If you have all the right reasons and all the right logic, what could possibly go wrong?
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32), shows us just how wrong we can go, even with logic on our side. Because, as human beings governed at least as much by emotion as by reason, all of the right reasons can be used as retroactive justification for our basest desires.
The Torah portion tells the story of an attempted coup. We read in Numbers 16: 1-3:
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben —
to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
Korach, humanized through his lineage, marshals at least two strong pieces of logic against Moses and Aaron. First, all of the Israelites are holy. Second, Moses and Aaron are not different in kind than the Israelites. He concludes that Moses and Aaron “have gone too far” in their assumption of power and leadership roles over the Israelites.
Yet the seemingly strong argument caves in upon itself through examination. First, Moses and Aaron do not wield much power of their own but rather serve as conduits for God’s words and rituals with the Israelites. They are figures of authority and symbolic significance, not power. And that authority is a source of recurrent pain for them, not of superficial joy.
Second, given the time required to gather so many leaders against Moses, it seems suspect that the stated reasons for the rebellion motivated Korach in the first place. It may well have become a rallying cry or a way to persuade “men of repute” to join the cause. It may well have been an appropriate subject for a private conversation with Moses and Aaron. But for a public confrontation, it seems like retrospective justification for Korach to seize control. This kind of sophistry dooms the rebellion to failure. The earth opens and proverbially swallows Korach and his men when they try to engage in the sacred rituals designated for the priests.
For us, it begs the question as to when our logic occludes our ability to see our own motives or the impact of our actions – or never really was the point in the first place. We win arguments with loved ones but lose relationships in the process. We pontificate grandiosely but lose constituents or colleagues or clients or friends. Our rhetoric carries the day – and then the day drags us down for months. This Torah portion calls us to use reason as a tool for understanding our emotions, not a tool with which to achieve emotional gratification at the expense of others.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.