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Parashat 06/22/2011

Parashat Korach

by Robert Rabinoff

If they die in the normal manner of all people … then H” did not send me.  But if H” creates a new creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallers them and everything of theirs and they go down alive to the underworld, then you will know that these men angered H” (16:29-30).

Do not test H” your Gd (Devarim 6:16)

If we are forbidden to “test” Gd – that is, to predict something will happen and then sort of dump it in Gd’s lap to not make a liar out of us – how was Moshe Rabbeinu able to do just that?  In dealing with Korach’s rebellion he essentially forces Gd’s Hand as it were, by staking the validity of Torah, and therefore the validity of the whole mission with which Israel had been entrusted, to Gd’s bailing him out by having the earth swallow up the rebellion’s leaders.  Note that when Eliyahu challenges the prophets of the Baal to the confrontation at Mt. Carmel we have the same issue: Gd’s prophet forces Gd’s Hand for the purpose of validating his prophecy.  In both cases Gd apparently approved, as the predicted phenomena did occur and Torah was validated in the eyes of the people.  The result was a tremendous Kiddush haShem.  Nevertheless the risk of the opposite was also there.


The Artscroll commentary has this to say on our verses (based on Rabbi Ya’akov Kamenetsky [1891-1986]):

Even though Moses knew that if the phenomenon were not to occur, he and his entire prophecy would have been called into doubt, he took the very great risk of publicly calling for this unprecendented miracle.  Moses felt that he had no choice, for if a large group of distinguished leaders, who had experienced the miracles of the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, and all the other wonders in the Wilderness could doubt him, then all his teachings were worthless, for there would always be those who would attempt to cast doubt on the truth of his prophecy.  In order to establish the validity of the Torah, therefore, he felt compelled to call for a demonstration of Divine intervention that would silence all possible  skeptics.  And if it did not happen, the danger of rebellion would be no greater than it had been before Korach’s emergence.


In short, the whole incident of Korach is propelled by the Israelites’ doubts about Moshe, Torah and Gd.  That is, Korach is a result of, or a symptom of, an underlying malaise affecting the community as a whole.  Ordinarily we think of leaders (Korach and his band are all identified as distinguished leaders of the community, both in the text and in the quote above) as leading the community, even if they are leading them in the wrong direction, as in this case.  Now in modern days, with the advent of polling (and poll-watching) we have heard the complaint that our leaders have actually become followers.  But 3300 years ago this was not an issue, and certainly in the case of great leaders, like Moshe Rabbeinu, the leaders did in fact lead.  Moshe was certainly not shy about pointing out the peoples’ faults and moving them to repentance when he felt it was necessary.  However here the implication is the opposite – the people had their doubts, and those doubts as it were became crystallized in the person of Korach and in his confrontation with Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon and Gd.


How can we understand this?  Perhaps we can understand it in terms of the functioning of an individual’s nervous system.  The nervous system is composed of multiple interacting parts – the nerve cells or neurons.  Each nerve cell by itself is comparatively simple – it can send an electrical signal down its axon by discharging an electrical potential that exists across its membrane, and it can recharge that potential after a discharge.  It’s almost like a binary switch, the basic unit of the computer.  However when billions of neurons are “wired” together in a complex, interconnected web, the resulting patterns of neuronal activity give rise to the phenomena of perception, thought and consciousness.  These properties, which could hardly have been predicted purely on the basis of the simple behavior of an individual cell, are called emergent properties, because they e-merge, or come out of, the behavior of the system taken as a whole.


It appears that the same phenomenon can apply to societies.  Societies are interconnected webs of individual people.  Now the behavior of even a single individual is a far cry from the simple discharge/recharge behavior of an individual neuron, so the analogy is by no means perfect.  Nonetheless, it should be clear that there are emergent properties in the behavior of societies that cannot be predicted by looking at the behavior of individuals.  In fact, societies appear to display a kind of collective consciousness of their own; anyone who has ever crossed an international border, even between societies as similar as the US and Canada, cannot help but notice the different atmosphere when passing from one society to another.  Eh?  Our Sages personify this by saying that there is a ministering angel who is responsible for each of the 70 primary nations of the world (except for Israel, which is ruled over and protected by H” Himself).


Perhaps we can see from our parashah that government and leadership is, at least sometimes, a reflection of the collective consciousness of the nation.  In a democracy the mechanism for this is perhaps more explicit – we vote and the winner is the one who best reflects the mood of the electorate; even in the US where those with greater economic power can use the mass media to sway that mood, the result is the same – the mood, or collective consciousness is reflected in the actions of government.  But even under other forms of government, as we see in the recent events in the Arab world, when the collective consciousness of a people changes, even deeply-entrenched dictators can fall.


This should put us on alert as to our responsibilities to every level of group consciousness to which we belong.  What kind of influence are we creating in the different levels of collective consciousness to which we belong?  Is our speech kind and uplifting?  Are our business affairs conducted with scrupulous honesty?  Are we modest in our dress and speech?  Do our actions reveal Gd’s Presence in the world or Gd forbid further obscure it?  We must recognize that everything we do affects all levels of society around us.  We may not be leaders, but our contributions to the collective consciousness help to project the specific leaders that we have, and their responses to the challenges we face.  As our Sages tell us, “The hearts of kings are in the hands of Gd.”  Leaders are not totally free agents; their actions are, to some extent, molded by the collective consciousness of the community they lead.  The challenge to each one of us is daunting but exhilarating – it means that everything we do has cosmic significance!  Let us strive our utmost to live up to this challenge in every action we take.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 2

R. Chanina, the deputy High Priest, used to say: Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.

To put this statement in context, we must remember that it was stated when the Land of Israel was ruled by one of the most evil, oppressive governments the world has known.  Nevertheless we are told that even such a government is preferable to anarchy.  Why should this be?  Perhaps we can relate this to our discussion of the parashah.  Even a degraded collective consciousness, which projects a degraded government, at least has some degree of cohesion.  When a society is so broken down that there is no government at all, that is, where the relationships between the members of society are so weak that no “emergent properties,” that is, organized community behavior, can emerge, then there is no hope of living any kind of civilized existence.  It’s “every man for himself,” and the weak and vulnerable will simply be crushed by the rich and powerful.  Human beings are reduced to objects to be used and discarded; entropy reigns supreme.  Many of those who have lived through war or revolution testify to the fact that the worst thing about it is that one must lose part of one’s humanity just to survive.  Trust, love, relationships, all become a distant memory.  We really do need to pray for the welfare of the government – and while we’re at it, we should pray that our communities grow in harmony and integration, so we don’t have to worry about praying for the welfare of a despot.