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Parshas Korach (5770)

"Grounds" for an Argument

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the tragic story of Korach and his followers who started an argument with Moses, accusing him of gross nepotism by appointing his own brother as High Priest, and ultimately challenging the veracity of Moses’ prophecy and the Divine origin of the Torah and its commandments.

The conflict ended in a showdown between Moses and Korach and his fellow conspirators in the presence of the entire nation. Moses told them, “Through this shall you know that G-d sent me to perform all these acts, that it was not from my heart. If these [Korach, et al] die like the death of all men, and the destiny of all men is visited upon them, then it is not G-d Who has sent me. But if G-d will create a phenomenon, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they shall descend alive to the pit – then you shall know that these men have provoked G-d” (see Numbers 16:28-30).

Sure enough, as soon as Moses finished speaking, the ground “opened its mouth” and swallowed Korach and his followers alive. Nachmanides explains that, as per Moses’ plea, this was no ordinary earthquake. Whereas with most natural earthquakes, the ground opens up and remains that way, in this case, the earth opened up, swallowed the rebels, and simply closed again, without a trace that anything had happened. Furthermore, the only ones who were swallowed up were Korach and his followers; a natural earthquake could not have had so limited an effect.

Now our Sages teach us that G-d always punishes His creations middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. So why, of all things, did G-d choose this “supernatural earthquake” to swallow up Korach and his men as punishment for their rebellious argument the Jewish leadership? What’s the connection?

Some Bible commentators explain that just as Korach and his gang used their mouths as the primary tool to create dissension and rebellion among the people – and, in so doing, overstepped the natural boundaries of proper speech for which G-d created their mouths – so, too, were they punished with the earth opening up its “mouth” in a most unnatural and improper way, swallowing them alive and then closing up afterwards.

Maybe we can understand the particular punishment meted out by G-d against Korach and Company in a deeper way:

The Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (5:8) lists ten things that were created by G-d at the end of the Six Days of Creation on Sabbath eve at twilight. Included among them are the pi ha’aretz, the mouth of the earth that miraculously swallowed Korach and his followers, the pi habe’er, the mouth of the well that miraculously supplied water for the Jews during their 40-year sojourn through the desert, and the pi ha’ason, the mouth of the donkey that miraculously spoke to its master, the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam, as recorded in next week’s Torah portion.

Now we can understand why the Mishnah refers to the miracle of the talking donkey as pi ha’ason, the “mouth” of the donkey. After all, G-d caused the donkey to actually speak with its mouth just as humans do. We can even explain the reference to the “mouth” of the well, for, as Rashi quotes in his comments on our Mishnah from a Midrash, one aspect of the miracle was that expressions of praise gushed forth from the well, recounting G-d’s great miracles on behalf of His people.

But why is the opening of the earth that swallowed Korach and his argumentative buddies referred to as pi ha’aretz? Does the earth have a “mouth”? Does it have something to say? All it did was open up and devour the rebels without saying one word!

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn (in his amazing book Around the Maggid’s Table) quotes Rabbi Yissachar Frand who tells a story about an argument that took place in the time of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) that may yield an answer to this very perplexing question:

Two Jews had a violent argument about a piece of property. The property in question was next to both their fields, and each claimed that the property was rightfully his. Neither would hear of a compromise, and neither gave much credence to the arguments of the other.

Finally they decided to seek the advice of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner. Rav Chaim listened to their arguments and told them he wanted to go with them to see the property first-hand; perhaps that would help him understand their individual points of view.

Together with Rav Chaim, the two men went to the field. Rav Chaim studied the layout of the land and its boundaries, and then listened again as each of the disputants emphatically claimed the property was his.

Suddenly the rabbi bent down and placed his ear to the soil. The two men were astounded. “What are you doing there on the ground?” one of them asked.

“I have heard your points of view about this piece of land,” answered Rav Chaim, “but now I would like to hear what the ground has to say for itself.”

The two men thought that the rabbi was joking, and so in a humorous tone one man said to him, “All right, so do indeed tell us – what does the ground say?”

Rav Chaim smiled at them and said, “The ground finds it hard to understand the anger and short-sightedness of both of you. It says, ‘This one claims that I belong to him, then the other one claims that no, I belong to him. The truth, though, is that eventually they will both belong to me!”

With this story in mind, we can understand why the opening of the earth that destroyed Korach and his crew and closed up afterwards is referred to as pi ha’aretz, the “mouth” of the earth.

You see, the ground didn’t just swallow up the bad guys; it was actually “speaking” to them and teaching them (and all of us) a powerful message: Why are you spending so much time and effort arguing and complaining about things that don’t mean so much in the larger scheme of things? Don’t you see that eventually you will all be swallowed up by me? Why are you stressing yourselves and losing precious years of your lives embroiled in all kinds of petty and not so petty arguments when, in the end, you will just be swallowed up in the ground with no trace of you left behind?

That once-in-a-history-time, never-to-be-repeated miracle of the pi ha’aretz – the mouth of the ground that ate up the rebellious Korach and his posse after all their arguing which gained them absolutely nothing in the end – shouts out to all of us for all time a very strong and important message which we would be wise to heed: Stay away from argument and conflict! Life is too short and too precious to be spent complaining bitterly about this, that or the other thing. In the end, the ground will swallow us up like it did to Korach and it does to everyone else.

And those are certainly good grounds to stay away from any argument (-;

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