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Torah Attitude: Parashas Korach: Like water off the duck's back
Korach started his revolt against Moses, because he resented that Moses appointed his cousin Elizaphan to be the leader of the family of Kehos. The majority of the 250 leaders came from the Tribe of Reuven. Jealousy is one of the three things that take a person out of this world. It is difficult to understand how the leaders participated after Moses warned them that only one would survive. Three things can cause a person to lack cautiousness: (1) pre-occupation with worldly matters and affairs; (2) mocking and cynicism; and (3) influence of bad company. The children of Korach did not follow their father's counsel. Korach spun a tale of a poor widow and mocked Moses having 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 parasha (Bamidbar 16:1-2) it says "And Korach … and Dathan and Aviram … and On … the offspring of Reuven … 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) that explains that Korach started this revolt against Moses, because he resented that Moses appointed his cousin Elizaphan, the son of Uziel, 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 such a revolt? Rashi quotes from the Midrash that just like Dathan, Aviram and On, the majority of these leaders came from the Tribe of Reuven. Their camp in the wilderness was next to Korach and his family, and they got drawn into the quarrel. The Midrash points out that this teaches us how easily one is influenced, and how careful one has to be to choose a good neighbourhood and social circle for oneself and one's family.
This is certainly true. However, there must be more to joining a revolt than just being influenced as a neighbour. We can well imagine how agitated Korach was when he felt bypassed to be the leader of his family. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:28) teaches 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 acts illogical. But this does not explain how the other leaders got involved. They were Torah scholars, students of Moses, and if they had no personal benefit why did they join this revolt?
It is even more difficult to understand how they continued to revolt after they heard Moses' warning. 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 did they dare to join in this test, well aware that only one would survive? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) relates how the wife of On saved her husband. She told him that he had nothing to gain and risked losing his life if he stayed with the revolters. She pointed out that either Aaron or Korach would emerge as the chosen one. Certainly he would not be the one. So why did the other leaders not realize that their fate was doomed?
The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 20b) teaches that Torah study brings a person to be cautious. This makes it even more perplexing. These leaders were all students of Moses. How could they act in such a ridiculous way? Says Rabbi Shmulevits, we can find an answer to all these questions in the words of Rabbi Moishe Chaim Luzatto. Rabbi Luzatto writes (Path of the Just Chapter 5) that there are three things that causes a person to lack cautiousness, even if he studies Torah: (1) pre-occupation with worldly matters and affairs; (2) mocking and cynicism; and (3) influence of bad company. The Jewish people in the wilderness were definitely not involved in any worldly affairs. They were provided for with the Mann from Heaven and water from the Well of Miriam. This leaves us with the other two deterrents that prevent cautiousness. It was these factors that brought about Korach's revolt.
King David says in the beginning 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 parasha explains that this refers to the children of Korach. They did not follow the counsel of their father. They neither stood with the revolters, nor sat with Korach to join in his mockery.
The Yalkut relates 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. No matter whatever she attempted she was always restricted by a Torah prohibition. And whatever meek living she was able to eke out, she had to donate a large portion to the Kohanim and Levi'im. He also cloaked all his followers in blue garments, made of the special Techeilis that the Torah instructs to use in tzitzis. Dressed in their new attire, they asked Moses whether these garments required tzitzis. When Moses answered in the affirmative, they started mocking him and said that this did not make any sense. If one thread of Techeilis was sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis, how could it be that if the whole garment was made of Techeilis, one had not fulfilled the obligation?
Rabbi Luzatto explains that mockery causes a person to be illogical and act like a drunkard who cannot think straight. He compares cynicism to a shield covered with oil. The slippery oil makes everything slide off its surface, and 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, enjoying their popularity. They greatly appreciate the attention of those who gather around them to participate in pocking fun at the authorities and anything holy. This state of intoxication affects all those who join the mocker and cynic. None of them will be ready to accept any chastisement regardless of who says it. As our sages say, one mockery pushes away a hundred chastisements. This was Korach's power. 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, once they fall into the company of cynics and mockers, they can literally change overnight beyond recognition. Just like there is no logical explanation for the conduct of a person who is intoxicated, there is no logical answer why the two hundred fifty leaders followed Korach.
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, we are extremely vulnerable. We are inundated by the media and other sources of information that infiltrate our homes, and we cannot be careful enough to protect ourselves, and our families, 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, G'd willing, we will be able to continue the path of the Torah for many generations to come.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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