By Rabbi Ed Gelb
Director Camp Ramah in New England
In Parshat Korach, Korach and his followers challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aaron on the grounds that they are haughty and elevating themselves above the community beyond what was necessary. To a certain extent, these charges may have been defensible. Nevertheless, Korach and his followers are punished severely – why is this so?
In Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), it says: “A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach.”
The Torah describes the followers of Korach as “two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown.” The commentator Kli Yakar explains that these men rebelled not for the sake of heaven, but rather for personal gain, both in power and material goods. They wanted to become “men of renown.” Their illicit motive led to their punishment.
One of Camp Ramah’s missions is to train the next generation of Jewish leaders. We strive to teach our campers that it is not only fine, but sometimes a duty, to question authority. Whether at camp or in our daily lives, we are charged to partner with God to make this world a better place. Yet we have to be careful how we do that and really examine our motives, so we can rise to the level of Hillel and Shammai and not get swallowed up by baser motives.