Parshat Korach

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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

Rebellion. Mutiny. Uprising. Revolution … different terms for what happens when a group of malcontents turn against their leader or leaders. Usually it is because they have been treated in an unfair or cruel manner and we can sympathise with their cause, yet in the Torah reading this week we see an uprising with fatal consequences over what seems to be petty politics.

Korach, a successful and charismatic personality, is upset at having been overlooked for a leadership role. Assuming incorrectly that job appointments were made by Moses, rather than by G-d (as was the case), Korach rouses an angry rabble determined to set things straight. The group march on Moses and Aaron complaining that this was all about “jobs for the boys,” cronyism and nepotism (relatives Moses, Aaron & Elitzafan all had executive positions), and demanding more power sharing equality.

The story ends tragically. The group refuse to discuss or mediate, and when they insist on brazening it out and rebelling against G-d’s decisions, they are killed by Heaven, some swallowed into the ground and others consumed by Divine fire. Another painful chapter in the history of a stiff-necked nation.

Interestingly, if we take a closer look at who the rebels were in this large group, we find that most came from the tribe of Reuben. Why is that so? What makes Reubenites more susceptible to rebellion than all the other Israelite tribes? Were they educated differently?

The medieval French commentator Rashi has a simple explanation: He says they were neighbours. Korach and his family and the tribe of Reuben all camped in close proximity to one another, and therefore became collaborators in this uprising. In Hebrew he writes, “Oy LeRasha, ve’oy lish’cheno – Woe to the wicked one, and woe to his neighbour,” i.e. we are influenced by those we associate with – positively by good people, and negatively by bad people. Reuben (the “neighbour”), who lived near and associated with Korach (the “wicked one”) became ensnared in a fatal rebellion.

If we take that quote from Rashi, “Woe to the wicked one, and woe to his neighbour” we can interpret it slightly differently and possibly in a more modern context as follows:

“Woe to the wicked one,” – who will eventually be punished.
“Woe to his neighbour,” – who suffers now from the wicked one.

This Shabbat, the 25th of June 2011 is exactly five calendar years since the capture by Hamas of Gilad (ben Aviva) Shalit at the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel, aged just nineteen. Gilad is now twenty-four, with five precious years of his life already gone, five years filled with pain, fear, terror and despair. For five years, minute by minute, hour by hour, the clock has ticked silently on, as this young soldier has languished alone and afraid. Five years without a mother’s kiss or a father’s embrace. Five years without family or friends, warmth, love or friendship. Five years without phone call, email, text or letter. We pray desperately that throughout the five hellish years of captivity to date Gilad has remained hopeful: Hopeful that his family, his friends, his army and his nation will do everything in their power to rescue him from the clutches of “the wicked one.” Hopeful that good people of the world, blinded and brainwashed by the constant portrayal of Israel as an evil oppressor, will nevertheless defend his human rights, and demand access for the Red Cross, and communication with those dear to him. Hopeful that G-d hears his cries.

At the moment Israel is truly in a state of “Woe to his neighbour,” suffering on a daily basis in the battle for survival. We know that the deepest wish of every Israeli citizen, every parent and sibling, every soldier and politician is for peace to reign in the region, and to be able to dismantle the army and let our young men and women live their lives without having to kill or be killed. Their comfort is that, “Woe is to the wicked one,” – that the day will come when evil will be removed from the earth, the wicked will be forced to lay down their hatred and their weapons and goodness and peace will triumph for all mankind.

Let us pray for that day to arrive, so that we can rejoice together with Gilad and his family in the streets of Jerusalem, the City of Peace.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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