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Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Parasha Korach (Korah)

by Rabbi Greg Lehtimaki, Vice President

ויקח קרח בן-יצהר בן-קהת בן-לוי ודתן ואבירם בני אליאב ואון בן-פלת בני ראובן׃ ויקמו לפני משה...

In this week’s Parasha, Korach (a Levite) challenges the leadership of Moshe and the Aaronic priesthood (kehunah). Joining Korach’s rebellion against Moshe are Dathan and Aviram, as well as 250 key council members who defy Moshe and Aaron.

“They combined against Moshe and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16:3)

Jews love to argue. It is more than a stereotype; it is a fundamental part of our national character. There is a good reason why we Jews poke fun at our own argumentative ways. Here’s an old joke to elaborate… Two Jews are in a vicious argument, so they go to their rabbi. The first gives his side of the argument and the rabbi says, “You’re right!” The second gives his side and the rabbi says, “You’re right!” A bystander speaks out. “How can they both be right?” The rabbi replies, “You’re also right.”

Perhaps our love of argument goes all the way back to our father Abraham, who argued with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps it goes back to the book of Job, where Job calls God to a trial. Certainly, the Talmud is filled with page after page of argument between rabbis. Let me quote one passage from the Talmud as a wonderful example of the joy of arguments. “Resh Lakish died, and (his brother-in-law) R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? (R.Eleazar b. Pedath went and quoted teachings in support of R. Johanan.) ‘Are you Resh Lakish?’ he complained: ‘when I stated a law, Resh Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law (while you always agree with me.) R. Johanan rent his garments and wept, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakish, where are you, O son of Lakish’” (Baba Metzia 84a). He wept not simply because he lost his brother-in-law, but because he lost his partner in arguments.

Arguments were not simply part of Biblical nor Talmudic times. There is a reason why we Jews say, “Two Jews, three opinions.” We love to disagree. And we admit that the give and take of a good argument sharpens our minds. We did not receive the Torah as a complete package; the Torah has been settled and strengthened through the give and take of powerful arguments.

Nonetheless, not every argument is in the name of heaven. This week’s portion tells of the great rebellion by Moshe’s cousin Korach against Moshe and his Torah. Korach sought an excuse to argue with Moshe about his teachings. Rashi brings one wonderful example of such an argument. Moshe had taught that the Israelites should wear fringes on their garments with threads of blue. Korach came forward with a cloak made entirely of blue threads. “Does this need a thread of blue?” “Of course,” Moshe replied. Korach then mocked Moshe, “Your laws are ridiculous. One thread of blue makes it proper, but all threads of blue are not good.” Korach started mocking Moshe and began his revolt against Moshe’s authority.

The argument between Moshe and Korach was not pure argument for the sake of a better understanding God’s word. It was a power play. The Talmud gives this example of an argument not for the sake of heaven. (Avot 5:17) Such arguments have no lasting significance. The Talmud compares the argument between Moshe and Korach to the disagreements between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. The two schools argued, but with a deep respect for one another. It was an argument for the sake of heaven. Korach’s challenge to Moshe was not for the sake of heaven.

We all have arguments with the people in our lives. The closer we are to others, the more frequently we may argue. Every married couple, every parent and child, every brother and sister, knows the heat of argument. Business partners, co-workers, neighbors, and friends all argue. In the heat of the argument, it is vital to stop and ask a question. What are my underlying motives? Am I arguing because I truly disagree on some point? Or is the argument like that of Korach against Moshe, filled with underlying agendas and motivations? We each need to ask, “Is this an argument for the sake of heaven?” If not, perhaps we ought to stop arguing and just shut our mouths… because words matter.

A minister was making a wooden trellis to support a climbing vine. As he was pounding away, he noticed a little boy who was watching him. The youngster didn’t say a word, so the preacher kept on working, thinking the boy would leave; but he didn’t. Pleased at the thought that his work was being admired, the pastor finally said, “Are you trying to pick up some pointers on gardening?” “No,” the little boy replied. “I’m just waiting to hear what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer.” The perspective of that youngster may be the way some people see a pastor. They just wait to see you trip and fall, break with tradition, and say or do something they think is unbecoming for a pastor.

