Sweeping Out Evil

One of the most common refrains in the Torah after a punishment is enacted is ובערת הרע מקרבך that you shall “sweep out evil from your midst.”[1] It’s not uncommon to find sinners who receive the ultimate punishment: death. At the same time, there is a discrepancy between this week’s portion and last week’s in terms of how Moses and Aaron respond to the evil. The punishment for the Israelites’ being influenced by the 10 spies who gave bad reports after scouting out the land for 40 days was to wander in the desert for 40 years, each year corresponding to a day that the spies had scouted. Every single Israelite from “the old generation” will die, making way for a new generation who will conquer the land. G-d was planning to destroy the people in that instant. Moses did not deny G-d’s ruling that the entire nation is unjust, only challenging their destruction in that moment. He states that if G-d destroys them now, His reputation will suffer, for the other nations will murmur, “G-d brought out this people from Egypt only to kill them in the desert.”[2]

One parsha later and once again Moses and Aaron’s authority is challenged. Once again, G-d threatens to destroy everyone, and Moses and Aaron intervene. The difference, however, is Moses and Aaron’s response: “if one man sins shall You be angry with the entire congregation?”[3] Why did Moses and Aaron blame the entire people for rebelling in the incident of the spies, whereas here they seem to put all of the blame on Korach?

Rabbenu Hananel from 11th century North Africa deals with this quandary. He states, “if the Israelites had in no way sinned or rebelled against their master, why the anger against them and the threat to consume them in an instant? If they too had rebelled like Korah and his band how could Moses and Aaron say ‘Shall you punish the entire congregation for one man’s sin?”[4] The answer he gives is that G-d had only intended to punish “the congregation of Korah” and not the entire community of Israel. However, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama writes that not all of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf yet there G-d also states that he would consume the entire nation. He concludes, “The individual is part of the whole; just as the whole man is sick even when only one part of his body is affected.”[5] This is related to the statement כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, all of Israel is responsible for one another.[6] We are not an assortment of individuals but rather one community, so if someone acts wrongly, it is our responsibility to correct it in that moment, הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך.[7]

How do we feel about this notion of collective punishment? We certainly have precedent for it in the Torah. After all the continuation of the 13 attributes of G-d reads פוקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים, “G-d revisits the sins of the fathers on their children and on the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”[8]  At the same time, we have the statement from Deuteronomy, “Parents shall not be put to death for the sins of children nor children for the sins of their parents: a person shall only be judged for his/her own crime.”[9] How do we reconcile the two? Some argue that collective punishment is necessary in order to truly wipe out evil, that by punishing not only the perpetrator but his/her entire household, we set an example that evil actions will not be tolerated, and we deter others from acting accordingly. Others assert that it is unjust to punish someone for a crime they did not commit and that we can only target the perpetrators.

How is evil best uprooted-through targeting everyone who is influenced by the evil or just those actively perpetuating it? Some would argue the former because just targeting terrorists and not their loved ones leaves alive those who have been motivated by their train of thought and who might very well commit an attack in the future. Others assert that we cannot collectively punish an entire group based off the actions of an individual terrorist. It is not for us to decide this question today but rather to recognize that in this case Moses did not propose attacking all of Israel, just taking out the ringleaders. At the same time, the way he and his closest followers were “taken out,” being swallowed up by the earth, set an example that stopped others from challenging Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. May we recognize the best approach to sweep out evil in our day and age and utilize this to build a community which serves the high ideals emphasized by our tradition.

[1] See Deuteronomy 13:6 and 17:7; Also Deuteronomy 17:12 for a reference to ובערת הרע מישראל.

[2] Based off Numbers 14:16

[3] Numbers 16:22

[4] Rabbenu Hananel on Numbers 16:22

[5] Akedat Yitzhak on Numbers 16:22

[6] Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a

[7] Leviticus 19:17

[8] Exodus 34:9. A contemporary understanding of this is that the children learn from the parents’ example, so they internalize their parents’ sins and perpetuate them onto the next generation.

[9] Deuteronomy 24:16

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