Korah 5768 /
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Justice and Punishment
Dr. Meir Seidler
This week’s reading is part of a series of painful educational experiences undergone by the Israelites after the giving of the Torah.
The people’s proclamation right after receiving the Torah, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do,” (Ex. 24:7) has been highly praised in Jewish tradition. When this declaration was made, the full weight of the Lord’s demands that would be put on the shoulders of the people was not yet known. The sequence of sins and punishments experienced by the Israelites from Parashat Be-ha’alotkha (“The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord,” Num. 11:1) through Parashat Balak (“the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women,” Num. 25:1) can be ascribed to their journey towards the unknown. The practical failings that followed the people’s initial devotion, which at the time the Torah was given was manifest in word alone, are not the least bit surprising. It is not easy to make good in actual deed the verbal promise, “We will faithfully do,” given in the first blush of enthusiasm.
The Sin of Korah et al
Prominent among the sins that appear one after the other in the book of Numbers is the sin of Korah and his following. Its severity is well-evident from the reaction of Moses. Whereas with the other sins Moses attempted to commute the punishment and enlist G- d’s mercy, here he actually called for punishment (Num. -30):
If these men die as all men do … it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord.
The Mishnah sees the dispute of Korah and his followers as exemplifying a dispute which is “not for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 5.17), which is to say that it was illegitimate. Looking at the verses describing the development of this illegitimate dispute, we see that the protest movement against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, that carried along with it large segments of the population, was not monolithic. It was quite a broad-based coalition composed of a number of factions: 1) Korah and the Levites following him; 2) Dathan and Abiram; 3) On the son of Pelet; 4) two hundred and fifty “chieftains of the community … men of repute,” who offered incense. Each faction had its own motives. The great threat to the leadership of Moses and Aaron lay precisely in the variety of people opposing them. Korah, in challenging Moses, had succeeded in uniting many people from different circles.
An Audacious Response
At this point I would like to turn to a specific matter that has been discussed by several commentators, and this has to do with events that actually took place after Korah’s demise: “Next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!’” (Num. 17:6).
Read at face value, what is surprising in this verse is primarily its audacity. Korah and his following had just been killed by the Lord’s outright intervention, and yet the people carried on in their rebelliousness. Such behavior does not appear at all reasonable. Even assuming that the Israelites did not repent in the wake of the heavenly outburst, nevertheless one would have expected them at least to be deterred from their revolt.
Perhaps this is what led many commentators ( Rashbam, Ramban, Sforno, Abarbanel) to view the people’s complaints against Moses and Aaron, as expressed here, as no more than a momentary crisis and not a continuation of the overall challenge to their leadership. According to these commentators, this was not an outcry at the deaths of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The people no longer challenged Aaron as the high priest or the Levites as servants in the Sanctuary instead of the first-borns; it was the deaths of the two hundred and fifty chieftains who offered the incense that the people were protesting.
Nahmanides, in his commentary on this verse, tries to understand the people’s grievance:
They accused them [Moses and Aaron] for suggesting that they offer alien incense before the Lord, knowing that those who do so would be consumed by fire. For the Lord had not told Moses to offer this incense, and he [Moses] did not tell the Israelites in the name of the Lord to do so, rather it was their own idea to suggest this thing which caused the death of the people, and they could have given some other sign or miracle using their staff or the like.
Nahmanides asks in the name of the people, why the chieftains were told to offer the incense, and why those who offered the incense were not rebuked for their error by a punishment less severe than the death sentence decreed upon them (for in effect, non-acceptance of their incense automatically invoked the death penalty). After all, it follows from the text that these people, “who have sinned at the cost of their lives,” were not as wicked as Korah. As proof, their incense pans became sacred and were made into “hammered sheets as plating for the altar” (Num. 17:3). Thus it appears that the people’s accusation regarding these two hundred and fifty people, whom the complainers called “the Lord’s people,” was understandable, if not even justifiable: why were they punished so severely?
Maimonides on Punishment
The answer to this question can be found in Maimonides’ theory of punishment. Most amazingly, Maimonides deals with the notion of the appropriate punishment for lawbreakers within the context of his discussion of ta’amei ha-mitzvot, reasons for the commandments: the punishments in the Torah belong to one of the fourteen categories into which he sorts the commandments according to their rationales. Meting out the “correct” punishment is a commandment necessary in order to improve society. In his general discussion of punishment, which is not limited solely to punishments spelled out in the Torah, Maimonides notes several essential factors that should be taken into consideration in punishing someone who breaks the law. Surprisingly, justice in the pure sense of the word is only one of them: assessing the “severity of the wrongdoing” in determining the correct punishment, which leads to the notion of proportionality, so important in doing justice (“measure for measure”), is but one of the criteria in determining punishment. In Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides sketches briefly the full range of considerations that a judge should weigh in determining the punishment (Part III, ch. 41, trans. M. Friedlander, Barnes & Noble Books, 2004, p. 572):
Preliminary remark. Whether the punishment is great or small, the pain inflicted intense or less intense, depends on the following four conditions.
1. The greatness of the sin. Actions that cause great harm are punished severely, whilst actions that cause little harm are punished less severely.
2. The frequency of the crime. A crime that is frequently committed must be put down by severe punishment; crimes of rare occurrence may be suppressed by a lenient punishment considering that they are rarely committed.
3. The amount of temptation. Only fear of a severe punishment restrains us from actions for which there exists a great temptation, either because we have a great desire for these actions, or are accustomed to them, or feel unhappy without them.
4. The facility of doing the thing secretly, and unseen and unnoticed. From such acts we are deterred only by the fear of a great and terrible punishment.
The second criterion listed by Maimonides – the statistical frequency of a given crime – does not have to do with the severity of the transgression, rather with the condition of society. If a certain unacceptable action threatens to become the norm, it requires a stronger deterrent, therefore the punishment must be more severe. According to this principle, it could well be that someone who committed a certain crime would be punished more severely than one’s fellow who had committed exactly the same crime in the past, when the crime was more rare. According to Maimonides, when a crime reaches plague proportions in a state, its spread must be arrested by using very harsh measures of punishment, so that people will be deterred from committing that crime.
In the light of this we can say that the two hundred and fifty men who offered the incense were unlucky. Their sin was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It came in the wake of many sins that we learned about earlier, all of which had a common denominator: undermining Moses’ leadership. Even though the act of the men who offered the incense was well-intended, they were punished severely because of their unfortunate timing. Perhaps their punishment would not have been so severe if their deed had been done at a different time and under different circumstances. Their timing and the circumstances of their act could have led to irreparable damage.
If the understanding that we have sought to derive from this episode is correct, we find that the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself gave the official stamp of approval to a judicial system that incorporates further considerations beyond mere equity. Thus, Maimonides’ principles should be followed on earth, too. In the legal reaction to crimes committed in the public domain one must consider their impact on the public and not only considerations of individual justice. Doing justice does not concern the private individual alone and does not occur in a sterile laboratory environment. The sentence must not only look back to what has been done, but also forwards in an attempt to arrest pernicious influences that the crime might engender. It was precisely the public impact of the act of these men ministering a sacred service, an act that in other circumstances might have been considered merely a mistake and not a crime, that brought upon them such a severe punishment.