I am pleased to share Sam Chaim-Weismann’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Korach from his recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.
According to all Jewish traditions, today I am a man, with all of the rights and responsibilities that any Jewish adult has. However, in the larger gentile community, today I am a teenager, with all of the rights and responsibilities that any teenager has. Now, teenagers have good and bad aspects—I will name a few. Good aspects of teenagers…maybe I’ll be able to think of some later on. Bad aspects…rebellious, dirty, disruptive, lazy, egocentric, ignorant, and so on and so forth. I could go on. But teenagers do not have to be like this. All teenagers, and indeed, people in general, have the capacity to become ‘bad’, like a stereotypical teenager, or ‘good’, like a teenager that no one’s ever heard of—or in other words, ‘bad’ like Korach, or ‘good’ like Moses and Aaron. Korach, the person who this parsha is centered on, creates a rebellion in much the same way that a teenager rebels; perceiving fault in the world around him and using that as justification for an uprising.
Korach’s grievance is actually more or less legitimate: he sees his younger and traditionally less important family members being elevated to positions of power as priests. Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish Rabbi and commentator, says that Korach’s grievance is based on a political dispute concerning the rights of first-born sons, and that Korach organizes the rebellion such that the rebellion feeds off of other people’s disputes. For instance, Datan and Abiram’s dispute is that Moses is taking away power from the tribe of Reuben, and giving it to the tribe of Joseph. Ramban, otherwise known as Nachmanides and from the same time and region as Ibn Ezra, says that Korach uses the psychological state of the people to make it seem that Korach should have more power than he actually does. In any case, Korach sees this as a disgrace to himself (or as 20th century Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz puts it, a shattered expectation), and begins to question the hierarchy of the nation of Israel, suggesting that it should be a democracy, or at least socialist instead of a totalitarian dictatorship with Moses as supreme tyrant and Aaron as his right-hand man.
However, Korach’s mistake is that he tries to start a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach does have a right to be angry, but his anger exceeds acceptable limits and he decides to overthrow the government. But Korach goes much further than that. He does not only attack Moses and Aaron, he literally begins to attack the word of God, and by extension, God himself. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneerson, says that Korach’s difference with Moses was an ideological, abstract one and not a physical, bodily one. This supports the theory that Korach was attacking God, and not just Moses and Aaron. As one could imagine, attacking God makes God angry. So God makes the ground swallow up all of the dissenters (and their families) in order to discourage others from questioning the might of God.
Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5, Mishna 19 says, “A controversy for Heaven’s sake (machloket l’shem shamayim in Hebrew), will have lasting value, but a controversy not for Heaven’s sake will not endure.” It goes on to state, “What is an example of a controversy for Heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for Heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach and his associates.” Korach’s dispute itself, according to the sages, is not for the sake of Heaven—in other words, it is not holy. Holy, kaddosh, literally means ‘set apart’. Shabbat is holy only because we set it apart from the rest of the week by doing different things—for example, resting. If holy things are holy because they deviate from the norm, and Korach’s dispute is not holy, then Korach’s dispute is as mundane and ordinary as haggling over the price of a loaf of bread. Even though Korach rose up in the “only major stand against Moses in the 40 years the Israelites were in the desert” (Etz Chayim commentary), his revolt is equated by the sages to be no more significant than haggling over food prices. How about something like this here: Doesn’t this sound a bit like a teenage rebellion? I mean when teenagers get angry at the world, is it really about the issues, or more about a general sense of unfariness?
Korach’s real evil is not dissenting—there were probably hundreds of dissenters throughout the camp—his real evil was in gathering followers up. The 250 chieftains, along with Datan and Abiram, were convinced to follow him by, according to Nehama Leibowitz, his “wickedness and smooth words.” There is an old proverb that states, “Woe to wicked people, and woe to their neighbors.” Korach does not only condemn himself to death, but 300 people with him (not counting the plague caused by his actions that kills another 14,700 people). Korach was the root of it all. But what was the root inside Korach? Why did Korach do all of this? In the end, it all comes back to anger. Korach got angry. And because he got angry, fifteen thousand people died.
There are 3 types of mitzvot in the world; between oneself and oneself (beyn Adam l’atzmo), between oneself and God (beyn Adam l’Makom), and between oneself and other people (beyn Adam l’havero). The third type, between oneself and other people, is equivalent to help—helping other people and helping to create an ethical society. Korach decided to help himself, and not others. But in doing so, he made others face grave consequences. If Korach had decided to help other people instead of using them to further his own purposes, they would not have died with him.
So here I am—both a responsible adult and a moody teenager on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, with lots of choices to make about how I am going to act and how I am going to be. I hope to be more like Moses and Aaron than Korach by taking seriously the idea of helping others like in my Mitzvah project. Perhaps the first step of the cure for entitled teenager syndrome is to try to see that the world does not revolve around me!
A bar mitzvah is in part about becoming a man, and in part about helping others. Literally it means being a son of the mitzvoth, or commandments, which means the studying and practice of Torah that we have been doing this year, including the mitzvoth that are about helping others. This is the part that my bar mitzvah project addresses. For my project, I have been helping out in different hunger projects throughout the last year, and plan to do so in the years to come. I managed the High Holiday food drive, helped out with other food drives, and volunteered at Community Table and with Community Food Share.
Yasher koach, Sam! 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.