Listening to Our Enemies

Korah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jul 8, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary | Israel

On Motzei Shabbat, June 24, 2000, the Conservative synagogue of the Ramot neighborhood in Jerusalem, Kehillat Ya’ar Ramot, was set ablaze. According to the New York Times (Monday, June 26, 2000) this hateful act also involved the defacement of the synagogue “with grafitti that labeled it a place unworthy of worship, and said that a yeshiva–trained Jew should not be there.” Numerous eyewitnesses saw “apparently religious men, wearing black velvet skullcaps and white shirts, fleeing as the flames raged.” Prime Minister Ehud Barak rightly called this tragic incident “an awful act that causes every Jew to shudder.” Indeed, the flames which marred this synagogue were ignited by sinat hinam, baseless hatred a painful, incomprehensible hatred all too familiar to the Jewish people. The destruction of the Second Temple, the venomous rivalries between communities of Jews throughout Europe, attacks on Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews at the Kotel, the assassination of Israel’s late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and now the burning of this Conservative synagogue were all triggered by the same venomous hatred. The pain of these atrocities scars us; and it is a pain that waxes and wanes but never entirely disappears. How are we to deal with this pain? Parashat Korah is instructive in suggesting an approach toward healing the scars of intra–Jewish animosity.

The beginning of the parasha reads, “Now Korah… took (va’yikah), along with Dathan and Aviram sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth … to rise up (va’yakumu) against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They assembled (va’yikahalu) against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?'” (Numbers 16: 13). One cannot help but notice how Korah and his cohorts approach Moses. Their is a rapid succession of verbs describing forceful, physical action. Korah takes (va’yikah), rises up (va’yakumu), and assembles (va’yikahalu) against Moses. The parasha does not convey any desire for verbal communication on Korah’s part other than his accusation against Moses. No attempt is made at constructive dialogue and Korah displays no willingness to compromise. Far from being conciliatory in his manner, Korah is headstrong.

In stark contrast to Korah’s disregard for building bridges, we have the model of Moses and his response to the uprising. The Torah tells us Moses’ first act: he “fell on his face.” This gesture may be interpreted as prayer, reflection or an expression of exasperation; but it is certainly not hostility or aggression. Moses’ approach continues, “Then he spoke to Korah and all his company… Moses said further to Korah, ‘Listen, I pray (shimu na), sons of Levi …’ ” (Numbers 16:58). Moses even seeks out Korah’s accomplices to discuss the matter further: “Moses sent for Dathan and Aviram, sons of Eliab,” but regrettably they refuse to meet or to speak with Moses. Moses’ modus operandi is well differentiated from that of his antagonists. Rather than fighting force with force, which Moses could have easily done, he speaks with these malcontents, he encourages them to listen, and even goes out of his way to summon secondary leaders of the uprising to understand their case further. Korah’s unwillingness to compromise and Dathan and Aviram’s refusal to engage Moses in dialogue seal the fate of these evil–doers.

What is most compelling here is not the outcome of the disagreement but rather the model Moses sets for his fellow Israelites. Dealing with dissension and a difference of opinion does not warrant provocative physical action. Constructive and meaningful dialogue is the only way for groups of disparate visions to come together and build a meaningful future.

This lesson is so important, that God sees to it that it will be remembered in perpetuity. After the revolt, God commands Moses, “Remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar … and let them serve as a warning (l’ot) to the people of Israel (Numbers 17:3).” Rashi comments that the intent of the word l’ot (for a sign/warning) is the same as the word l’zikharon (for a remembrance). It is something to be mentioned “that people will always say: these plates were from those who raised dissension about the priesthood and were burnt (ad loc., Numbers 17:3).” This episode could not be erased from the collective memory of the Jewish people. Not only that, the physical remnants of the censers used by Korah cover one of the holiest and most central objects of the Israelites the altar that which brings the Israelites closer to God. Every time the Israelites offer a sacrifice (korban, ‘that which brings closer’), they are reminded of the venomous act of Korah and his followers. This suggests that it is not only the sacrifice which brings one closer to God but also Moses’ model of pursuing peace with one’s fellow neighbor that brings one closer to the Divine Presence.

Moses must be our model for engagement in the Jewish world. In the words of Moses, our actions must reflect a ‘shimu na‘ (listen, I pray) mentality and not a ‘vayakumu‘ (rising up) approach. We must always be willing to listen to our ‘enemies’ as well as our ‘allies’ for the sake of pursuing peace among the Jewish people. Only by encouraging listening can we foster substantive, meaningful dialogue. Further, speaking with and engaging our foes, as Moses attempts to do, is another critical part of the vision that must be pursued. Let the deep pain we have experienced lead us to commit ourselves anew to the vision of klal Yisrael that Conservative Judaism holds so dear such that we speak out of love and knowledge of our precious tradition not out of a sense of vengeance and hate.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz