Korach had a gripe. He felt that in the scheme of things he should have been appointed to one of the positions of honor — kohen or nasi. As his jealousy and desire for honor grew, he organized a rebellion against the entire hierarchy established by Moshe as instructed by Hashem. Moshe, in response to Korach’s verbal attacks, suggested a life-and-death competition. Aharon and those who challenged his position would all offer ketoret — holy incense. Everyone knew that only one would succeed and all the others would suffer certain death.
Korach had a lot to gain and even more to lose, but when we consider his jealousy and his overpowering desire for honor, his acceptance of the risky test is somewhat understandable. In fact, the Midrash tells us that with his holy spirit, Korach saw great descendants, including Shmuel Hanavi, coming from him, which led him to believe that he would be successful in the ketoret test. The question is, what drove Datan and Aviram and the tribe of Reuven to join in the fatal contest? Even if their offering were accepted by Hashem, they could not serve as kohanim. What prompted them to enter the valley of death?
Our Sages teach: “Woe is to the wicked one, woe is to his neighbor” (Yalkut Shimoni). The tribe of Reuven was the neighbor of the Levite family of Kehat, Korach’s camp. Of all the tribes of Israel, Reuven was most vulnerable to the influence of Korach and his wicked cohorts. Living in that “neighborhood” influenced the people of Reuven negatively to the point where they, too, with nothing really to gain, joined the rebellion against Moshe.
One woman, the wife of On ben Pelet, saw clearly. She told her husband, “What do you have to gain? If Moshe and Aharon are victorious, you are an underling to them; and if Korach is the winner, you are an underling to him.” But even her clear-thinking, logical approach was not enough to get her husband to drop out of the crowd who were attacking the Torah leaders. She had to give her spouse food and drink to put him to sleep and then sat outside their tent to dissuade the others who came to fetch her husband for a demonstration against Moshe. Take note of the awesome power of peer pressure!
Maimonides says that a person must move away from negative societal influences. He outlines a step-by-step process of insulation from those who might bring a person down spiritually. He even goes so far as to rule that if the people are insistent and will not accept the righteous person’s self-inflicted isolation from their society, he must move out of society and live in the desert or in caves. The approach of the Rambam [Maimonides] may sound a little drastic, but we must respect it because of where it comes from — one of the greatest Judaic teachers and philosophers of all time.
How can we apply this age-old lesson to the 21st century? It’s important to understand that although science advances and technology increases, human nature stays basically the same throughout the generations. “Woe is to the wicked one, woe is to his neighbor” means that we must choose the healthiest spiritual environment that we can for ourselves and for our families. Where we go for entertainment, what business we choose for earning a living, what media we allow to enter our homes and, most importantly, whom we choose to socialize and be friendly with day to day, are decisions that must be confronted with an eye towards spiritual health. May Hashem give us all the wisdom to make the right choices for ourselves and our children.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.