Parashat Korach 5777

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, 23 June 2017

‘You take to much upon yourselves, surely all the people are holy?’ says Korach in his challenge to Moses. His words seem plausible, so what is it that Korach did so wrong? The rabbis had to come up with some ingenious suggestions as to what the problem was. For example, they suggest that Korach had amassed enormous wealth and that he mocked the commandments, such as wearing tzitzit (fringes). But even in our Torah reading, it is clear that Korach and his followers acted disrespectfully towards Moses, and to God. They also lied to the people, most outrageously saying that Moses had brought them out of a land of milk and honey to kill the Israelites in the wilderness, although in fact the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and they were free in the wilderness.

Clearly, Korach and his followers were wrong in their challenge to Moses. They acted because they wanted power, and they told lies and mocked Moses to achieve their ends. But there are times when it is right to challenge people, especially leaders, and to question those who are in power. How do we know when is the right time to challenge people? After all, Judaism teaches us to value peace above all, to work for peace and to make peace between people. When should we accept things for the sake of peace and when should we enter into a controversy?

Judaism suggests a few answers. One is found in our sedra. When Moses and Aaron hear that God is intending to destroy the people, they immediately fall on their faces and say, ‘Will you be angry with all the congregation?’. They did not think it was right that all the congregation should be destroyed because of Korach. Like Abraham before them, who asked ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’, Moses and Aaron dared to protest even to God if they thought something was unfair. The prophets Nathan and Elijah challenged kings. King David and King Ahab had acted wrongly and caused the death of innocent people. The prophets protested and warned them they would be punished. The prophets risked their lives to speak up. We are fortunate that we live in a democracy, where we are free to speak out and express our opinions. If we see something that is wrong, then we have a duty to speak up.

We also have to speak up to those close to us. In the book of Leviticus, we are told that if we see our friend doing something that is wrong, we should tell them. Sometimes, it is harder to tell our friends they are wrong than to tell someone in a position of authority, who we do not know as well. We do not want to upset our friends and spoil our friendship. But Leviticus warns us that if we do not speak up, we will be partly responsible for the wrong they do. We shouldn’t let our friends get into trouble. True friends are the friends who will tell you the truth, even when it is difficult to hear. If they are wise, they will find a way to tell you that is not hurtful, but gentle, so that you listen to them and realise they are thinking of you.

Often, it is easier to take the way that seems more peaceful, by not causing controversy or entering into argument. But there cannot be real peace if there is injustice or wrong-doing. The Hebrew for peace, shalom, means completeness. Things are not complete if there is injustice simmering below the surface which is not corrected.

May we know when to speak out and how to speak out so that others will listen. May all our controversies, all our disagreements be, like the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai, for the sake of heaven, so that their results will endure for good.
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