By Rabbi Raymond Beyda
"And Korah took..." Bemidbar 16:5
Korah, the cousin of Moshe and Aharon, led a rebellion against the two
leaders and attacked the veracity of Moshe's prophecy. He was a very
smart, rich man who was able to influence 250 of the greatest people in
the outstanding generation of the desert to join him in attacking the
validity of the Torah. It is difficult to understand Korah's behavior but
even more puzzling is the fact that he was able to gather support from so
many of the great people who had witnessed the Exodus from Egypt, the
Splitting of the Sea and the miracles of Har Sinai.
The Midrash explains that Korah began to ridicule the commandments in a
public debate with Moshe. He asked: "If a small scroll with 2 paragraphs
of the Torah -- a Mezuzah -- is sufficient to "kosher" a house, does a
House full of Torah scrolls need a Mezuzah?" When Moshe replied that the
house still requires a Mezuzah the crowd burst out laughing. Then Korah
asked: "If one blue string --Tekhelet -- is needed for the tsiseet on the
corner of a 4 cornered garment -- does a totally tekhelet [blue] colored
garment require any tsiseet at all?" Again Moshe's answer in the positive
was greeted with guffaws of the crowd. The joking continued until the
validity of Aharon's Priesthood was not the issue any longer -- the
validity of the entire Torah was denied by the crowd.
The punishments inflicted for the rebellion were various and severe. The
men who brought pans of incense --ketoret -- were consumed by fire. Many
of the onlookers of the Children of Israel died in a plague. An opening in
the desert floor swallowed Korah and his followers and all of their
families and possessions. Even the children were killed. The commentators
ask why the punishments were so immediate, drastic and unusual. The answer
is that the heresy that Korah espoused goes to the core of our beliefs.
Acceptance of his position denies the basis for our devotion to G-d --His
holy Torah. Yet the question still remains -- How was Korah able to
influence so many holy, intelligent people to his camp?
We see from here the power of "lesanoot" --lightheaded frivolity called
Our sages teach: "1 statement of scorn can nullify 100 statements of
reproof. “Imagine an audience listening to 100 of the greatest sages of
the generation giving reproof. One after another the Rabbis go to the
microphone and say words of strong mussar bringing the crowd to tears and
resolutions of repentance. Then at the end of 100 moving moments one man
comes to microphone and tells the crowd 1 joke that belittles all that was
said before. The result would be that the joke would have the effect of
nullifying all the wisdom that preceded it. This was the psychology of the
human being that Korah understood and used to influence his peers.
David Hamelekh in the opening chapters praises the one who avoids
socializing with the scoffers. He too realized the spiritual dangers of
heretical lightheadedness. The good inclination --one's intelligence and
common sense -- are driven away by the power of scoffing and leave a
person open to heretical ideas. Today the joke, the insult the quick barb
are accepted as signs of wit and intelligence. The entertainers who are
paid the most in our society are those who can make fun of established
institutions and famous respected personalities. It is a syndrome
dangerous to the soul. From the events in the desert 3300 years ago one
should learn the unchanging nature of human psychology and steer clear of
those who have the power to influence one's spiritual purity and religious
beliefs and claim to be "Just joking!"
Raymond J Beyda
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Raymond Beyda and Torah.org.