In this week’s parsha we reacquaint ourselves with two scallywags, Dasan & Aviram. Over the years they had put together quite an impressive résumé of trouble-making and subversive-ness, and when seeing that Korach was spoiling for a fight with Moshe, were more than eager to join with his cabal. Moshe, the king of Klal Yisrael breaks with royal protocol and actually goes to their tents trying one last-ditched effort at diplomacy. But instead he is arrogantly met outside by Dasan & Aviram together with their wives and children -the gantze mishpacha. At that point Moshe, realizing that he will never get them to change their minds and attitudes, warns them that their end is extremely nigh and they will die in a supernatural manner, proving the extreme displeasure of Hashem. Immediately the Torah tells us “Vatibaka ha’adama asher tachtaihem, vatiftach ha’aretz es piha.. ”- “The earth split open beneath them and the ground opened its mouth [and swallowed them alive]” (Bamidbar, 16:31-32). The wording seems a little repetitive, for isn’t the earth splitting open the same as the ground opening its mouth?
The answer, I believe, can be understood by analyzing a statement of Rashi. He quotes a Tanchuma who tells us the following: “Bo Ure’ai kamma kashe machlokes…” – “Come and see how severe it is to be involved in machlokes.” It proves this by pointing out that with all sins a human Bais Din will not put a sinner to death if he or she is a halachic minor. Hashem, too, will not punish a sinner under the age of twenty. Yet with machlokes (we find here that) even little babies died. Now this Tanchuma is somewhat puzzling for it should have said simply that with respect to all other avairos neither Hashem nor a human Bais Din will employ collateral damage and punish innocent people, whereas by a machlokes even the innocent (babies) suffer. Why does the Tanchuma instead compare the innocent babies at a machlokes to those who have sinned but cannot be punished because of their young age?
Perhaps we can suggest that the Tanchuma is giving us a sobering message and a sad insight into the world of machlokes. Whereas by all other avairos and character flaws one has to be an active and an involved participant in order to be severely affected, machlokes is so toxic that just being an innocent bystander at such an event will greatly affect a person. Affected to the degree that they too will have to go through the same soul-cleansing punishment that is meted out to the active participant of said machlokes. Thus, the Tanchuma’s correlation between babies present at a machlokes and active sinners is most apt, for in both instances they have actually been spiritually compromised.
[We see a similar understanding back in parshas Lech Lecha when an argument erupts between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot. Avraham says to Lot “Al na sehi meriva baini ubainecha” -”Let there not be an argument between me and you.” (Beraishis, 13:8). Were Avraham and Lot actually part of this argument? Of course not. And yet Avraham inserts Lot and himself into the picture. This is because he felt that his connection to his shepherds meant that he, too, was being affected as if he were an active participant.]
Perhaps now we can answer our original question. The punishment for Dasan & Aviram was the opening of the ground’s mouth which then proceeded to swallow them and their mishpachos. But in order to understand why the kids had to die, the Torah prefaces the description of the punishment by first telling us how dangerous it can be being present at a machlokes. It does so by relating that even the earth beneath their feet split open. Yes, even the innocent earth underneath got affected and started exhibiting argumentative traits and split open, away from its neighboring clod. So, too, the toddlers in the Bugaboos and the kids playing hopscotch nearby were similarly affected, and thus perished together with their parents.
We try to keep our kids away from so many types of harmful chemicals such as lead paint, and BPA. Let’s make sure to steer them clear from the more powerful toxin called machlokes and with help from Hashem we will keep them safe, sound, and way above ground.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.