The name Korach is synonymous with Machloket shelo leshem shamoyim, arguments that are not for the sake of heaven. As we read how Korach and his rebel rousers were killed by G-d, exactly as Moshe had predicted, no doubt many feel gleeful as those "who gathered together against G-d" (16:11) receive their due. Yet Judaism demands a much more nuanced approach. True, we must eradicate evil; but we must never confuse evil with evildoers. All people are created in the image of G-d, and all are deserving of respect; there are no exceptions. At times we must, with a heavy heart, go to battle against our adversaries, Jewish or gentile. Yet proper respect is due even to the worst perpetrators of evil. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 45a), in explaining the verse "you shall love your neighbour as yourself", determines that even a convicted murderer must be given as pain-free a death as possible. We must kill him; we must not humiliate him.
"You must admonish your neighbour and not bear sin because of him" (Vayikra 19:17). The Talmud (Erchin 16b), interprets the second half of the verse as a prohibition of embarrassing the one who is being rebuked. Given a choice between allowing a sinner to continue in his ways or embarrassing him, we choose the former. Jewish law is replete with examples of such sensitivity, which must be demonstrated to all.
"G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘tell Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that the fire pans have been sanctified and he must gather them up from the burned area’" (17:1-2). The challenge to the joint leadership of Aaron and Moshe failed. Korach, Datan and Aviran, and 250 of the leaders of the Jewish people are dead. The fire pans brought by the 250 elders, thinking (hoping?) that they would be chosen by G-d, were made into beaten plates to cover the altar. “Let this be a sign for the Israelites” (17:3).
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, beautifully explains why it was Elazar and not Aaron who was told to remove the fire pans. Having Aaron perform this task would be “rubbing salt in the wounds” of the survivors. The friends and family of the 250 elders might have felt unduly slighted by seeing Aaron remove the failed sacrifice, a sacrifice that ended with their loved ones’ deaths. The elders had to receive the most drastic of punishments, but their honour and dignity had to be maintained, even in death. Furthermore, it appears to me that the Torah was concerned lest Aaron feel a sense of victory in removing the incense of those who would depose him. It is important that we regret the pain our enemies suffer, even if they deserve it.
This is the treatment that must be accorded to known evildoers. Tragically, we often offer less for people we think (often mistakenly) are sinners. We rely on second-hand reports, hearsay, or even instinct to condemn others. "G-d said, ‘the cry of Sedom is great, and their sin is so grave; I will descend to see" (Breisheet 18:20-21). Surely G-d has no need to “go down and check out" the evil from up close. As Rashi points out, G-d's descent is meant to serve as a model to human judges, who must never judge anyone without obtaining first-hand evidence.
Moshe, the faithful servant of the Jewish people, did not lash out against those who would replace him. Rather, he asked to meet with his adversaries; Moshe summoned Datan and Aviram (16:12). It is amazing what a kind gesture will sometimes do. The fact that this gesture was snubbed just indicates the extent of the efforts that we must make, even if we are quite certain that our words will fall on deaf ears.
“And they shall not be like Korach and his party” (17:5). The tragic outcome of argumentative behaviour is one the Jewish people have experienced many times. Our disunity and penchant for destructive argumentation has allowed us to be swallowed up by our enemies and burned alive; figuratively, if not always literally. May we follow the path of Moshe and Aaron in seeking peace with our adversaries and displaying sensitivity to their pain when such peace is not possible.
I want to thank Rabbi J.J. Schacter for the basic idea behind this thought.