What we fail to realize is there are people in this world that look at you the same way. They are watching to see how you behave or what you say or do. Some may even say, “If that’s the way a Believer acts, I don’t want any part of it.” Whether a preacher, or not, whether someone is around or not, what we say can and does matter. We may even find ourselves looking around to see if someone heard us, know that if no one else did, God did, and it matters to him. If it matters to God, it should matter to us. People, words matter. Words lead to action and that action was rebellion for Korach and his compatriots. Here’s what happened…

Getting on his high horse one day, Korach son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, along with a few Reubenites—Dathan and Aviram sons of Eliab, and On, son of Pelet—rebelled against Moshe. He had with him 250 leaders of the congregation of Israel, prominent men with positions in the Council. They came as a group and confronted Moshe and Aaron, saying, “You’ve overstepped yourself. This entire community is holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you act like you’re running the whole show?”

On hearing this, Moshe threw himself face down on the ground. Then he addressed Korach and his gang: “In the morning God will make clear who is on his side, who is holy. God will take his stand with the one he chooses. Now, Korach, here’s what I want you and your gang to do: Tomorrow, take censers. In the presence of God, put fire in them and then incense. Then we’ll see who is holy, see whom God chooses. Sons of Levi, you’ve overstepped yourselves!” Moshe said to Korach, “Bring your people before God tomorrow. Appear there with them and Aaron. Have each man bring his censer filled with incense and present it to God—all 250 censers. And you and Aaron do the same, bring your censers.”

So, they all did it. They brought their censers filled with fire and incense and stood at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moshe and Aaron did the same. It was Korach and his gang against Moshe and Aaron at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The entire community could see the Glory of God. God said to Moshe and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this congregation so that I can finish them off and be done with them.”

They threw themselves on their faces and said, “O God, God of everything living, when one man sins, are you going to take it out on the whole community?”

God spoke to Moshe: “Speak to the community. Tell them, back off from the tents of Korach, Dathan, and Aviram.”

Moshe got up and went to Dathan and Aviram. The leaders of Israel followed him. He then spoke to the community: “Back off from the tents of these bad men; don’t touch a thing that belongs to them lest you be carried off on the flood of their sins.”

So, they all backed away from the tents of Korach, Dathan, and Aviram. Dathan and Aviram by now had come out and were standing at the entrance to their tents. Moshe continued to address the community: “This is how you’ll know that it was God who sent me to do all these things and that it wasn’t anything I cooked up on my own. If these men die a natural death like all the rest of us, you’ll know that it wasn’t God who sent me. But if God does something unprecedented—if the ground opens up and swallows the lot of them and they are pitched alive into She’ol—then you’ll know that these men have been insolent with God.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth when the earth split open! Earth opened its mouth and in one gulp swallowed them down, the men and their families along with everything they owned. And that was the end of them, pitched alive into She’ol. The earth closed up over them and that was the last time the community heard of them.

At the sound of their cries everyone around ran for dear life, shouting, “We’re about to be swallowed up alive!” Then God sent lightning. The fire cremated the 250 men who were offering the incense. It was not a good day. It is one thing to make a mistake. It is entirely different to make the worst mistake and choice of your life right out in front of God and everybody. In fact, to make that mistake in front of an entire nation is unthinkable and unbearable. That is this account.

This could be the most significant rebellion captured in Scripture other than the rebellion that took place in heaven. How many of you know coming in second only behind Satan himself is not an accomplishment you should strive to obtain!

Reading Numbers 16:32 we see, “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and their entire wealth.” Somebody once asked why he was swallowed by the “mouth of the earth,” and it is answered, “Because he opened his big mouth, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed him up!”

