This week’s sidrah (Torah reading) deals with the machlokes (dispute) between Korach, his followers and Moshe. Bnei Yisrael were warned by Moshe to stay away from Korach and his congregation.
“And Moshe spoke to the congregation saying, ‘Turn away now from the tents of these wicked men and do not touch anything that belongs to them lest you be destroyed for all their sins.'”
The Ramban raises the question as to why in certain places the Torah is very explicit in instructing the non-punished to stay away from those who are being punished. (Indeed, when the city of Sedom was destroyed, and Lot’s wife erred in looking back to witness the destruction of her city, she was instantly turned to a pillar of salt.) It seems, then, that this prohibition of witnessing the punishment of the evil is very serious, and those who disobey it can suffer dismal consequences.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemini 11) helps to understand this concept:
There once was a Talmudic student who was a pious man, yet whose father was an alcoholic. Many times, he would fall down in the street in drunkenness, whereupon the children would come and pelt him with sticks and stones and chant after him “look at the drunk!” His pious son was so ashamed of his father’s situation that one day he approached him with a compromise. “Father,” he said, “if you promise me that from now on you will not go to the taverns to get drunk, thereby discrediting our family and bringing disgrace upon yourself, then I will undertake to supply you with the best wines, so that you may drink at home to your heart’s desire.” His father agreed to this arrangement, and so, every night, the pious son would arrive at his father’s house with an ample supply of wine and food, and would leave the house only after tucking his intoxicated father into bed.
One rainy day, the pious son was walking to shul when he came upon a drunkard lying in the street. The rain beat down upon him, and the children were hitting him with sticks and stones and throwing earth upon his face and into his mouth. He said to himself, “Let me go now and bring my father here, that he may see once and for all the disgrace and humiliation of the drunkard. Maybe then he will learn his lesson.” And so he did, he led his father to the spot. “Observe,” he said, “how the drunken man looks. Isn’t it disgraceful!”
Undeterred, the father turned to the drunkard. “Tell me, my friend, which tavern do you frequent to have attained such a blissful state of drunkenness?”
From this story, says Rav Eliyahu Dessler, it is obvious that witnessing the punishment of the wicked has the potential either to elevate a person, or to attract him to the very sin which has brought the punishment upon the sinner. Which effect it will have depends on the character of the observer. The father was still attracted to alcohol, so when he saw the drunkard lying in the street, it merely served to remind him of the pleasures of drinking. His pious son had no attraction to drinking, so for him witnessing the disgrace of the drunkard served to reinforce his scorn for drink.
Seeing punishment can arouse in a person the memory of the pleasure derived from doing that sin. Thus, unless a person is totally removed from desire towards that particular sin, it is very dangerous for him to witness the punishment of a sinner or to dwell upon the details of his transgression.
This was so, explains Rav Miller of Gateshead, in the case of Lot. He had been wicked together with the people of Sedom; observing their retribution had the power to arouse within him the memory of the sin, and the punishment would then descend upon him too, as happened with his wife. Similarly, Bnei Yisrael were forbidden to have any contact with the posessions of Korach’s assembly when he was punished. They too were tainted with his sin, for he had incited them to rebel against Moshe. Thus the thoughts of sin still dormant within them could easily have been aroused, and they too would suffer his punishment.
It is a popular trend nowadays to publicize all of the contemptible sins of the most wicked people in graphic detail. People justify their interest in these gory facts, saying that they want to “see just how low a person can get”, and to proclaim the repulsiveness of their sins. A person can be found following the details of the most sickening case, dreading to miss even the smallest fact. Afterward he will remark, “See what happens to a person if he doesn’t have the Torah!” – as if that statement justifies the hours he has spent hungrily devouring every last detail. In truth, Baruch Hashem, Torah Jews are infinitely distant from the corruption of such sinners, yet we ourselves are not totally free from the taint of sin. To counteract this, we have to separate ourselves more and more from any connection which could possibly arouse in us impure thoughts. Through separation, we achieve kedushah (holiness), and come closer to Hashem.