Family Feud

Recently, on a visit to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I shared an elevator ride with a well-dressed man who was carrying a bulging portfolio under his arm. Wondering what he was doing in the hospital, I inquired about the nature of his visit. He replied that he was a lawyer visiting a client. I was impressed with such compassion and asked, “Do you visit every client that is in the hospital?” He immediately explained that this was a rare visit. “My client called me in great rage. She insisted that I come right over. She wants to change her will before it is too late. The reason for her sudden decision is that yesterday she had a fight with one of her relatives, and her daughter encouraged her to remove that relative’s name from the will. So here I am.”

After sharing this story, the lawyer asked me: “Tell me, is it normal for people to act this way? This lady is on her death bed, and, yet, the only thing she can think about is her daughter’s advise to rewrite her will!” Unfortunately, there was no time to inform him that this story is as old as the Bible. Korach, the antagonist in this week’s Torah portion, led a rebellion against his cousins, Moses and Aaron, and it cost him more than inclusion in a will. He paid for it with his life.

In attempting to appreciate the exact nature of the argument between Korach and Moses, the 18th-century Judeo-Spanish commentary, Me-Am Loez, records the following midrash:

When Moses told the Children of Israel about the commandment of tzizit — fringes on a four-cornered garment — Korach’s wife asked Korach, “What new lesson did you learn today in the Yeshiva of Moses our Teacher?”

Korach answered, “Today, he gave us a new commandment concerning the tzizit with blue in it.”

“What does this mean?” his wife asked.

Korach replied, “Moses told us that the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed that we placed three white fringes and one blue fringe on each of the four corners of each garment.”

“He is laughing at you,” his wife said, “every day dreaming up some new commandment that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded. If blue is so important, why did he not command you to make a garment that is entirely blue? Now I shall sew an entirely blue garment for you and all your people. Go and see what he has to say, and you will discover how everything he commands, he himself dreams up. In this way, he takes all the honor and prestige for himself and has made himself king and has appointed his brother High Priest, and his brother’s family assistant priests.”

Although this midrash resembles the classical story documented in earlier midrashim, it contains something drastically different by introducing Korach’s wife. She directs the plot. She incites against Moses and Aaron.

But why did this midrash add a new element, Korach’s wife, to the story? Perhaps it wanted to teach us a lesson in the dynamic of arguments. No person, by himself, can make an argument in a social vacuum. Don’t think that any individual can cause havoc in a community, or can succeed in waging an argument, unless there is an audience that encourages the fight. If Korach didn’t have a support system, in this case his wife, then his battle with Moses and Aaron wouldn’t have endured, and that family feud would have been avoided.

The lesson is clear. It takes more than one to tango, and arguments only persist if antagonists are encouraged to fight.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.