Words Can Kill

Atem hamisem es Am Hashem (Bamidbar 17:6)

Parashas Korach begins with the tragic revolt led by Korach against Moshe and Aharon in an attempt to question their claims of being Divinely chosen, and ultimately to overthrow their leadership. Moshe suggested that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they would offer to Hashem. Aharon would do so as well, and the person whom Hashem truly selected to serve Him would survive, while all the others would perish.

After Korach refused to back down and accepted the challenge even at the risk of his life and those of his followers, Moshe grew angry and petitioned Hashem not to accept the incense offerings of Korach and his followers. As Moshe had warned, Korach and all of his followers were killed while the offering of Aharon was accepted.

The Jewish people reacted by accusing Moshe and Aharon of causing their deaths. This is difficult to understand. Moshe conducted himself with the utmost humility in attempting to dissuade them from their uprising. When this was unsuccessful and with his Divine authority on the line, Moshe was left with no choice but to propose this test, and he warned them of the disastrous results which awaited them. If they ignored his warnings and Hashem punished them, how could Moshe and Aharon be blamed for their deaths?

A student of Harav Yisrael Salanter once approached his saintly teacher. He reverently told Rav Yisrael about a certain Rav who was so righteous that when he became upset by somebody and cursed him, the curse was always fulfilled. Rav Yisrael was far from impressed. He explained that just as we are responsible for causing damage with our hands or actions, so too are we equally accountable for causing damage with our speech.

The student asked Rav Yisrael for a source in the Torah stating that a person is responsible for his speech. Rav Yisrael cited our verse, in which the Jewish people blamed Moshe and Aharon for the deaths of Korach and his followers. He explained that they maintained that it was the prayers of Moshe and Aharon which resulted in this outcome and felt that they must therefore be held accountable. Although they were mistaken, as Moshe and Aharon had no alternative in this situation, we still derive from here that a person is responsible not only for the consequences of his actions, but also of his speech.

We live in a society in which sharp-tongued people are praised and held in high esteem. Although they may occupy the corner office and receive accolades for their witty rebuttals, the Torah has a different perspective. One of the 613 commandments is a prohibition against saying something which hurts another person’s feelings (Vayikra 19:33). Although we likely won’t be accused of killing somebody with our speech as were Moshe and Aharon, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that publicly embarrassing another person is comparable to killing him. The next time we are tempted to roll a sharp line off our tongues as we convince ourselves that it’s only words, we should remember Rav Yisrael’s teaching that words can also kill, and we are held responsible for their effects.

Parashah Q & A

Q:The Ramban (16:5) quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Chananel, who maintains that the assembly of Korach was comprised of individuals from the tribe of Levi, although the Ramban himself disagrees. As the tribe of Levi refused to take part in the sins of the golden calf and the spies, why were they specifically ensnared in the sin of Korach’s rebellion?

Q:Rashi writes (16:7) that Korach was misled by the fact that he saw the righteous Shmuel would descend from him, and he assumed that this merit would allow him to be saved. Although Korach erred in his reasoning, why was he punished so harshly for an unintentional mistake?

A: Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, cites the Chovos Halevavos (“Shaar Hateshuvah” 8), who writes that a sinner who has repented his sin has one advantage over a completely righteous person who has never sinned, as one who has never sinned is liable to become arrogant and haughty due to his piety, which is even worse than other sins. Specifically because the tribe of Levi had remained faithful and not taken part in the sins of the golden calf and the spies, the yetzer hara was able to instead ensnare them in the sin of conceit, as they argued that they were just as pious and fitting as Moshe and Aharon to serve as leaders.

A:The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that Moshe specifically told the Jewish people that Hashem had commanded him to consecrate Aharon and his sons to serve as kohanim so that nobody would be able to challenge his actions and claim that he had done so on his own. Since Korach was explicitly informed, he couldn’t claim that his mistake was unintentional. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman suggests that when negative character traits, such as jealousy and honor, are involved, one is held to a higher standard and required to check his actions more carefully. However, the Maharsha writes that according to one opinion, Korach was neither swallowed up by the ground nor burned like his other followers because of this very reason. Since his error was mistaken reasoning, he was instead killed by the plague.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.