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June 26, 2009 4:13 pm

Korach: A Powerful Love Story

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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The mutiny

The narrative is dramatic, tragic and unmistakably Jewish. Four individuals — Korach, Dathan, Abiram and On — lead a mass mutiny against Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, and his brother Aaron, the High Priest. What else is new, right?

“They gathered together against Moses and against Aaron,” the weekly Torah portion records, “and said to them, ‘It is too much for you! The entire community is holy, and G-d dwells among them, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?”

Moses responds to Korach in brief and moving words. He attempts to persuade Korach, who happens to be his first cousin, that Aaron was appointed to his position by the instructions of G-d. Nepotism was not a factor.

“Then Moses sent word to summon Dathan and Abiram,” the Bible records. “But they said, ‘We won’t come! Is it not enough that you [Moses] brought us out of [Egypt], a land flowing with milk and honey, just to kill us in the desert?! What right do you have to set yourselves above us? Even if you would gouge out our eyes, we shall not come!'”

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These are bald and vicious words. Clearly, Dathan and Abiram won’t surrender. They are determined, together with Korach, to overthrow Moses and Aaron.

As usual in the wilderness, G-d intervenes. He decides to wipe out the rebels who are attempting to invalidate Moses as the leader of the Jewish people and the communicator of G-d’s law. G-d instructs Moses to announce to the entire community, “Withdraw from the pavilion of Korach, Dathan and Abiram.” A tragic fate awaits them.

But before Moses moves to execute G-d’s instruction, the Bible inserts an unexpected scene in this dramatic narrative:

“Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram.”

Why? Didn’t G-d instruct him to ensure that everybody withdraw from their dwellings? What exactly did Moses do when he approached them?

The Bible leaves the answer to our imagination, but the message is clear. Moses was attempting, one last time, to persuade Dathan and Abiram to terminate their crusade against him. He made one final attempt save their lives. It was to no avail. They would not budge.

The Talmud, commenting on this scene, states: “From here we learn that one should never keep up a quarrel.”

Yet here is the simple question: Must we derive this noble injunction from this incident? Hasn’t the Bible already stated explicitly, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall love your fellow as yourself.” Does this straightforward commandment not teach us already that we ought never to maintain a quarrel or perpetuate a dispute, but must always attempt to eradicate the animosity and create harmony and love? Why would the Talmudic rabbis feel compelled to derive this injunction from the particular verse, “Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram”?

A profile of quarrelers

To understand this, we must examine the profiles of these two quarrelers, Dathan and Abiram. The Bible reports four incidents about these two men, sufficient material to capture the nature of their relationship to Moses.

Incident No. 1, in the beginning of Exodus, takes us back some 70 years, to Moses’ youth.

“Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no person present; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

“He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, ‘Why are you going to strike your friend?’ And the man retorted, ‘Who made you a man, a prince and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?’ Moses became frightened and said, ‘Indeed, the matter has become known!’

Who were the two Hebrew’s quarreling with each other? The Talmud and the Midrash deduce from the wording that they were Dathan and Abiram.

Incident No. 2 occurs shortly after the Exodus when the heavenly Manna begins falling daily in the desert to nourish the wandering Jews:

“Moses said to them [the Jewish people], ‘Let no one leave over any of it until morning.’ But some men did not obey Moses and left over some of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid. Moses became angry with them.”

Who were these men that betrayed Moses’ instruction? The Midrash deduces from the wording, yet again, that it was Dathan and Abiram.

Incident No. 3 occurs one year later, when the spies returned from the Holy Land and dissuaded their brethren from the motivation and willingness to conquer and settle the Land of Israel:

“The people wept that night. All the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the entire community said to them: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt… Why is G-d bringing us to this Land to die by the sword?’

“And one man said to his brother, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”

Who exactly was this man who spoke these ridiculous words to his fellow? Here again, tradition teaches that it was a conversation between Dathan and Abiram.

Finally, the fourth incident recorded above, tells the story of how Dathan and Abiram not only rejected Moses’ plea that they come to see him, but even went so far as to call him a killer.

Professional rabble-rousers

These four incidents paint a fairly accurate picture of Dathan and Abiram’s characters. They were not idealistic adversaries, disputing Moses for ideological reasons: the fact is that they quarreled between themselves too, independent of Moses. Nor were they driven by envy, seeking the power and prestige possessed by Moses: the fact is that they fought Moses long before he became a leader.

Who were they?

Dathan and Abiram, it appears, were rabble-rousers who would not miss an opportunity to fight Moses, even if they stood to gain nothing. They were forever determined to undermine Moses and his authority. They lacked sensitivity to a higher calling of grace. They even had the audacity of suggesting that Moses was a killer and that he would poke their eyes out, as though he were a sadist. Dathan and Abiram, it seems, despised Moses because he was their opposite.

It is thus astonishing that after all of these incidents, after an animosity that persisted for close to 70 years, and even after G-d instructed Moses to ensure that everybody depart from their midst, that “Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram” to assuage their ire against him. This makes little sense. One could imagine that some Jews suggesting to Moses that his behavior was futile and humiliating. “You know, Moses, that these guys loathe you. For seven decades they haven’t missed an opportunity to ridicule you, betray your will and campaign against you. Even as you invited them to discuss peace, they responded with nasty words. Moses! For the sake of your dignity and G-d’s dignity, let them perish!

“Do not be kinder and wiser than G-d,” they must have argued. “If G-d commanded you to stay away from them, just stay away!” Moses Himself would ultimately call them “wicked.”

Boundless dedication

Yet here we are allowed a glimpse into what made Moses the human being he was. Here we encounter the gigantic heart of Moses. His dedication, loyalty and love to every single member of his people, knew no bounds. Even as his fiercest and lifelong enemies were engaged in an intense battle against him, he would not give up on the chance of seeking peace with them and saving their lives.

Ultimately, it is this verse — “Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram” — that demonstrates to us why the mutiny against Moses was so profoundly wrong. It was Moses’ uncompromising identification with his people, no matter to what depths they might have fallen, that made him qualified to have all the power he had. Moses’ extraordinary dedication to his people turned him into the authentic Jewish leader.

Only peace

Now we can understand the Talmudic comment that “From here we that learn that one should never keep up a quarrel.”

The biblical instruction “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall love your fellow as yourself” merely suggests that one should not foster animosity in one’s heart; one must expose and deal with his or her grudges, and ultimately learn to love his fellow human being, since on a deeper soul level, we are children of one G-d.

But how about when you feel that somebody really has issues with you and is addicted to alienating himself from you? What about when you can justly assume that no matter what you will do, this person will never change? Why not just write him off and accept the quarrel as an immutable fact of life? Why not make peace with the state of war?

This is what Moses taught us at the moment that he “stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram.” “Never keep up a quarrel.” Despite the fact that he could have rightly assumed that his adversaries would not change their position, he did not allow any assumptions based on past experiences to stop him from his peace efforts. Moses knew that fighting and animosity among Jews was a malignant disease, and he would not give up the slightest opportunity to stop it!

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi states: “Each and every soul of the house of Israel contains within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses.” This means that we, too, are empowered to emulate Moses’ example at least in some small fashion. To become comfortable with disunity and fragmentation is a tragedy. We must never cease to confront our arrogance and strive for peace even with people we can easily write off.

The Rebbe

Next week, the third of Tamuz, will mark the anniversary of the passing of one of the great leaders and visionaries of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

One of the most outstanding features of the Rebbe was the way he dealt with his opponents. Though these opponents, motivated by ideology, ignorance, arrogance and the like, made his life difficult, the Rebbe never ceased to love them and seek ways to terminate the animosity and separation. The Rebbe never made peace with the fact that “some Jews just won’t get along with each other.” He loathed disunity among Jews and sought every opportunity to foster mutual respect and affection. I always remember thinking that if the Rebbe’s opponents would only know how much he cared for their well being, they could never harbor any negative sentiments to him.

Who has time?

A vignette:

A rabbi once verbally attacked the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When the rabbi realized he was mistaken, he wrote an apology note to the Rebbe and expressed his hope that the Rebbe did not bear a grudge against him.

The Rebbe responded: “Believe me when I tell you that I do not have the time to bear grudges against people.”

The Rebbe attempted to inculcate this perspective in the hearts of his disciples as well. Where do you find the time to bear grudges against people? Where do you obtain the time and the energy to hate? This time must be used to change the world!

If we, the students of the Rebbe, could only emulate his example.

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