This is clearly a classic and obvious example of the Torah principle, Middah Kneged Middah- Measure for Measure. The Mishne in Pirke Avot 1:17, states, “Shimon his son (of Rabban Gamliel) says, “All my days I have been raised among the Sages and I have found nothing better for the body than silence, not study, but practice is the main thing; everyone who talks excessively brings on sin.”

The Maharal[1] wonders why the Mishne does not declare that silence is beneficial for the person. Why is it good for the body? The Maharal explains that within a person like a country there is a giant war taking place about who will gain control of the communication system, the media. Speech is a holy function, and a uniquely God-like feature installed only in humanity. It is manifest when chosen words are filtered down through Sechel Elochus – the Sublime Godly Intellect.

The Iggeret haRamban[2] spells out a strategy for success in prayer that applies equally to all life situations. “Think about the word before it exits your mouth!” Isn’t that super advice? That Talmud declares, “What should be the craft of a person in this world? Make yourself like someone who is mute!” (Chulin) Why is that a craft? A real craft takes years and years of apprenticeship to achieve mastery. What’s the big trick here!? Employ some duct tape and voila, finished! No, that’s not good enough. We cannot shut down the function of speech altogether.

There’s a story of a master tailor who survived the war, then worked for decades making high- end suits that sold for thousands of dollars. He became a master at his craft and commanded great prices for his work. (I’m sure if we were given the same materials, cloth, scissors, needle, and thread, very few of us would be able to produce anything more than a crude art project.) This master tailor had a pattern and a particular motto that he lived by. “Measure twice and cut once.” This simple bit of wisdom truly set him apart.

Before we speak, we need a plan. The mouth is a sharp instrument like a pair of scissors, and we need to think twice at least and speak once. Very often, as the Maharal explains, “it’s feelings that are couched as ideas which gush forth from the mouth.” They bubble up with force from the Nefesh Behemah – the animal soul, which is the selfish and earthy part of the human personality. When that part of us is dominating the power of speech, like a wild stallion, we cannot estimate how much destruction it will do before it is captured and tamed by Godly reason. The Mishne suggests quieting the body and curing it with silence. Not every feeling needs to be acted upon. Feelings are real to the feeler, but they don’t rule. We can quietly validate them without acting out or speaking out uncontrollably.

It’s no wonder the Midrash quoted by the Vilna Gaon[3] makes such a huge promise. “For each and every moment that a person seals his mouth, he merits a hidden light that no angel or other creature could ever estimate!” So rather than thrashing wildly and digging his own grave, he is quietly studying the heavenly plan and carefully measuring before cutting with this sharp and most powerful of instruments. The result will no doubt be a priceless suit!

How many of you know someone who runs their mouth too much? How many of you run your mouth too much? How many of you know that running your mouth too much can get you in trouble? We use a lot of words over the course of our lives. Think about these things:

  • The Lord’s Prayer: 56 words.

  • Gettysburg Address: 266.

  • 10 Commandments: 297.

  • Declaration of Independence: 300.

It has been estimated that most people speak enough in one week to fill up a large 500-page book. Means in average lifetime, that amounts to 3000 volumes or 1.5 million pages! Boy we sure talk a lot… but what are we saying… are we using words wisely?

It’s a scary thought to realize that Yeshua said in Matthew 12:36-37, “And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.” Everyone has heard the “Sticks and stones…” statement. The first part of that statement is very true. But that second part is very false. Words DO hurt when they are used carelessly, maliciously, and deceitfully. That’s why we see James 1:19, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”. James says that we need to be slow to speak; that claiming to be religious without controlling your tongue shows that your religion is worthless (1:26); and that speaking down to someone in a discriminating way is evidence of evil motives in your heart (2:3-4). Now he circles back to the issue of our words and our mouths in 3:1-12.

Small things make a big impact. Heart attacks and strokes, tiny blockages of plaque or tiny blood clots, cancerous cells that turn into a life-threatening tumor, a pebble in a shoe or even an eyelash in your eye, all prove the point. “Small” sins that may seem insignificant quickly escalate and may become major life-altering problems that devastate our lives and the lives of others. Think about the progression of temptation and sin.

