Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
There is nothing worse perhaps in a family than sibling rivalry. When brothers and sisters fight and claw at each other verbally or physically or jockey for position the whole dynamic of the family can be set off kilter. We see this often when children are seeking attention from the adults in the family. Parents have to do their best to keep on an even keel and not play into this situation
In a study published in 2005 in the journal Child Maltreatment, and written about in the New York Times in 2006, a group of sociologists found that 35 percent of children had been “hit or attacked” by a sibling in the previous year. The study was based on phone interviews with a representative national sample of 2,030 children or those who take care of them.
And all too often we see it among grown adult children. When parents die and children have to divide up an inheritance or estate or the family business the rivalries, jealousies and power plays sometimes destroy a family. Perceived slights take on a life of their own. When a parent has been gravely ill and one adult child is placed in a situation of care and the other siblings do little to assist bad feelings can really fester. All too often at the funeral the feelings of abandonment by the child caretaker by their siblings can rear its ugly head. Families disintegrate over less.
The Torah is filled with stories of sibling rivalries and the havoc it plays. Just examine the story of Cain and Abel and how Cain murders his brother. More stories in the Torah include: the story of Jacob and Esau which is intensified by parents playing favorites or the story of Joseph and the brothers who sell him into slavery.
This week’s Torah portion Korach turns on family jealousies. Although Korach is not Moses’ sibling he is a first cousin and challenges Moses’ authority and leadership. He gathers more than 250 people in an open rebellion against the leadership of his cousins, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. He claims that he is the rightful leader and wants to know why they elevate themselves over all. But Korach forgets something so basic. That God chose Moses and Aaron as the leaders.
Korach, a successful and wealthy man according to our tradition and an honored Levite who had the privilege of carrying the Holy Ark let his jealousies and envy take over him. Korach wanted the power for himself. The opening verse says that “Korach took”. The commentators play with this word-took. What does it mean, they ask? The commentator Ibn Ezra says that he took men with him to challenge. Others read that he was impudent and yet others emend the text to say he rose up (vayakom). (See Plaut, The Torah, URJ press p. 1127 Old version).
Korach wanted to take the power of leadership not for the people’s sake but for himself. And this is one of the many differences between Moses and Korach. When Moses’ received the call at the burning bush from God for this task of leading the people to freedom, he demurred and felt not up to the task. But God chose him and supported him. Moses wasn’t in it for himself and time and again, when God is frustrated with the Israelites and tries to make Moses the sole heir Moses says no and refocuses God’s attention on the covenant. Moses was focused on the whole People. Korach only on the power he could amass.
Korach and his followers do not succeed in open rebellion and are swallowed by the earth for their power grab and family deceptions. Moses and Aaron and Miriam’s leadership is affirmed this week. But the family damage is done and one can only imagine that it caused much hurt and pain and trauma.
So if you have a brother or sister or even a first cousin, in honor of Korach—reach out and heal any rifts that may have erupted through the years. Don’t let the earth swallow your family relationships and try to make them right in the world.