Korach- There are no Innocent Civilians

Our sedra tells the tale of Korach, Datan and Aviram’s attempted rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. Picking a popular tagline, one which they hoped would encourage a larger eidah, they cried to to the people: “כי כל העדה כלם קדשים- all of us are just as holy. מדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה’- why should you, Moshe and Aharon, be the leaders of Hashem’s holy nation?!”

Moshe proposes a test of the ketoret to see who is truly Hashem’s chosen leader, and not only does Aharon win out, but Korach, Datan and Aviram and their belongings are swallowed by a hole in the ground, a divine testament to his efficacy as a leader. A fire also kills two hundred and fifty others- Ramban (יז:ו) explains they were bechorot who felt they were wronged by losing the right of the avoda to the levi’im, and were eager for a chance to recover the Temple service. The fire was a fitting reminder that these Jews who had worshipped the golden calf had lost out on their opportunity to bring the incense- they were therefore punished with the same death as one who tried to bring an eish zara before Hashem, by being burned on the spot.

While you and I can see how this is a fitting and proportionate punishment, many of the Jewish People did not agree:

וַיִּלֹּנוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמָּחֳרָת עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם הֲמִתֶּם אֶת עַם ה’
But the next day, all of the congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon saying: ‘you have killed the people of Hashem’. (במדבר יז:ו)

We know that the Jewish People are a stubborn bunch- this is in some ways one of our best national traits, as G-d has lovingly called us an “עם קשה עורף”. But, even by our standards, this is complaint little ridiculous. Didn’t these people just witness the previous day’s battle of the divine, and the miraculous deaths of Korach, Datan, and Aviram? How on earth could they possbily think that Moshe and Aharon had decided to kill them for no reason, that these traitors could possibly still be considered “עם ה'”?

Rav Shmuel Ben Meir, the French Tosafist better known by his acronym Rashbam, answers simply:

אתם המתם את עם ה’ – על דתן ואבירם הבלועים אנו מודים שחטאו, אבל מאתים וחמשים איש שמתו כמיתת נדב ואביהוא אתם הרגתם אותם שציויתם להקטיר קטרת:
You have killed the people of Hashem – for Datan and Aviram, we understand that they sinned and why they were killed. But, the 250 men who died just like Nadav and Avihu, they were killed because they were commanded to bring ketoret. (רשב”ם שם)

Rashbam explains the Jewish People’s confusion. They understood why Korach was swallowed into the earth, and why Datan and Aviram were killed by the miraculous fire. But why were their 250 followers, whose only sin was listening to these leaders and bringing the incense, killed in the same terrible way?

The Jews who approached Moshe could not understand why their seemingly innocent brethren were killed- after all, they were only following orders. But, the truth is that their brethren were not innocent- they bought into Korach’s vision of “כי כל העדה כלם קדשים,” and willingly followed Datan and Aviram into battle against Moshe, dying in the process. Even though they were not the ringleaders, they still picked a side in the conflict and they unfortunately picked wrong- they had to pay the price for the decision, and were killed as the traitors they decided to become.

The plot thickens if we consider Ramban’s position that these 250 casualties were disgruntled bechorot. These firstborns were born with the entitlement to do the service in the Mishkan, to be Hashem’s chosen ones among the Jewish People. But, this right was not absolute, and they lost it after sinning with the rest of the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai. Even after Hashem had already made it clear that their mistakes had cost them the right to be His servants in the Tabernacle, they still felt wronged and were easy targets to Korach and his philosophy of everyone being equally holy.

The bechorot joined Korach’s movement in a vain attempt to win back their birthright, and unfortunately lost out, dying for their mistakes. While joining Korach’s movement was certainly not correct, their arguably biggest error was the insistence of their firstborn rights even after G-d had made it clear that they were long gone. It pains me to say it as I am a bechor myself, but the smartest and safest course of action for these 250 firstborn would have been to give up on getting back the avoda in the Mishkan, and focusing instead on enjoying the avoda they could still do, like any other Yisrael, and were not able to do after dying in the divine fire. It’s clear to us that their insistence on recovering something was not rightfully theirs anymore led to their tragic death.

However, to the rest of the Jewish People, the ones who didn’t know of the firstborns’ main motivation for joining Korach’s rebellion, it truly seemed as if 250 Jews had died only for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn’t know that these “innocent civilians” had joined Korach’s movement because they wanted to take back something that was no longer theirs, and, missing this crucial information, it was all too easy to assume that they had been manipulated and didn’t deserve to be killed.

The message for us is clear. When approaching a complex and delicate issue like the death of 250 people by divine fire, it’s very easy to pre-judge who the victim is, and to demand justice right away without first doing the smallest amount of research. It is incumbent on any responsibile and thinking human being to listen to both sides of any story and examine the facts, before forming an opinion. Without this, one can jump to some particularly ridiculous conclusions, and, as we see from the continuation of our Parsha, get themselves into even worse trouble.

