Korach, carried away by jealousy, led two hundred fifty men in rebellion against Moshe and Hashem. These were all great individuals; they had all witnessed Moshe going up to Har Sinai to accept the Torah, and they all heard Hashem speak through Moshe. Yet they willfully and intentionally set out to depose Moshe – to prove he had veered off from that which Hashem had told him. Moshe, recognizing the danger they were placing themselves in, did everything he could to get them to back down. Nevertheless, they remained steadfast in their revolt, and marched to their destruction. In the end the entire congregation – man, woman, infant and child – died a terrible death.
Rashi explains that this teaches us how terrible machlokes (conflict) is. “Beis din (a Jewish court) doesn’t punish a person until he is thirteen years old. The heavenly tribunal doesn’t punish a person until he is twenty years old. Yet here, even the nursing infants were punished.”
This Rashi is very difficult to understand: Clearly, he is saying that the nursing babies were punished. Yet an infant doesn’t have premeditated thought. The infants were completely unaware of what was going on. How could they be punished?
The answer to this question requires a deeper understanding of some of the systems that Hashem uses to run the world.
Immutable Laws of Nature
Hashem created this world with immutable laws of nature. Gases tend to expand. Heat tends to rise. Heavy objects tend to fall. These laws are the bedrock foundation of this world that govern all of physicality throughout the cosmos. These laws, however, are neither cruel nor kind. For instance, if a baby is left unattended on a changing table and falls, he will be injured. The result may be tragic, but we wouldn’t accuse gravity of being heartless. Gravity doesn’t judge and it doesn’t decide. It is a fact – a part of reality.
Just as Hashem created laws that govern the physical world, so too He created laws that govern the spiritual world. These as well are specific and exact, and have real consequences.
One of these laws is din (justice). The basic tenet of din is accountability – simple and unadulterated. You are responsible for what you do.
However, while din loosely translates as justice, it is quite different from man’s understanding of what is just and proper. Din is very exacting. It makes no room for mitigating circumstances. If something comes about through an action of yours, you are responsible whether you intended it or not or whether you recognized the consequences or not.
Din is just. Din is appropriate. If you are to be rewarded for what you have done right, you should be punished for what you have done wrong. Before Hashem created the world, He considered (if it could be) creating it with the middas ha’din (strict justice) in operation. However, if this system were in place, no man could survive.
Mesillos Yesharim (Perek 4) explains that if din were in force, any sin a man might commit would bring about one result – his immediate death. The Kings of Kings said not to do X, and you violated His wishes! The consequence of any transgression would be death, immediate and irrevocable. And so the world couldn’t exist.
Therefore, Hashem created the world using the middas harachamim – the system of mercy. Rachamim introduces mitigating factors into the equation – you have to take into account who the person is, where he is coming from, what he was going through at the time, etc. When taken in context, what the person did isn’t as egregious. Keeping in mind everything else that was going on at the time, what he did is more understandable. And now a person is given leeway. He’s given time to understand the gravity of his actions, and the concept of teshuvah is possible.
The result is that the operating principle in our world is compassion. Justice, however, cannot be ignored. So both rachamim and din are in existence, and both have their say. The balance between them, however, can change. Envision a slide rule, with din on one side and rachamim on the other. The slide can be moved so that more of one or the other is introduced into the equation. If an average day might be 50/50, there are some days with more mercy, like Yom Kippur, which is a day of forgiveness. The person doesn’t change, and the act doesn’t change, but the system of judgment changes, and that change makes all the difference in the world.