Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dealing with dissent

The Torah portion of Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32) tells us about Korach and his challenge to Moses for the leadership of the Israelites in the Sinai desert.

Moses responds by challenging Korach and his supporters to a contest.  Actually, it's more like a Divine retribution version of Russian Roulette.

Only Aaron was authorized by G-d to perform the incense service.  Any non-authorized person trying to do the incense service was liable to the death penalty.

Korach's main argument with Moses (and Aaron) is that "we are all holy".  Korach thought that we shouldn't have Kohanim (Aaron's descendants) solely in charge of the Holy services and offerings of the Tabernacle (which later became the service of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).

Although many of the classic commentators offer a range of ideas as to the motivations behind Korach's rebellion, the plain meaning of the verses suggests that he was accusing Moses of nepotism.  Moses led the prople, so his older brother got the cushy government job, with great benefits (eating the offerings, crop donations known as trumah, special blessings to give to the rest of the Israelites, first honors, etc.)

So Moses called on Korach to act according to his words.  Korach and his followers would offer the incense at the same time as Aaron.  If Moses has been telling the truth until now, Korach and his followers would die as punishment for their sins.  If Korach was right, they would be fine.

How many times have we asked for a sign from G-d?  A miracle of some sort?  Sometimes we ask for a sign, and get it, but others around us are more jaded, and explain it away as coincidence.

Moses understood this part of human nature, so he made the following request to G-d.

"If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then [the  masses will conclude that] the LORD has not sent Me.  But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then [everyone else] shall understand that these men have despised the LORD." (Num. 16:29-30)
That's exactly what happened.  The ground ripped apart, and Korach and his gang fell into the abyss.

Dealing with Korach's dissent from G-d's directive required a swift, unequivocal response.

Oy, how the mighty have fallen!  Today, most of us lack the sincere connection to our Creator to rely on that kind of miracle to combat the dissenters who challenge our knowledge of G-d, and our service of G-d.

Not only have the faithful fallen far away from spiritual greatness - the dissenters have as well!

Korach was a spiritual giant.  He had a greater and deeper understanding of G-d and Divine Law than anyone alive today could ever achieve.  In short - he knew better.  However, as great as a person is, so is his/her Evil Inclination.  Korach gave in to his own thrist for honor, leadership, and dominance.

Since we can recognize that the detractors of Torah today attack us from a place of ignorance, we can understand that strong verbal debate is not effective.  Rather, rabbis from across the Torah Observant world advise us to reach out to naysayers with love, warmth, and compassion.  Leading by example is the best way to engage the dissenter today.

However, part of the message from the Korach confrontation is still very much applicable today.

We must not confuse love and warmth for the dissenter with a soft stance on what we know to be True.

Always be ready to declare your spiritual knowledge with the utmost conviction and resolve.

A section of the Mishnah known as Pirke Avot (Chapter of the Fathers) sheds some light on the balance between open-mindedness and intellectual integrity.

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) 'I have gained understanding from all my teachers.' (Avot 4:1)

Learning from everyone does not mean automatically accepting what they say as accurate.  The same text also says:

Rabbi Elazar said: Be eager to study the Torah. Know what to respond to a heretic. Know before whom you toil and who is your employer who shall pay you the reward of
your labor. (Avot 2:19)

How do we determine what information goes under the heading "I have gained understanding from my teachers" and what we file under "Know what to respond to a heretic" ?

The answer to this is also found in Pirke Avot:

Joshua ben Perachyah said: Make for yourself a rabbi, and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit. (Avot 1:6)

This was Korach's major error.  His refusal to learn from a qualified teacher led to his untimely demise.

When we learn from someone who is part of the chain of Torah transmission, we are able to take in all sorts of religious / spiritual information, and discern the difference between Truth and falsehood.

From this position of great strength through knowledge and understanding, we can engage the dissenter in the proper way - warm, loving, but without compromise on what we know to be true.

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