On the surface, the rebellion of Korach in this week's Torah portion was a crime of tremendous proportions, and the punishments received by the guilty parties were well-deserved. However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that whatever the underlying motives of the rebels may have been - most notably, jealousy and honor - at least a part of their complaint was offered on behalf of the Jewish nation as a whole.
On the surface, the rebellion of Korach in this week's Torah portion was a crime of tremendous proportions, and the punishments received by the guilty parties were well-deserved. However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that whatever the underlying motives of the rebels may have been - most notably, jealousy and honor - at least a part of their complaint was offered on behalf of the Jewish nation as a whole. Korach argued that since all the Jews heard G-d speak at Mt. Sinai and consequently are holy, for what do they need leaders such as Moses and Aaron to "boss them around"?
In light of the rebels' seemingly admirable intentions to improve the lot of their people, it is necessary for us to understand why they received such a severe punishment. Not only were they swallowed alive by the earth, but their descendants (with the exception of Korach's children) were killed as well, and according to one opinion in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 109b), the rebels also lost their portion in the World to Come. Granted, favorable motives fail to justify an outright attack on the divinely-appointed leaders of the nation, but shouldn't this factor at least mitigate the severity of the consequences?
We find a similarly perplexing episode in Navi (Prophets), at the beginning of the book of Samuel. Chanah, the wife of Elkanah, was barren. Peninah, Elkanah's second wife and mother of ten children, would continually taunt Chanah about her lack of offspring. Our rabbis tell us that Peninah's intentions were solely l'shem shamaim, for the sake of Heaven. She was trying to encourage Chanah to pray harder that G-d should bless her with children. Nevertheless, when Chanah finally had children, the first of whom became the great prophet Samuel, Peninah was punished with the death of two children for every one child born to Chanah, until at last Chanah prayed to Hashem and Peninah's final two children were spared. Once again, we are left to wonder how someone with such noble intentions could suffer so much for their actions?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, a great Torah scholar and leader of the past generation, answers with the following parable: A building is on fire. Almost everyone has escaped the flames when another sound permeates the scene. A baby somewhere inside is crying. An onlooker races inside and somehow manages to save the child, but does not himself survive the blaze. Is it logical to complain that because his intentions were positive, he should not have been burned? The fire is an inflexible, natural force which does not discriminate based on one's motives. Similarly, there is a provision instilled in creation that when one person provokes another into an argument, regardless of the intentions of the instigator, severe repercussions will follow.
Based on this principle, we can understand the source of the other opinion in the Talmud who maintains that Korach and his companions will receive a portion in the World to Come. That opinion quotes the words of Chanah in her famous song of thanks to Hashem: "Hashem brings death and gives life, lowers to the pit and elevates" (I Samuel 2:6) which the sages interpret to mean that Korach will be "elevated" from the pit of Gehenom (Purgatory) and brought into the World to Come. Based on her past experiences with Peninah, Chanah understood that the power of dispute is such that it can result in consequences we would other-wise view as undeserved. It was for this reason that she prayed for Peninah's remaining children, and it was also for this reason that she prayed to release Korach from the confines of Gehenom.
The obvious lesson we must draw from these incidents is the terrible consequences of engaging in dispute. Regardless of one's motives, the retributions sure to follow will negate any positive outcome. The easiest way to refrain from being drawn into an argument is to remain silent whenever possible. However, what should one do when directly confronted by a querulous individual? The verse in Proverbs states, "A soft-spoken answer can repel anger" (15:1). One need only control one's temper and an argument may be avoided altogether.
There is another underlying message to be derived from Peninah and Korach. If the punishments for creating a dispute are so awesome, then conversely the rewards for eradicating an argument and initializing peace must be equally powerful. Keeping this in mind, we must work to control our speech, thus shunning arguments and imprinting peace and harmony on our daily lives.