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Home » Family Life, Korach, Politics

Korach: Kindness or Weakness

Submitted by on June 16, 2014 – 4:01 amNo Comment | 2,852 views

The Debate

The recent decision by the US Government to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in return for five- hardened Taliban terrorists has sparked debate. Those in support hail President Obama as a decisive leader, who made the courageous choice to save a life. Those who oppose it argue that negotiating with terrorists incentivizes them to kidnap more soldiers.

The United States has long held a policy of no negotiation with terrorists, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t bend the rules where necessary. The State of Israel also maintains a ‘no negotiation’ policy with terrorists, but when necessary, they have negotiated. They have, on occasion, released hundreds of terrorists for a single prisoner. The question is this: is such negotiation a sign of kindness or weakness?

Jewish law has precedent on both counts. On the one hand the Mitzvah to release the captive is the highest form of charity. On the other hand, paying above market price prices for a captive is forbidden even if the captive will remain in captivity because incentivizing further kidnapping is forbidden.[1]

This raises an interesting question: does kindness ever cross the line into weakness or even cruelty?


Korach was a Levite, who led a rebellion against Moses. To his view, Moses had established an autocratic system of governance with privileged leaders at the top and underprivileged masses at the bottom. Korach argued that every Jew can be a leader. Moses was not better than others, he was simply born in the right place at the right time. Given the chance, any Jew could lead as well as Moses.

He suggested that Jews do away with a caste system that places a small minority of Kohanim (priests) in the elite, a slightly larger minority as Levites and the wide masses, simple Israelites, at the bottom. Korach suggested that everyone should be a Kohen and the High Priesthood be shared equally by all.

Korach’s rebellion ended in disaster, when he and his supporters were swallowed alive in an earthquake. But considering the goals of his rebellion we see a link to our discussion on kindness.

Kind and Strict

The Kohen was at your service, if you wanted to bring an offering on the altar, the Kohen would facilitate it for you. This entailed a great deal of work, but the Kohen performed his duties with alacrity because he was a loving person. By contrast, the Levite’s primary task was to guard the Temple’s entrances to bar access to the Israelite.

The Kohen took you in and facilitated your atonement. The Levite kept you at bay to ensure you wouldn’t stray beyond your bounds. The Kohen was focused on providing a welcoming and uplifting experience, the Levite was focused on ensuring that you don’t venture where you may not go.

In other words, the Kohen is kind and the Levite is strict. Jewish mystics postulated that the kohen’s soul is rooted in the Divine attributes of kindness and the Levite’s soul is rooted in the Divine attributes of strength and severity. It turns out that Korach was the ultimate liberal. He wanted everyone to be a Kohen – to treat each other with kindness. Yet Korach’s bid ended in disaster because love, in the real world, must be tempered and balanced by strength.

Suppose you raise your children on a diet of pure love and grant them their every wish. They would love you as children, but resent you as adults for failing to prepare them for the real world. This isn’t a kindness, it’s a perversion that amounts to cruelty and ends in disaster. A friend once put it thusly. A father that relents and grants his child’s every whim is thinking of himself, not the child. He gives them what they want because it is more expedient and it feels better to grant them their wishes than to engage in protracted and unpleasant chats on discipline. Ultimately, if the father were concerned for the child’s welfare, he would pull back and give less now, so the kids would gain more later.

I remember my second great teacher telling us that if he punished us in our youth we would be grateful to him as adults, but if he relented in our youth and failed to discipline us, we would blame him as adults for our social and moral ills.

Excessive kindness is a weakness that ultimately leads to cruelty. Temporary discipline builds character that stand our children in good stead in the long run.


This is why G-d struck what he termed a “covenant of salt”[2] with Aaron, the High Priest, immediately after Korach’s rebellion. Salt has a chemical composition that readily absorbs heat. Not only does it absorb heat, it raises its host’s heat absorption capacity. This is why saltwater is slightly warmer than freshwater. In a roundabout way, this is also why salt melts ice back into water.

Water is cool and flowing, which is why it represents kindness. Kind people rarely grow angry and their generosity is always flowing. Heat represents severity. Strict people are usually uptight and grow easily hot under the collar. Salt, representative of stricture, merges with water, representative of kindness, exerting a warming influence on the water.

G-d’s covenant with Aaron was presented as a covenant of salt to convey the message that Korach’s idea, while ideal in theory, is unrealistic in the real world. It is a form of kindness that masks a cruelty. You cannot be excessively kind, where it is inappropriate – that leads to unmitigated disaster.it did in Korach’s day and it does in every family household.

Kindness must be tempered and balanced with stricture so that it isn’t seen as a weakness to be manipulated. When we show kindness to one who manipulates it, we do that person no favors. We merely give them rope to hang themselves. We reinforce their anger and dissatisfaction with life by teaching them unrealistic expectations of instant gratification. In the real world, this doesn’t work.[3]

I don’t know if releasing prisoners is too high a price to pay or if it incentivizes further kidnapping, but I do know this. Before negotiating with terrorists, we must consider carefully. What is kind to one, can be cruel to countless others. Kindness isn’t always kind. Sometimes it is weak and sometimes even cruel.


[1] Yoreh Deah ch. 252. Family members are exempt from this restriction. There is also an exemption for community leaders, who presence is critical to the community. Yet, to deter further kidnapping, the tenth century Rabbi Meyer of Rotenberg forbid his community to ransom him from captivity and he passed away in captivity.

[2] Numbers 18:19. The ordinary understanding is that salt was used because it is a preservative and G-d wanted to ensure Aaron that his priesthood would be preserved.

[3] See Kedushas Levi ad loc.

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