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Moses And Aaron Implore, ‘No Collective Punishment’: Korakh

Parashat Korakh recalls the story of the great rebellion against Moses and Aaron that ultimately is not solved through various shows of force and wonders, but through a restatement of how responsibility is divided between Aarons family and the rest of the Levites. Unlike so many religious elites, we are also taught that they will have less property than the other tribes. They will receive tithes and eat of the sacrifices, but will not own land.

Our portion also includes a lesson against collective punishment. When God says that God intends to annihilate the entire community, Moses says, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22).

We know that collective punishment is a central tenet of many oppressive regimes seeking to maintain control, and that is certainly true of the Israeli Occupation.  Members of “Breaking the Silence,” tell of the strategy to randomly burst into homes in Palestinian urban areas without any evidence, simply to enforce the impression that the army is everywhere.

I may have retold in the past the story that the late Rabbi Ben Hollander told about one of his sons who refused to participate in collective punishment. There was stone throwing on the road, and the order was to go into the nearby village and wreak havoc, without any knowledge who was responsible.

Sometimes it is a matter of cancelling agricultural work because there was stone throwing or some other act in the area where the agricultural work was to take place the next day…

My guess is that many who have served in the Israeli army, have similar stories. They are not limited to Israel or the Israeli army, or our Occupation.

Rashi comments on this verse: “O GOD, THE GOD OF THE SPIRITS [OF ALL FLESH] – i.e., “[O God] who knows the thoughts of every person”. Your nature is not like that of human beings: an earthly king against whom part of his country commits an offense, does not know who the sinner is, and therefore when he becomes angry he exacts punishment from all of them. But You — before You all human thoughts lie open and You know who is the sinner (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 7).

We human beings do not necessarily know the thoughts of others. But, that doesn’t mean that we are therefore permitted to carry out collective punishment.

Ibn Ezra adds: [O GOD.] The term El (God) indicates that God has the power to destroy them in a moment. God is the God of the spirits. This explains the term El, for God can destroy them because their spirits are in His hand. If we have to realize that we don’t have God’s omniscience, we should never try to play God with the tremendous power that we have in our hands. I have many times repeated Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s teaching that the abomination of Egypt and the source of our slavery and suffering was the Egyptian belief that might makes right. Hirsch says that the Torah is warning us not to abuse power in the same way when one day we will have a state, and the power will be in our hands.

On our verse Hirsch also comments on the power of demagoguery. Moses and Aaron are saying to God, “It is well known how easy it is to incite the masses with demagogic speeches… Often the incited passes whose guilt is less are the ones who will suffer, while those guilty of inciting the masses are not punished…because You are the omnipotent God, it is in within your power to punish the guilty, and because you are the “God of all flesh” in Your Wisdom you know how to determine who is truly guilty…The incited masses should receive your forgiveness.”

Hirsch is not exactly talking about collective punishment because he is talking about those who do share responsibility, but not the same level of responsibility as the inciters.

If Rashi is speaking of God’s quality of omniscience we do not share, and Ibn Ezra is talking about God’s power that we should not try to emulate, Hirsch is talking about God’s Wisdom that we should try to emulate as much as humanly possible.

On this Shabbat, may we ponder how we humans can find alternatives to collective punishment. Ceasing to be an oppressive occupier would certainly go a long way.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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