Judaism: The Shmuz for Korach: The Danger of Machlokes (Strife)
“…Dossom and Aviram went out upright at the entrance of their tents with their wives, children, and infants.” - NUmbers,I16:27
Korach, carried away by jealousy, led two hundred and fifty men in rebellion against Moshe and HASHEM. These were all great individuals; they had all witnessed Moshe going up to Har Sinai to accept the Torah, and they all heard HASHEM speak through Moshe. Yet they willfully and intentionally set out to depose Moshe – to prove that he had veered off from that which HASHEM had told him.
Moshe, recognizing the danger that they were placing themselves in, did everything he could to get them to back down. Nevertheless, they remained steadfast in their revolt, and marched to their destruction. In the end the entire congregation, man, woman infant, and child – died a terrible death.
Rashi explains that this teaches us how terrible machlokes (conflict) is. “Bais Din (Jewish court) doesn’t punish a person until he is thirteen years old. The heavenly tribunal doesn’t punish a person until he is twenty years old. Yet here, even the nursing infants were punished.”
That is how far the punishment for conflict goes.
What was the sin of the infants?
This Rashi is very difficult to understand: Clearly, he is saying that the nursing babies were punished. Yet what sins could infants be guilty of? An infant doesn’t have premeditated thought. The infants were completely unaware of what was going on. How could they be punished?
The answer to this question requires a deeper understanding of some of the systems that HASHEM uses to run the world.
Immutable Laws of Nature
HASHEM created this world with immutable laws of nature. Gases tend to expand. Heat tends to rise. Heavy objects tend to fall. These laws are the bedrock foundation of this world that govern all of physicality throughout the cosmos. These laws, however, are neither cruel nor kind. For instance, if a baby is left unattended on a changing table and falls, likely he will be injured. The result may be tragic, but we wouldn’t accuse gravity of being heartless. Gravity doesn’t judge and it doesn’t decide. It is a fact—a part of reality.
Just as HASHEM created laws that govern the physical world, so too, He created laws that govern the spiritual world. These as well are specific and exact, and have real consequences.
One of these laws is din (justice). The basic tenet of din is accountability—simple and unadulterated. You are responsible for what you do.
However, while, din, loosely translates as justice it is quite different than man’s understanding of what is just and proper. Din is very demanding. Din is very exacting. It makes no room for mitigating circumstances. If something comes about through an action of yours, you are responsible – whether you intended it, or not. Whether you recognized the consequences, or not. If you brought it about or if through you it came about, the results are attributed to you and you are held accountable.
Din is just. Din is appropriate. If you are to be rewarded for what you have done right, you should be punished for what you have done wrong. Before HASHEM created the world, He considered (if it could be) creating it with the Middas Ha’Din (strict justice) in operation. However, if this system were in place, no man could survive.
The Mesillos Yesharim (Perek 4) explains that if din were in force, any sin that man might commit would bring about one result – his immediate death. The Kings of Kings said not to do X, and you violated His wishes! The consequence of any transgression would be death, immediate and irrevocable. And so, the world couldn’t exist.
Therefore, HASHEM created the world using the Middas Harachamim – the system of mercy. Rachamim introduces mitigating factors into the equation—You have to take into account who the person is, where he is coming from, what he was going through at the time… When taken in context, what the person did isn’t as egregious. Keeping in mind everything else that was going on at time, what he did is more understandable. And now a person is given leeway. He’s given time to understand the gravity of his actions, and the concept of teshuvah is possible.
The result is that the operating principle in our world is compassion. Justice, however, cannot be ignored. So both rachamim and din are in existence, and both have their say. The balance, however, between them can change. If you envision a slide rule, with din on one side and rachamim on the other,. The slide can be moved so that more of one or the other is introduced into the equation. If an average day might be 50/50, there are some days with more mercy, like Yom Kippur, which is a day of forgiveness. The person doesn’t change, and the act doesn’t change, but the system of judgment changes, and that change makes all the difference in the world.
There are other things that can influence the balance. Chazal tell us that the middah with which you judge others determines the way that you are judged. The amount of strictness or compassion that you exude becomes the standard by which you are then measured. And extremes in attitude or behaviors can bring extremes in the system of judgment.
Machlokes has the power to bring about extremes. When people cleave to hostile groups, their opinions and attitudes become severe. There is no tolerance, no understanding. You are on our side or theirs — you are a tzaddik or a rasha. Because the divide is sharp and acceptance non-existent, the middah of din flares, and when that happens, judgment is at its strictest.
The Result of Conflict
This seems to be the answer to Rashi. Korach launched a rebellion, bringing about a complete divide in the nation. Because of this, complete din was brought into operation. Now there were no mitigating circumstances. No considerations. If something comes about through you, you are responsible. And so, the nursing infants were judged. Not for their intentions, not for their plan, but for the outcome. Through them the rebellion was larger. It was no longer two hundred and fifty men against HASHEM. It was now two hundred and fifty men and their wives and children. Each person added to the group. Whether they recognized what they were doing or not, whether they realized it or not, the revolution was larger, and the price had to be paid.
This is a powerful lesson for us on two levels. Firstly, in terms of understanding the extent of responsibility and the remarkable advantage of being judged with mercy.
And secondly, in a very practical manner. While no one wants to be involved in a machlokes, unfortunately it is only too easy to get pulled in. Often, without meaning or intending to, we find ourselves on one side or the other, and before we know it, we are deep into the thick and thin of it. The Chofetz Chaim writes that machlokes is like a raging fire – anyone nearby gets burned. By recognizing the effect of such disputes and the mortal danger that we place ourselves and our families in when we get drawn into machlokes, it wise for us to heed the advice of our sages and run from it like we would run from a fire.