Korach III - CONSTRUCTIVE AND DESTRUCTIVE CRlTICISM
IN THIS WEEK'S portion of the Torah, we have a graphic account of how Korach together with a number of followers questioned the authority of Moses and Aaron. "And they assembled themselves before Moses and Aaron and said unto them: you assume too much; for the entire congregation is holy and the Lord is among them. Therefore do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?" (Num. 16:3). The episode ends with the total annihilation of Korach and his cohorts. "And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korach" (Ibid. 16:32).
The story leaves one important question unanswered. Why were these men punished so severely? In a dictatorship, freedom of speech and the right to question and criticize are suppressed. To this day, in many parts of the world those who question or criticize their government are subject to imprisonment and death. This, however, was not the case of the government of Israel in the desert. What was so terrible and blasphemous in the questions and criticisms of Korach and his band that brought upon them the dreadful punishment of being swalIowed by the earth?
The Midrash offers an insight into the minds and motives of these rebels. The sin of Korach and his people was not that of criticizing the leadership and policies of Moses and Aaron. While criticism is often constructive and helpful, the complaints of Korach were of quite a different variety. They were not intended to bring about a correcting of errors or the elimination of abuses. Their declarations and queries were saturated with cynicism and bitterness, and the goal was to wreck the fabric of authority in Israel. With his vitriolic attacks, Korach sought to nullify what the two illustrious brothers had built with painstaking devotion and care.
We are told that Korach began by asking, what at first glance appears to be, innocent and innocuous questions. In the presence of a multitude, he asked Moses whether a bayit maley sefarim--a house full of sacred books-needs a mezuzah or not? Since the dwelling was sanctified by numerous scrolls and sacred books, what sense was there to put a mezuzah on the doorpost, when the mezuzah has only two paragraphs from the Torah in it? He then continued his questioning, talit she-kulo techelet--if a prayershawl is all blue does it have to have tzitzit--fringes? Since tzitzit had to have a string of blue, what sense was there to attach tzitzit to a garment that is almost entirely blue? From these questions one can see that Korach was not interested in answers. The sages imply that his objective was to ridicule Moses and his teachings-to prove to the people that Moses was no scholar and that his teachings were senseless and fraudulent. He then proceeded to criticize the ploicies and achievements of Moses. "Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you will assume to make yourself also ruler over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, and you have not given us inheritance of fields and vineyards" (Ibid. 16:13-14).
Finally, the sages tell us, Korach accused Moses of lack of integrity. Devarim elu lo nitztavita aleihemi u-melibkha bodeon. "These laws which you have imposed on us were not ordered (by God) but were conceived in your own heart."
Moses attempted to reason with Korach and his followers, to answer their questions, to justify his principles and policies. Holach Moshe le-faison. Moses went to appease them, but was refused the courtesy of a hearing. Korach was not interested in answers or debates; his objective was to destroy and demolish the personalities of Moses and Aaron and all that they represented.
Teachers in high school and college will tell you that there are generally two types of students they have to contend with in the classroom. There are those whose questions are motivated by an honest desire to learn. They want to clear up certain obscure statements in the teacher's lecture; they seek new information on a moot point; they want ideas clarified and explained. Even when they disagree with their teachers, they do it in an agreeable manner. Members of the other type do not query the teacher or the professor because they want to increase their fund of understanding and knowledge-nor because there is something in the lecture that disturbs them or needs further clarification and enlightenment. Their questions are directed at the teacher. They wish to impute the scholarship and integrity of the lecturer-"to show him up," or "to put him on the spot."
One hears such cynical questioning and criticism at the United Nations-emanating particularly from the Communist and Arab blocs. The object of many of their statements is not to clarify or correct, but to confuse and demolish. Their tactics are reminiscent of a statement by Thomas Carlyle-the famous British historian-who said to Voltaire, "Have you only a torch for destruction; have you no hammer for building?"
The right kind of criticism-one that is constructive and corrective-promotes improvement of a better and more decent life. As someone put it, "The largest room in the world is the room for improvement." But indiscriminate criticism - the kind that Korach typifies - fault-finding for the sole purpose of belittling and wrecking-is sinful and deserves the contempt of humanity and the punishment of God.