You may think to yourself- this is all fine and dandy, but people in our modern times aren’t like this. Our western culture is too sophisticated to allow for these kind of mistakes, you may want to say. But, unfortunately, this is not true. Every single day, millions of people continue in their lives with an even more ridiculous assumption, such a crazy foregone conclusion that even the hasty Jewish People in Parshat Shelach would have been embarrased to be ascociated with it. It all begins with the legend of an imaginary country called Palestine.

In the early Twentieth Century, with the advent of Jews buying up and returning to their biblical homeland, under control at that time of the British Mandate, Arabs who had abandoned their properties there for richer properties in neighboring countires, returned and tried to cause problems for their newly-returned Jewish neighbors. Riots and violence led to the Leage of Nations dividing the British Mandate in 1922 into two states- a state exclusively for Muslims (read: judenrein, the Nazi phrase created over ten years later meaning forbidden to Jews) called Transjordan, and a significantly smaller Jewish state called Palestine. The Muslim delagations refused to accept Jewish sovereignty over any part of the Mandate, but nonetheless established the Kingdom of Jordan, while insisting that their populations could remain in the Jewish part of the Partion Plan.

Jump forward twenty five years to 1948. As the British prepared to leave their mandate for good, all of its neighbors, including the newly established Palestinian state (Jordan), got ready to exterminate the Jews the minute the British left. They called for all of their brethren to leave their Palestine, to avoid getting caught up in what they planned to be a gigantic bloodshed.

In the end, with Hashem’s help, our people defeated their enemies and earned independence, establishing the State of Israel. This left several thousand Arabs, who had left their homes with a greedy readiness, effectively and ironically homeless. These Arabs then had to make a choice on what to do next- they could admit that they had made a terrible mistake by chosing the wrong side of the conflict, and emigrate to their designated state of Jordan. Instead, most of them unfortunately decided to make themselves refugees, creating a false backstory and relying on the UN’s skewed aid laws in the hope of reclaiming their land, a rationale not unlike that of the 250 bechorot who joined Korach. Throughout the last 68 years, these sore losers have joined the PLO, PA, Hamas, Fatah- all organizations who promised to return them to Israel, using them as pawns on the frontline in their own plans as well. In the end, just like the 250 firstborn, the only ones who lost out from this arrangement have been the “refugees” themselves- in allying themselves against the divinely sucessful Jewish State again and again, they can never succeed, and only more deaths will come if they continue on insisting on reclaiming something that they’ve already lost.

Every time there is a military operation or a war, this population joins Israel’s enemies, serving as their operatives and human shields. So many of them die unecessary deaths, in pursuit of a long-gone dream, a possibility that they themselves ensured would never happen. The only solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict of the Middle East is for the latter to realize they chose wrong in 1948, that there is a price to be paid for this decision, and to move on. Things will only get better for them if they drop the “Palestinian refugee” nonesense, and if the UNRWA would consider helping them get settled in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, or one of the other countless neighboring states, instead of perpetuating their problems by keeping them in seperate refugee camps, as if quarantining a population with a seriously contagious disease. In the meantime, in the absense of any effort to settle down and create homes, the “Palestinian refugees” will continue to get themselves killed trying to return to a land that never existed, that is only in their imaginations.

Imagine how the rest of the world must view the conflict in the Middle East. Without this background knowledge- without the understanding of just how ridiculous the idea of a “Palestinian refugee” is, and how unjust their goals are- it does seem as if Israel is guilty of killing innocent Arab civilians for no good reason. These active bystanders approach the Israeli government with a claim not unlike the one of the Jews in Shelach. They cry out to Israel and to the world “Why are you killing innocent people? You’re trying to wipe out an entire nation,” not realizing that there is no nation, and that the “innocent civilians” are implicit in the plans of the terrorists around them.

Even if some of the civilians killed last summer in Gaza were not actually members of Hamas, each and every one of them is responsible for voting in Hamas as the government there. Just like Korach’s congregation, they bought into the lies of an extereme leadership hoping to gain their trust by manipulating their will. If they voted in Hamas, believed in this organization’s goals and actions against Israel, then, to put it simply, they are NOT innocent bystanders and their deaths, while tragic, were certainly justified. One who tries to claim otherwise needs to look at both sides of the story, and review all of the facts, and anyone who tries to create backlash, whether political, economic, or violent, without all of the background information, is simply irresponsible and is better suited to stay out of these complicated issues entirely.

Unfortunately, there are many people like this in our times, many of which are world leaders with the ability to create a lot of trouble if they don’t come to their senses. These leaders have an esepecially big responsiblity both to their consituents and to the State of Israel, to review the facts before jumping to a conclusion, for, as Project Runway star Mitchell Perry once said: “Don’t judge a situation you’ve never been in.” Any leaders who don’t want to commit to this very difficult undertaking should at least consider following the sage advice of French actor Marcel Marceau, who famously said “It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Hopefully, all of the world will stop jumping to wrong conclusions as many Jews did in the aftermath of Korach’s death, and, with their help, we’ll have peace in Eretz Yisrael and, with Hashem’s help, the coming of the Ge’ulah very soon.