Selected Sermon/Article
2008-06-28 Korach by Rav Zeev Smason
Don't Be Like Korach
Sermon: Parshas Korach June 28, 2008 'Don't Be Like Korach'

A high school student asked his father to help him write an essay on how wars start.

"Well,", the father began, "let's imagine we got into an argument with Canada"

"That's ridiculous,", his mother interrupted. "Why should we get into an argument with Canada?"

"That's beside the point,", her husband said. "I was just using an example."

The mother said, " If you had an ounce of brains in your head, you wouldn't use such stupid examples."

"Who do you think you're talking to?" shouted the father, "I want to teach my son how wars start."

"YOUR son!", the mother screamed. "I suppose I had nothing to do with his being here. You just found him someplace.."

"Please Mom and Dad " the boy pleaded. "I just figured out the answer myself."

There are some people who just love to argue. For such people, arguing is a recreational activity. No matter what the topic is, we all know someone who who likes to be right, and who always has to have the last word. Some people argue for the sake of arguing, and they just love to hold on to quarrels and arguments. They are, as we might refer to them in Hebrew, 'Ba'alei machlokes'; Quarrelsome People.

I think it was that great philosopher, Phyllis Diller, who when dispensing marital advice once said:

Don't go to sleep mad. Stay up and fight.

Being argumentative is certainly not a good way to win friends and influence people. Hashem, however, takes it one step further; there's a mitzvah not to be argumentative.

Following the gripping story of Korach and his congregation in this week's parsha the Torah says 'Lo yiyeh k'Korach u'k'adaso' --- don't be like Korach and his congregation. There exists here, then, a specific prohibition commanding us not to be a 'Ba'al Machlokes' -- a quarrelsome, argumentative person.

There's nothing good to say about being a Ba'al Machlokes. Disputes often involve associated prohibitions such as loshon hara, revenge, bearing a grudge, hating people in our heart, saying hurtful words -- and perhaps worst of all, Chillul Hashem. Don't we cringe when we hear of two rabbis who aren't getting along, or a dispute that involves a Jewish institution? One of the things that's so difficult about disputes, is that they often start over things that are completely irrelevant and insignificant.

As a general rule I try to avoid long rides in the car with a bunch of kids. And it's not only because gas is so expensive. There have been certain children in the Smason family -- and I'm not, of course, going to mention any names -- who become a bit difficult when cooped up in a car for a long time. "I get to sit in the front." "I get the window seat." "Tell him to stop touching me." "She's making loud noises, and I can't hear the music!" Do any of these sound familiar from your own family trips? Now I, of course, never did such things when I was a kid. It was always my brother and two sisters who started fights in the car over little things.

As adults, I'm certain Hashem looks at our disputes the same way we look at the silly arguments of our children. But arguments of adults are worse than the arguments that kids have. In a few days, or even a few hours, kids forget what they were mad about most of the time and go back to being friends. With adults, though, the arguments that begin as small things often turn into big things.

Today, you're irritated at Chaim because he sat in your 'regular seat' at Kiddush. Next week, you're not talking to him. Today, your brother said something about one of your kids. Next month, you're not going to his simcha. Today, someone forgot to ask you how your sick mother is doing. Next week, when you see her walking down the street you cross over on the other side so you don't have to say 'Good Shabbos.' We can laugh at the silliness and pettiness of children, but we should really be laughing at ourselves.

The truth is, though, there's more than we should do than laugh at ourselves. And there's more than we can do than just 'hope' we avoid becoming like Korach and his gang. There are specific ways of fulfilling the mitzvah of not being argumentative.

The first method to consider is one that involves our attitude. Specifically, telling ourselves when someone irritates us, "Is this going to make the history books?" If we can master the ability to overlook and let go of the little things (and don't we all know that most of the time the things that irritate us are 'little things'?) we'll be well on our way to becoming virtually 'machlokes-proof.'

