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    Community nuisances – Korach

    The destruction of Korah, by Gustave Dore, 1865

    The Midrash is remarkable in the way it takes the structure of a story and entwines it with picturesque detail that is sometimes suggested by other Biblical passages and often by the sheer genius of the sages in their understanding of the human condition.

    What the Midrashic literature says about Korach’s henchmen, Datan and Aviram, is a priceless example.

    Harking back to the early life of Moses, it recalls that he went out to see his brothers and smote an Egyptian who was attacking an Israelite. Next day he saw two Israelites quarrelling and when he tried to separate them, they turned on him and asked, “Who made you a prince and judge over us? Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex. 2:14).

    Who were the two Israelites, asks the Midrash? “Datan and Aviram!”

    Later on, when the people were moving through the wilderness and told that their food was to be manna, and they should collect only what they needed and not hoard it, two Israelites took no notice but hoarded manna, and it went rotten on them (Ex. 16:20). Who were the two Israelites? “Datan and Aviram!”

    What do these passages of Midrash tell us?

    That in a human society it is always likely that there will be some professional trouble-makers like Datan and Aviram. They do nothing positive or constructive for the community. They do not pick up a share of responsibility. They do not try to find solutions to problems. They have one agenda: to make mischief.

    If there is a chance of disrupting the community, undermining the leadership, standing in the way of constructive planning and positive action, you can rely upon them to be there. Let there be an annual meeting, and they will carp and criticise. Let there be a serious issue placed before an organisation, congregation or community, and they will hijack the discussion and spread bad feeling.

    Even Korach and his latter-day counterparts are better than the Datans and Avirams. At least Korach asks intelligent questions, suspect though his motives might be. But Datan and Aviram? It is very difficult to deal with them.

    The Midrash recognised that every generation knows the type, and its interpretation was designed as a solemn warning to every generation to recognise their game for what it is.

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