James gives some illustrations of some small things that make a big difference:

  1. A bit in a horse’s mouth, for example. The average weight of a horse is 1200 lbs and a bit weighs about half a pound.

  2. The rudder of a ship. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier has 2 rudders that each weigh 110,000 lbs. That’s huge, but not if you compare it to the total weight of the ship which is roughly 100,000 tons. That’s 200 million pounds!

  3. Lastly, one tiny spark from a careless campfire or a cigarette flicked out of a car window can set an entire forest on fire.

The same is true of the tongue. The average length of human tongue is three inches with its average weight of about 2½ ounces. Considering the average weight of a person in the US is about 180 pounds, the tongue is definitely a “small member” of the whole body (v.5). Crazy that something that’s less than three ounces can totally wreck your life and the lives of a multitude of other people. That’s exactly what James is telling us in this passage from the Brit Chadasha. We must remember that your words have an impact, both positively and negatively.

Temptation is part of a believer’s life, and we all stumble in many ways. There’s a tendency to lay the blame elsewhere when we are hit with temptation. We don’t want to own up to the fact that we have weaknesses and areas of vulnerability. We try to give the appearance that we have it all together, but in reality, we are getting beat up by temptation.

We find it easy to blame God or leadership when those times of temptation come. We might find ourselves thinking and saying to ourselves, “God is the one who made me like this. He’s the one who gave me this weakness. He’s the one who put me in this situation. I just can’t help myself because God is the one who made me this way.” We may not come right out and say the words to God Himself, but that is what we are doing when we think like this. It’s scary to think that someone would shake their fist in the face of the God of the universe and say, “I blame you for this!” but that’s what we are doing. And that’s a wrong use of our words.

Ephesian 4:29 says, “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” In the past, I’ve talked about the fact that we are an angry society. We are also an obscene society. The verse in Ephesians tells us that “foul language” shouldn’t come out of our mouths. It’s another one of the “many ways” we stumble. That Greek word for “foul” means “rotten, worthless, bad.”

Different ways our language can be foul, rotten, worthless, and bad: One is profanity (though cuss words are a modern invention, it speaks to our lack of a good vocabulary and presents a poor witness. Then there’s off-color and obscene jokes, gossip and slander, or malicious talk intentionally focused on hurting the other person and tearing them down. All of these come under the wrong usage of our words for “Bad Language.”

What about our ego? Do you know anybody that’s got a “big head”? Now think at how destructive and detrimental this is to you and to the Body of Yeshua. We might think there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bragging. But that usage of words is wrong. It doesn’t come from God. It’s earthly or worldly and unspiritual.

This is what Korach did; and I’d say it’s unholy and “inspired by the devil.” And, when we use our words this way, it brings about “disorder and every vile practice.” Why? Because Satan is the author of disorder and every vile practice. When we use our words in ways that don’t glorify God, cursing people instead of blessing them, it breaks His heart. Ephesians 4:30 says, “…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Any time we speak in a sinful way, we grieve Him and break His heart, I have no doubt.

When a person gives a eulogy at the funeral of a friend or family member, they recount all the good things about the person’s life and give that person words of praise. They give thanks for the person’s life and the positive impact they made in their life. To “bless God” means to eulogize Him. Of course, we know He’s not dead. But the Greek word, eulogeo, means to give Him praise and glory that He is due. Just as you would stand and use your words to praise a good friend during a eulogy, so we need to stand up and use our tongue for its intended purpose – to praise and glorify God! Doesn’t mean that every word that comes out of our mouth is directed to God. But it does mean that whatever we say should reflect His glory and praise.

What gives God more praise? To knock someone down with your harsh words, or build them up and encourage them? Or perhaps, to let your tongue run away out of control and destroy someone with a wildfire gossip session? Or speak words of love and grace? Maybe to let your words be foul, bitter, poisonous, aggressive, and abusive? Or make sure they are holy, clean, kind, and peaceful?