This past week I was driving in the parking lot outside the shul, and almost had a fender-bender with someone coming from the opposite direction. The other guy was on his cell phone, but he was quite angry as we pulled up next to each other after the close call. He raised his voice and said, 'I had the right of way -- why weren't you watching where you were going?' Now, I certainly felt an inclination to respond by saying, 'YOU were the one on the cell phone -- why weren't YOU watching where you were going?" However, a spirit of sanity must have overtaken me, and I held my tongue. In retrospect I'm glad I did, because I certainly would not have convinced him of anything if I tried to tell him that him that he was at fault.

A wise man once told me that in an argument, 'the one who remains silent' is the one who wins.

Another way to avoid becoming a Ba'al Machlokes is by learning to become more tolerant of others, and their differences.

By now many of you have read or heard of a controversial letter to the editor that appeared in last week's edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light. I personally found the letter bothersome because it seemed to sow the seeds of discord and division within our community. Rabbi Shmuel Kay, Headmaster of Epstein Hebrew Academy, wrote a beautiful response to the letter in question.

Rabbi Kay said, "As an Orthodox community school, we have always valued the principle of unity and achdut within the Jewish community, and look for ways to express this ideal and teach it to our children. At the same time, we respect ...differences ....that distinguish each of our communities (referring to Conservative and Reform communities).

In other words, Rabbi Kay suggests that while we shouldn't ignore the ideological differences that do exist, we have to keep our eye on the bigger picture. And what is that 'bigger picture'? It's the picture of achdus and unity. Instead of looking to focus on the differences between us, why not look for common ground to embrace the values and ideas we share?

In pre War Europe the Jewish people had far too few friends. One friend that we did have was the King of Denmark. When the Nazis rose to power, the King of Denmark and the citizens of his country were remarkably supportive and protective of Jews.

Once, the Nazis urged the King of Denmark to institute anti-Jewish legislation of the type that Germany itself had put in place. The King refused to do so. When asked why, he said, 'But you see, there isn't any Jewish problem here. We don't consider ourselves inferior to them.'

How does one muster within ones self such a perspective? Why did the King of Denmark have such a generous and noble spirit toward Jews? I don't know for sure. I'd like to suggest, however, that acting with tolerance toward those who are different is a universal requirement, and comes from a universal story --- the story of Cain and Abel.

Following the first murder in history, Hashem came to Cain with a curious question: "Ei Hevel achichah?" -- "Where is Abel your brother?" Cain's well known response was, " Lo yadati. Ha'Shomer achi anochi?" "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

You'll notice that Hashem said, 'Where is Abel your brother.' Why did He say 'Abel your brother'? Surely Cain knew that Abel was his own brother.

Hashem's reference to Abel as Cain's brother was to allude to Cain that he had responsibility for his brother's welfare. Cain, however, denied that brotherhood imposed responsibility upon him.

In other words, that person sitting next to you today in shul -- and even that person who who makes an unpleasant remark to you or gives you a dirty look when you're driving --- is your brother, or sister.

The Talmud says that just as every human being looks different from one another, so too we have different ways of thinking and acting. We have different tastes, different ideas about raising our children, and different ways that we lead our lives. A key to avoiding becoming like Korach is to learn to tolerate people's differences.

It's true that some of us are more observant and more knowledgeable than others -- but we're all Jewish. It's true that some of us have English as our native language, while others grew up speaking Hebrew or Russian or French -- but we're all part of a kehilla (a community). Nusach Hari Bnai Zion is not just a synagogue; we're a congregation and a community, where every person has value and each person is a member of our family.

Let us not be like W.C. Fields who once said:

I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.

Lo yiyeh k'Korach v'adaso. Don't be like Korach and his congregation. How? Realize the bigger picture. The small things people do that irritate us will long be forgotten. Most of the time, it's not worthwhile to respond. Greater tolerance of people and their differences will also go a long way to help us avoid becoming argumentative people. We're part of a brotherhood of man. After all, don't all human beings come from one person -- Adam HaRishon? That means we're all related!

Let's not be like two ten year olds in the car fighting about who gets the window seat. We have so much in common. We love Hashem. We love his Torah. We love Israel. We're all committed to building and watching our shul grow. Let's focus on what unites us, not what divides us.