We are pleased to share Jonah Rubin’s dvar Torah on Parashat Korach from his recent bar mitzvah at Bonai Shalom.
by Jonah Rubin
So a man and his family move into a new apartment. The landlord grudgingly lets them keep their dog with them. One day, however, another tenant complains to the landlord that the family’s dog is terrorizing their rabbit in the garden. The man convinces the landlord to let them stay, as long as they keep the dog inside. One day, though, the man returns home to find that the dog had gotten out. He finally finds the dog, with a dead rabbit in his mouth. Desperate, he washes the dead rabbit, combs its fur, and places it back in the pen so it looks like the rabbit died of natural causes.
A week later, he asks his neighbor how it’s going. His neighbor replies: “were moving.” The man, surprised asks, “Why?” The neighbor replies, “Some jerk dug up our dead rabbit, cleaned it up, and stuck it in the pen!”
Rather than deprive you of enjoyment by ripping apart this joke to find its hidden meaning, I briefly digress.
The Parsha of Korach tells the story of a man named Korach, a descendent of Levi. Korach raises a rebellion against Moses and Aaron after being refused the priesthood. He rallies 250 chieftains of the Israelites, described as leaders of the community, to his cause. Moses, instead of debating with Korach, asks G-d to intervene with something “unheard of”. Just as he says that, the earth opens up and swallows Korach, most of his family, and the families of his two biggest supporters. The ground then closed on top of them, killing all of them, in total several hundred people. Soon afterwards, the 250 chieftains are consumed in a fire.
The Jewish people are livid at this, and rebel against Moses themselves. G-d sends a deadly and fast-spreading plague, which Aaron manages to stop by offering incense, but only after the deaths of over 14,700 people. For those who have not been counting, we are currently at over 15,200 deaths. The Torah provides little straightforward insights into Korach’s motivations. One of the biggest debates in commentary is of Korach’s intentions. Was he acting out of greed for power or out of indignity over personal injustice?
Both sides of the argument have many interesting points. The commentators who say that Korach was acting out of greed point to the fact that Korach had wanted to be one of the priests. When he was denied the job, he rebelled, and attempted not only to get the priesthood, but also to overthrow Moses himself. According to these commentators, this obviously selfish and shortsighted grab for power was clearly a punishment-deserving and irresponsible action.
Other commentators disagree. They point to how Moses violated an ancient method of power distribution and family honor. In those times, power within an extended family was distributed according to the age of each man’s father. Aaron’s father was Korach’s father’s older brother, so Korach was fine that Aaron got to be High Priest. However, Moses had appointed Korach’s father’s youngest brother to a higher role than and before Korach. This, of course, was an outrage. Korach angrily protests this, saying
I am the next in age! The appointment is rightfully mine. Moses is acting unjustly. Should the son of the youngest of my father’s brothers be superior to me?”
To these commentators, Korach was only standing up against an unjust violation of an undisputed and time-honored system.
The commentators who believe Korach was only power-hungry further rebut this. They claim that Korach not only attacked Moses and Aaron, but the Torah itself. Korach often would publicly ask Moses about apparent inconsistencies in the Torah. The Torah, being the undisputable truth behind Judaism, is obviously not a good thing to criticize. For example he would mockingly say things like:
Since the torah claims that tzitzit must be made of blue thread, does it mean that a person wearing a shirt made of blue thread does not need to wear tzitzit?”
This and other dishonorable actions seem to point towards Korach willing to do anything for the priesthood, even confront G-d.
The other commentators disagree again. Ibn Ezra shows that the entire “rebellion” may have just been political dispute. If the community did not agree with his views, it would have been impossible for Korach to convince so many people. Korach was obviously not forcing anyone to believe anything, so they must have at least somewhat agreed. For proof, these commentators explain, simply look at the reaction of the community to Korach’s death. The Jewish people rise in widespread revolt! Furthermore, even Moses grudgingly agreed with Korach’s claims. However, instead of debating Korach, Moses hides in the Tent of Meeting, asking G-d to intervene, and prove who was right.
In actuality, it does not even matter what Korach’s intent was. The general consensus in Judiasm teaches that intent is the least essential of the three requirements for a mitzvah, except in rare circumstances where it is too easy to perform the action without intention, such as the hearing of the Shofar. This is not universally accepted, but is the most common interpretation. Under this system, if we were to rate a mitzvah on an out-of-ten-points scale, just performing a mitzvah is worth 5. Counterintuitive as it may seem, angrily throwing money at homeless people gets you half credit. The second most important part of a mitzvah (or anti-mitzvah) is how people see you doing it. A smile on your face is worth another 3 points. Finally, you get to intent, worth only 2 points.
It is now obvious Korach’s fallacy. Completely regardless of intent, he staged an angry protest against the Torah itself, an anti-mitzvah if there ever once was one. At maximum, he is already down to 2 points, regardless of his intention. G-d’s punishment for him suddenly seems much more understandable. It’s simple: Korach’s actions were bad. Intent is irrelevant. Bad gets punished. And you obviously don’t question G-d. G-d always gets the last word. After all, G-d likely would not have punished someone if his or her intent was in deep question. It is also clear how the Rabbit Joke is now more relevant. The intentions of the dog owner played almost no role in the outcome. The rabbit owner still saw it as malicious and creepy even though the dog owner thought he was doing the right thing. Why should any other part of life be any different?
This position on the role of intent is a big misconception about Judaism. Being different from most other religions, this view of action is uncommon. The view of most people is not helped by everyday phrases such as “It’s the thought that counts.” It is not the thought that counts. It’s the action that counts. It is easy to see the reasons for this. Thinking about charity is not even remotely the same as giving charity. Pondering tzadakah does not make money magically appear when people need it. All of Judaism is based off the same concept: Act. Make the world a better place through your own work, because things won’t fix themselves. Helping yourself, helping others, and offering assistance in any way you can are the fundamental pillars of Judiasm.
As part of the transition into becoming a Bnei mitzvah, I am expected to take a larger role in performing physical actions that benefit the community. For my Bar Mitzvah project, I orchestrated the construction of a 6-foot-tall LEGO menorah that has been donated to Longmont United Hospital and will be displayed there every Chanukah. The initial reaction from the last Chanukah has shown that people have greatly appreciated the menorah’s presence, and the menorah has brightened the day for a great deal of people. But mitzvot do not need to take a long time, or cost a lot of effort or money, or be made up of little tiny brightly colored plastic bricks. Just giving others a helping hand, such as donating your time to community service projects is doing your part to brighten the world we live in.
Yasher koach, Jonah! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.