When I was young, I was a big Karen Carpenter fan. Karen and her brother, Richard, were a popular singing duo in the 70’s and early 80’s known as, The Carpenters. She died in February 1983 of heart failure brought on by years of self-abuse from the eating disorder Anorexia Nervosa. What brought on this eating disorder? A musical reporter once described her as, “Richard’s chubby sister.” How would you like to be the person whose cutting words caused the devastating blow that led to the loss of life? We must be careful to speak positive words that build others up, not tears them down.

2 Timothy 4:5 instructs us to “do the work of an evangelist…” What a huge privilege God has given to each of us as believers to be announcers of the Good News of Yeshua to the world! God’s plan for people to be saved is for them to hear the Gospel and respond to it. And the way that they hear the Gospel is for us to use our words to proclaim it to them.

We read in James 4:7-8, “Therefore, submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded!

Then in James 5:13-16 we read, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of Messiah’s community, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. So, confess your offenses to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”

James exhorts us to “submit ourselves to God” and to “draw near to God” in 4:7-8. Prayer is an essential part of submitting and drawing near to God. And in 5:13-16, a passage that we regularly turn to in times of physical suffering in someone’s life, we know that praying for physical healing in someone’s life is so important. We cannot forget the power that is found in the prayer of someone who is truly walking with the Lord. Verse 16 reads, “The effective prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”

It’s not really a tongue issue. It’s a heart issue. As with Korach, so it is with each of us. We can’t just say, “OK, I’m going to stop using my words in a wrong way.” We might be able to do that for a short while, but sooner or later you’ll be right back where you started. Why? Because the words coming out of us are showing what is in us. And until our heart changes, the mouth will stay the same. Wash your mouth out with soap all you want to like your Mama used to do, but until your heart is washed and cleansed by the work of Yeshua, your mouth and your attitude will never change.

What choice, what decision, what broken relationship, what opening did you give the enemy, what sin, what mistake have you allowed to put you in bondage? What was it that you did ten years ago that you thought everyone knows about that now holds you in the shackle of shame? Yeah, your world was swallowed up. Some of you are still living at the point of rebellion! Some of you are still standing at the line of pain, the moment of embarrassment, the point of mistake. It is time to live down that moment and move on just as the sons of Korach did when they became ministers in the temple.

So, if you were to come into the presence of God, what words would come out of your mouth in obedience to what He is saying to your heart today? Perhaps, you could be arrogant and unrepentant as Korach, or you could say, I need Yeshua to forgive me today. I need to repent of sin and get back in fellowship with Yeshua. I need to read the Word of God today. Or maybe you need to go to someone else and use your words to ask for forgiveness, pray for them, or encourage them. Shake off the spirit of Korach and embrace a repentant Torah observant life in Yeshua.

B’Shem Yeshua… amein v’amein.

FOOTNOTES: [1] Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as Rabbi Loew, the Maharal of Prague, or simply the Maharal, was an important Talmudic scholar, Jewish mystic, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who, for most of his life, served as a leading rabbi in the cities of Mikulov in Moravia and Prague.

[2] Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, more widely referred to by his acronym Ramban and known in English as Nachmanides. The Iggeret HaRamban was printed for the first time in Mantua, Italy, in 1623 as part of the book "Tapuchei Zahav" by Rabbi Yechiel Mili. This letter occupies a special place in the world of Torah literature. Through the ages, Ramban's letter has been cherished by Torah scholars as well as the masses of Jewry. This letter was sent by Ramban from the city of Acre in Eretz Yisrael to his son in Catalonia, Spain, to inspire him to act with humility. He instructed his son to read this letter once a week and teach it to his children, so they might learn it by heart, and to train them in their youth to fear God.

[3] The Vilna Gaon was born in Sialiec, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth on April 23, 1720, as Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman to a well-known rabbinical family. He became the guardian of the Lithuanian tradition of Judaism.

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