Classic Questions

What did Moshe plead with G‑d? (v. 16:22)

Rashi: He Who knows man's thoughts! Your attributes are not like those of men of flesh and blood. If part of a country becomes corrupt, a king of flesh and blood does not know who the sinner is, and therefore, when he is angry, he punishes them all. But as for You, all thoughts are revealed before You, and You know who the sinner is. If one man is the sinner, why should You be angry with the whole congregation?

G‑d  said, "You have spoken well. I know, and I will make known, who sinned and who did not sin."

The Rebbe's Teachings

"G‑d, Who Knows Everybody's Thoughts" (v. 22)

In his commentary on verse 22, Rashi brings the illustration of a king of flesh and blood: "If part of a country becomes corrupt, a king of flesh and blood does not know who the sinner is, and therefore, when he is angry, he punishes them all. But as for You, all thoughts are revealed before You, and You know who the sinner is." Thus, Moshe argued, "If one man is the sinner, why should You be angry with the whole congregation?"

However, this prompts the following questions:

  1. What is the need for Rashi to bring a lengthy analogy? Surely the verse itself makes Moshe's complaint clear: "G‑d  (Who knows) everybody's thoughts! (Just because) one man sins, should You be angry with the whole congregation?"
  2. If, for whatever reason, Rashi deemed the illustration of this analogy crucial, why did he not cite it the first time that this situation arose, when Avraham pleaded with G‑d  to save the people of Sodom: "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked" (Bereishis 18:23)?
  3. Why at the outset, does Rashi speak of "part of a country" which becomes corrupt, but later refer to just "one sinner"?
  4. What is the distinction between "becoming corrupt" and "sinning"?
  5. If G‑d  consented that "one man is the sinner," saying, "You have spoken well," then why does the next verse immediately mention three sinners: "Speak to the congregation, saying, 'Get away from the home of Korach, Dasan and Aviram'"?

And surely, there was a large group of sinners that sided with Korach?

The Explanation

In his commentary on verse 19, Rashi explains the method by which Korach gathered support: "The entire night, he went to the tribes and tricked them, [saying,] 'Do you think I care only for myself? I care only for all of you! These men have come and taken all the high positions. [Moshe took] the kingship for himself and the priesthood for his brother.' Eventually they were all lured [into Korach's rebellion]."

Thus, at the literal level, all of Korach's group were not equally guilty. Korach himself was an inciter of rebellion, who used divisive tactics in an active attempt to undermine Moshe and Aharon's leadership. The men whom Korach convinced, however, were not essentially rebellious; they were merely lured by the arguments of Korach.

Of course they were not innocent, as we find that they were punished with death, but their level of guilt was much less than that of Korach himself.

In order to clarify this distinction between Korach and his group, Rashi cites the analogy of "part of a country becomes corrupt," but the "king of flesh and blood does not know who the sinner is." Here Rashi makes clear the different levels of guilt: There is only one "sinner" who has actively incited part of the country, and the latter have merely allowed themselves to "become corrupt" through his influence.

So, argued Moshe, a mortal king could be excused for punishing the masses, since he cannot identify the leader of the rebellion (the "sinner"), but "You know who the sinner is. If one man is the sinner, should You be angry with the whole congregation?" G‑d  replied, "You have spoken well."

(In the case of Sodom, however, this analogy was inappropriate, since the vast majority of the city's inhabitants were sinners in their own right, and not merely people who were lured into rebellion by a charismatic leader.)

In defense of the Jewish people, Moshe had reduced the number of sinners to the minimum amount possible ("one sinner"). However, G‑d  replied, "I know, and I will make known, who sinned and who did not sin," and the verse continues that there were in fact three of them, "Get away from the home of Korach, Dasan and Aviram."

Nevertheless, Moshe's attempt to minimize the number of sinners sets an example for us all, to always judge others favorably.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 13, p. 51ff.)