Korach and his group disagreed with Moses in this parasha, and as we know, the earth "opened its mouth and swallowed" 250 people. But while we might think this story ends here, the latter part of the parasha surprises us with a much larger death toll; the very next day, the people of Israel blame Moses and Aaron for the death of Korach and his congregation, which causes a plague that kills 14,700 people. The story of those 250 people that the earth swallowed, relative to this new tragedy, suddenly seems like child's play.
The main trigger for this whole story was the controversy between Korach and Moses, and after what happened there, the situation should have returned to the status quo. So why does B'nei Yisrael keep the controversy going with their complaints, causing even more death? Could all of this really have been worth it? Haven't they learned from past mistakes? The people of Israel complained repeatedly--about the watermelons of Egypt, about the lack of water, and just about anything else they could think of. Just last week, we read about the affair of the spies and the people weeping in response to their report, which also took a heavy toll. Does it really pay to cry and complain? After all, they can see very well that it brings heavy penalties. So why do they keep doing it?
When we read these Torah portions, they can seem incomprehensible. It's simple to read these stories as an outsider, easy to criticize other people and accuse them of wrongdoing. But what about us? Do we always learn from our own mistakes? When someone annoys us, we can't always control our anger--when things aren't going our way, our spouses irritate us, our children wake us up in the middle of the night, drivers on the road cut us off, the boss yells, the handyman is destroying the house, money is running out, and everything is going wrong, we do not always manage to keep our cool. We don't always act as if all is well without complaint, even though we know that we shouldn't let these things upset us, and only bad things can result from that kind of behavior. We might even punch or kick a wall in anger and cause severe damage, even though nothing good can possibly come of it. They say that trouble comes in bunches, that when we think negatively, we create a negative reality. From complaints and anger, nothing good can grow.
We often experience disagreements and fights that cause trouble for everyone involved, but even then, we insist on being right and don't ever end the quarreling. Even if we do stop the fight, we always seem to need to reopen wounds over and over, to complain and restart a fight that ended long ago. It's tempting to complain, attacking everyone around us and destroying as much as possible. But why go through all this? The Korach story teaches us that those complaints seem to cost a lot more than even the dispute itself, which is the central issue in the parasha. Even if we win the fight, and we're right about everything, we will gain nothing from it. So why begin?
We've all gone through wars and conflicts with others--especially with ourselves. We all know that in the heat of the moment, it is very difficult to control ourselves, to realize that everything is from God, to be quiet and not complain. But when we see the parasha unfold before us, we understand the severity of the matter. It is difficult to act correctly in the heat of the moment, but if we prepare ourselves and try to be alert to what is happening, maybe we'll be able to detect such a moment of anger and disappointment coming, and prevent ourselves from reacting badly. Maybe we can just be happy without complaint even when everything is going wrong; and then, unexpectedly, we will find that it is our faith and joy that bring us salvation.
The other parshiot near the parasha of Korach detail the complaints of the people of Israel in the desert, one after another. Every time, the People complain and get hit hard. Every time, the penalty is so heavy and not worth the cost. So while we may experience the destructive urge to think in a negative way, when we examine the situation, we realize how unnecessary it is and that it's not worth it. When we think positively, we achieve spiritual elevation, move forward and thus, we can achieve our goals easily and efficiently.
Shabbat Shalom U'mevorach,
Moshe Hoch, Judaic Studies faculty
Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School