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July 4th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

On June 28, 1863, Samuel Goodwin Stout wrote a letter to his mother from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He was 20 years old and bursting with the optimism and adrenaline of a young Confederate soldier.

“Dear Mother,” he began, “I can inform you that I am well at this time, and I hope those lines will find you all well. We have been through Maryland, and we are now going through Pennsylvania. But we don’t think that we shall get far into Pennsylvania before we shall get into a fight. But we are all in good spirit. We have got a strong army with us—we have got 122,000 now across the Potomac.”

Days later, Samuel was on the battlefield at Gettysburg. It was one of the bloodiest days of the Civil War, often cited as the turning point of the conflict. There were approximately 51,000 casualties—killed, wounded, captured, or missing—23,000 from the Union Army and 28,000 from the Confederate Army.

Samuel survived that dreadful day and, against the odds, survived the Civil War, dying in 1919 at the age of 75. But the positive spirit he displayed during the early part of the conflict, evident in his letter home, quickly disappeared, and by the time the war was over, he was damaged goods. Indeed, Samuel’s early letters were filled with zeal and a sincere belief in the cause he was fighting for, but as the war dragged on, the tone of his letters shifted dramatically. The eager participant was transformed into a war-weary young man, deeply affected by the brutal realities of conflict.

On February 10, 1864, he wrote a letter brimming with dejection: “I see no cessation of it. Now only to look to the all-wise and merciful God for peace, and that is the only way we are to have peace anyway. We have to give in to a higher power than Jefferson Davis or General Lee to end this horrible conflict in which we are struggling.” The idealism had faded, replaced by a longing for the war’s end and a divinely inspired return to peace.

The American Civil War is often referred to as the “War of Brothers.” This evocative phrase captures what was undoubtedly the most devastating aspect of this horrific conflict: that the war pitted family members and close friends against each other. It was truly a “Milchemet Achim” – the Hebrew phrase for civil war.

Stories abound of brothers fighting on opposite sides, like the Terrill brothers, James Barbour Terrill, a brigadier general for the Confederate army, and William Rufus Terrill, a brigadier general for the Union Army. Both were killed in battle. Another Terrill brother, Philip Mallory of the Confederate 12th Virginia Cavalry, was also killed in battle.

Every American family was somehow affected. The eager letter writer Samuel Goodwin Stout’s great-great-grandson is Mike Wise, the award-winning Washington Post sportswriter. While researching his family, Wise discovered that another ancestor, his great-great-great-grandfather Tilman Settles, was a Union Army corporal, killed by Confederates while walking back to his Missouri home in December 1861.

The impact of such a deeply personal conflict cannot be overstated. Families were torn apart, friendships shattered, and communities divided. The war forced individuals to confront loved ones as enemies, challenging their loyalties and convictions. This internal division was more devastating than any external threat could have been.

The emotional and psychological toll was immense, leaving scars that would last for generations. The Civil War’s legacy of bitterness and animosity lingered long after the last shot was fired, evidence of the profound damage caused by internecine strife. Unlike other conflicts that are fought against foreign adversaries, this war was fought within the national family, making the violence and suffering all the more personal and tragic.

In every epoch of human history, division and discord within societies and national groups have often paved the way for the most harmful consequences. The American Civil War may have been triggered by disagreements on states’ rights and slavery, but it was the tearing apart of a nation not yet a century old that left the deepest scars.

The memory of the blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg and Antietam act as grim reminders of what happens when a society turns against itself. But beyond the battlefield, it underscores a critical point: countries and societies are much more vulnerable to collapse because of internal strife than they are from external enemies. It wasn’t an invading force that brought the United States to the brink of destruction – it was its own internal divisions.

The theme of internal division resonates profoundly in the Torah portion of Korach. The story of Korach’s rebellion is one of the most distressing narratives in the entire Torah. Korach, a Levite, led a coup against his first cousins Moshe and Aaron, challenging their leadership and looking to overthrow them with the help of a group of malcontents, all of whom were part of the Jewish nation. As such, Korach’s challenge was more than just a power struggle – it was an insidious attack on the unity of the Israelite people.

In his writings, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks often reflects on the grave danger posed by fraternal strife, drawing from various episodes in the Book of Genesis, such as the conflicts between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. He notes that these narratives highlight how sibling rivalry and internal discord lead to devastating consequences, which he says is the reason the Torah gives these stories so much attention.

As Rabbi Sacks puts it, “The greatest challenge to humankind is not the stranger, but the brother. Peace in the world begins with peace at home.”

Korach’s rebellion is a stark reminder from the dawn of Jewish history of the dangers of internal division, illustrating how internal discord can threaten our stability in ways that no other threat can. The rebellion against Moshe and Aaron by their cousin was more dangerous than any external threat the Israelites faced in the wilderness, as it came from within and sought to destabilize the core of their society.

The narrative of Korach’s rebellion concludes with a dramatic and divine resolution: the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his immediate family, and a fire consumes his 250 princely followers as they offer up incense (Num. 16:31-35). This powerful and terrifying punishment is intended to indicate the severity of the sin of causing and perpetuating division within the community.

We are living through a critical time in our history, when the threat of “Milchemet Achim” is very real, and probably poses the greatest danger we have faced as Jews for millennia.

The intensifying split between Jews in the Diaspora who have taken to using Israel as a punching bag, and the Jewish community in Israel, is deeply worrying. The factionalization of Israeli society, with the rifts that exist between right and left, religious and secular, haredim and non-haredim, are far more worrying than the threats from our enemies.

Divided we fall, but united – not only do we stand, but we thrive beyond our dreams. Let us take on board the lessons of Parshat Korach, and learn from the devastation caused by the American Civil War. Rather than focus our energies on fanning the flames of division, we must use all our resources to find the common ground that can give us the foundation for a future full of light and hope.

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