Thoughtfulness and Lovingkindness in the Face of Violence

Korah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 5, 2013 / 5773

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korah, is notorious for the infamous uprising against Moses. Korah and his wayward cabal approach Moses and brazenly declare, “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?” (Num. 16:3). While at the outset, Korah’s declaration seems reasonable and justified, a closer reading proves otherwise. To claim that the entire community is “holy” is misguided, if only for its pridefulness. And, not surprisingly, God intervenes on Moses’s behalf to punish the jealous rebels. Moments before the earth swallows them whole, God makes a curious declaration to Moses: “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Aviram” (Num. 16:24). Why would the possibility of collateral damage be of concern to God? Should we not expect precision in the meting out of divine justice?

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, JTS alumnus (RS ’69), rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, and author of the recently published Torah of Reconcilation, writes,

The violence about to be unleashed comes from God. Yet even God cannot direct that violence with precision. There must be a good distance between the wicked and the guilty lest the innocent be inadvertently harmed. Collateral damage to the innocent is assumed to be a real danger even when the source of violence is God. Similarly, in the account of the tenth plague in Egypt described in Exodus, the Jewish people are kept inside so that their lives will be saved. When violence is unleashed, even from God, control is lost . . . Violence leads to consequences that are undesirable, unintended, and often most regrettable. (Torah of Reconcilation, 244-245)

Rabbi Lewis’s message is substantive, timely, and powerful. When we think of anger, violence, and retribution, on both personal and national levels, the consequences are often unintended and chaotic. Acting out unleashes an unstoppable and unpredictable cycle of violence. This is not to diminish the importance of self-defense and punishing those responsible for terrorist and other violent and hateful acts. We must be deliberate and thoughtful in our actions. We must anticipate imprecision. Rabbi Lewis continues, “The opposite is true when God or another wish to deliver a healing message or perform an act of kindness. God can visit Abraham and Sarah in a time of need, choose one person to become a prophet, or deliver Torah to one people at one place and time with precision” (ibid., 244). May Rabbi Lewis’s wisdom give us all pause to relent and to think in the heat of the moment. And may we all increase precision and acts of hesed (lovingkindness) in our lives, day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute.