Big Yellow Duck And Korach’s Rebellion [Parshat Korach By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “… For the entire congregation are all holy … so why do you raise yourselves above the L-rd’s assembly? – Numbers 16:3

Various authoritarian governments across the globe censor Internet searches in their countries, with the exact list of banned words particular to the regime and the politics at that time. So, for example, in China you cannot search for words like “democracy,” “human rights” or “dictatorship”; you also cannot search for names of certain politicians, dissident groups or historic political events.

This week a new search term was blocked by Chinese censors:  The words “Big Yellow Duck.”

The reason this innocuous sounding phrase was added to the blacklisted words is fascinating. On June 4th 1989, twenty four years ago, the Chinese army killed in cold blood many hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The most iconic image from that tragic episode is one of a young man physically blocking a row of four tanks with his body. The contrast of mental versus physical might could not have been greater. That image, and the phrase “Tiananmen Square” is blocked by Chinese censors, and has been since 1989. Last week someone doctored the image (as seen above) so that the young man is seen blocking four huge yellow rubber ducks instead. As the image went viral the authorities stepped in to block that dangerous phrase too – Big Yellow Ducks.

Power struggles are nothing new in world history. Homo Sapiens by nature seems driven to conflict, with some always seeking mastery over others, some always striving for power and control over lives not their own. The world today is no different, with Iran, Syria, North Korea and so many more countries maintaining a tight and oppressive leash on their citizens. In Turkey this week alone many hundreds were injured and even killed by the military shutting down a peaceful people’s protest. In our individual lives, close to home, the newspapers would have almost nothing to write if there were no internecine political struggles, no sports player/manager crises, no employer/employee court cases and so on. Such is the human condition, and it takes hard work and conditioning to rise above it.

In the parsha this week we read of a big political dustup between Moses, Aaron and a couple of hundred disgruntled citizens. Moses and Aaron had been appointed by G-d to their tasks, but Korach felt this was nepotism at work and that he was next in line, and should have been allocated a position of influence.

Moses tries to calm things down, but tempers flare and Korach and his followers meet their demise in spectacular fashion, as the earth splits beneath them and they are swallowed alive by the gaping chasm. I am sure there are many politicians who would love to replicate the miracle, but thankfully it remains a one-off to this day.

Yet there is something interesting here: Despite Korach fomenting rebellion against Moses and Aaron, leading to the deaths of some 250 people, his name is actually used as the name of the Torah portion! How can that be? Shouldn’t the names of the wicked be reviled, or at the very least forgotten?

One of the answers to this question is that we can learn something good from Korach too. Yes, he was a troublemaker, and yes he was brazen and needed punishment … but one thing stood out. Korach was not looking for money, or fame; he was not looking for a TV slot or a fast car, he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. This was as close a position to G-d as a mortal could get, and Korach wanted that chance. Clearly that was not to be, but the very fact that Korach’s rebellion had a holy purpose, a desire to be a greater servant of G-d, is a mitigating factor in his sin, and a cause to name a parsha after him.

The lesson is clear: There is no place for conflict, ever. Conflict leads to pain, suffering, and ruin. However there is another lesson too, that we should always strive to be holier, closer to G-d, than we are at any moment. That drive, that desire and passion to be holy, was Korach’s saving grace, and something we can all aspire to follow. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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