and (3) the influence of bad company. The Jewish people in the wilderness were definitely not involved in any major way in worldly affairs. They were provided with their food and sustenance in miraculous ways with the Mann from Heaven and water from the Well of Miriam. However, the last two deterrents preventing cautiousness were strong factors in Korach's revolt.
King David says in the very first verse of the first chapter of Tehillim, "Praiseworthy is the man who did not follow the counsel of the wicked, and did not stand in the path of the sinners, and did not sit in the company of the mockers." The Yalkut Shimoni in the beginning of this week's portion explains that this refers to the children of Korach who did not follow the counsel of their father, and did not stand with his revolters, and did not sit with Korach and join in his mockery.
The Yalkut continues to explain how Korach spent all night poking fun at Moses and Aaron. He spun a tale of a poor widow and her two daughters who could not make an honest living as no matter whatever she attempted she was always restricted by a Torah prohibition. And whatever meek living she was able to acquire she had to give over a large portion to the Kohanim and Levi'im. He further cloaked all his followers in blue garments made of the special Techeilis which is normally used to fulfill the commandment of tzitzis. Dressed in their new attire they went and posed a question to Moses whether these garments would be required to have tzitzis in them. When Moses answered in the affirmative, they started mocking him and said that this does not make any sense. If one thread of Techeilis is sufficient to fulfill the Torah obligation, how could it be that if the whole garment is made of Techeilis that one has not fulfilled his obligation?
Rabbi Luzatto continues to explain that mockery causes a person to be illogical and act like a drunkard who cannot think straight. He compares cynicism with a shield covered with oil. The slippery oil makes everything slide off its surface so that nothing will penetrate the shield. No arguments or logical reasoning will have any effect on a person who is involved in mockery and cynicism. It is like water off a duck's back. The mocker and cynic become intoxicated with the enjoyment of their popularity and the attention of those who gather around them to participate in pocking fun at the authorities and anything holy. Not only are the mocker and cynic themselves affected, as a matter of fact no one who joins them will be in a position to accept any chastisement regardless of who says it. As our sages say, one mockery pushes away one hundred chastisements. This was the power of Korach. His arguments were not logical and only through his cynical comments and mockery could he attract his followers. Even people who in general are serious scholars and spend their time engaged in Torah study, if they fall into the company of cynics and mockers they can literally change over night beyond recognition. There is no logical answer why the two hundred fifty leaders followed Korach, just like there is no logical explanation for the conduct of a person who is intoxicated.
This sad incident in the history of the Jewish people sends a strong message how cautious we must be to watch who we socialize with and even more so to make sure that our children should not fall into bad company. In our day and age, where we are so influenced by the media and other sources of information that infiltrate our homes, we can not be careful enough to protect ourselves from "the counsel of the wicked", "the ways of the sinful", and "the company of the mockers", who are plentiful in the world around us. In this way, we have hope that we will be able to continue on the path of the Torah, as given to us by our leader Moses, for generations to come.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network