Parshat Korach (5770)

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First thing one morning the office manager called Jim, an employee, into his office. “How did your grandmother’s funeral go yesterday afternoon?” he asked. “Fine, thank you” replied Jim, puzzled. “That’s great” said the manager, “just seems a pity they’ve got to do it all over again.” “What do you mean?” said Jim” “Well, I understand there’s a replay on Saturday!

Many of you reading this will be following footballing events taking place in South Africa at this time. Some of you will be supporting or backing your favourite teams to triumph, and may even have the scarf to match – but I don’t think anyone here has World Cup fever as badly as a chap in the UK who seems to have gone a bissel meshuggeh. He has actually tried to recreate the feel of a soccer field in the living room of his rented accommodation, and to that end has covered his floor with grassy turf from his local garden centre. This lush green vista around his flat screen TV, complete with white markings and a corner flag seems the perfect setting to watch the matches. To ensure it stays fresh as long as possible guests are being asked to remove their shoes, and the grass is of course watered regularly and given lots of light. It should be fun until his landlord gives him a penalty or a free kick! What is it about watching team sports that humans so appreciate? Participation in sport is something we can understand– we know the science of it, that exercise releases endorphins which make you feel good, exercise is good for the heart, helps us lose weight etc. – but what do we gain from watching other people play sport, whether live in the stadium or on TV in the comfort of our own home? Is it the competitive aspect, the vicarious exercise, the thrill of  “our team” winning, the camaraderie as we cheer or groan together, or is it simply something we do to kill time?

Presumably everyone has their own personal motivation and reason for enjoying sport, but there is one aspect I would like to discuss here and that is the attraction and power of belonging to a team, of being a team player. There seems to be something in our genetic makeup that predisposes us to want to be part of something greater than just being one individual, alone. We feel the need to belong to a group of like-minded souls, and belonging to that group gives us security and satisfaction, motivation and meaning. Possibly this need to belong is rooted in a low sense of self esteem, or a fear of sticking our head above the parapet, but it is not just humans who feel this need for a peer group: lions hunt in prides, fish swim in shoals, birds fly in flocks etc … it is a deep rooted natural instinct it seems we are born with.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Korach, we read of a group of like-minded people who gather together in rebellion against the leaders of the nation in an early form of a no-confidence motion. Led by Korach, Moses’ first cousin, they complain of perceived power grabbing and nepotism by Moshe and Aaron. They are of course unaware that these appointments were made by G-d Himself, but they find that out very quickly indeed. Moses pleads with them to reconsider, and gives them time to calm down, but ultimately they are only quelled by the hand of G-d. Moses offers Korach & co. along with his 250 followers the following test: He tells them to fill a pan with coals and incense and offer it to G-d, alongside Aaron the Kohen Gadol. G-d Himself would accept the offerings He desired.

What transpired next is preserved in the Chumash for posterity. The ground beneath the rebel leaders opens beneath them, swallows them alive, and then returns to its former state as if nothing had happened. The two hundred and fifty members of Team Korach are then consumed by fire from Heaven, leaving their still smouldering fire-pans littered on the ground.

Where did these 250 unfortunates come from? They all came from the tribe of Reuven, leading the commentators to ask why they all came from one specific tribe – why not from a few tribes? Surely the political unrest was spread evenly amongst the people? The great commentator Rashi answers this by quoting from the Mishna (Negaim 12:6) “Woe to an evil person, and woe to his neighbour!”.  Because the tribe of Reuven was encamped next to the family of Korach they fell under his sphere of influence and this tragically led to their rebellion against G-d’s appointed leader, and their subsequent deaths.

The lessons learned from this are clear. We all like to be part of a group or a team – that is our nature. It is also our nature to go along with the group attitude and to give in to peer pressure. It is the rare individual who swims against the tide, ignoring calls for conformity. Our task is to ensure that we, and our children, are mixing in the right circles and with the right people. Our task is to ensure that we, and our children, are able to withstand the peer pressure if our conscience tells us something is wrong.

The moral code laid down by the Torah is clear and unchanging. National cultures and social mores will change with the seasons, but as upholders of G-d’s moral code as elucidated in the Torah we must stay firm and sure in the knowledge of what is right and what is not, and to share that sanity with others around us.

May we merit to be blessed with moral clarity, and to truly deserve the title of  G-d’s Chosen People.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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