Parashah Ponderings

Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

Parashat Korach – Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

In Parashat Korach, Moses confronts an epic challenge. Korach, an ordinary Levite, a small band of followers, and 250 elected leaders “combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?'” (Numbers 16:3). In response, Moses instructs those who oppose him to appear with him and Aaron “before the Lord” the next morning bearing fire pans with incense. God would then resolve the issue: “… the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one” (16:7).

At the appointed time and place, Moses, Aaron, Korach, the small band and the elected leaders all gather “before the Lord” with their fire pans in hand. At that moment, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (16:32), and “a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense”(16:35). In this stunning fashion, God once again chose Moses and Aaron to lead the People of Israel.

This incident, known as Korah’s Rebellion, serves as the basis for the rabbis’ discussion in the Talmud of arguments that are or are not for the sake of heaven:

Every machloket (conflict) which is l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined to endure. And that which is not l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined not to endure. What is a machloket that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreements over Jewish law in the Talmud between Hillel and Shammai. What is a machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his cohorts. (Mishnah Avot 5:17)

This teaching raises several questions. What does it mean for an argument to “endure?” Wouldn’t it make sense for a “bad” conflict to endure but a “good” conflict to come to a tidy resolution? Why do the rabbis elevate the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai to the status of “for the sake of Heaven?” What exactly is wrong with the “dispute of Korach and his cohorts?” The answers to these questions are instructive in our lives, where conflict, which is inevitable, can either be positive and constructive or negative and destructive.

Hillel and Shammai represent two schools of rabbinic thought around the beginning of the first century of the common era, each of whose arguments on issues from ritual practice to the essence of Torah are recorded in the Talmud. What distinguishes the Hillel-Shammai disagreements and, thus, warrants the inclusion of each school’s positions in our sacred literature, is that Hillel and Shammai and their followers are searching for Truth. They are in dialogue over their understandings of God’s instruction as laid out in the Torah. They aren’t arguing just to prove a point, to build themselves up or to bring each other down. They are arguing over big ideas. In fact, they aren’t even so much rivals as partners in a sacred, ongoing effort to discern what God wants of us.

Not so with Korach and his ilk. They seek victory for victory’s sake. They seek power. There can be no greater good to their dispute, no higher purpose to perpetuating their struggle with Moses and Aaron. According to Nechama Leibowitz, a great and revered contemporary Torah scholar writes:

…that Korah and his followers “were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring [individual] personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron hoping thereby to attain their individual desires.” Eventually, ”they would quarrel among themselves, as each one strove to attain selfish ambitions….” They deserve their punishment, argues Leibowitz, because all their motives were self-serving, meant to splinter and divide the Jewish people. (See Studies in Bemidbar, pp. 181-185). (Fields, Harvey J. [1991].  A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Vol. Three: Numbers and Deuteronomy. New York, NY: UAHC Press, p. 50)

How often do we engage in or witness a debate in which one or more parties resembles Korach and his followers, arguing from a place of pride, ambition, and self-interest? Argumentation in such debates is often couched in noble terms. (Note that Korach hides his grab for power behind the pretext of caring for the holiness of “all the community.”) But don’t be fooled. The noble terms are merely a smoke screen or a tactic of manipulation. In the end, there is no higher purpose to such debates. They waste time and energy and may very well end only after a great deal of harm has been inflicted. To be sure, the Korach-like arguments in our lives should be avoided if at all possible.

It is interesting that Korach finds himself being swallowed up by the earth. It is not only his argument that is not for the sake of Heaven. He himself has degraded himself by his own actions. Neither he nor his argument is for the sake of Heaven. In the words of our parashah, “They went down alive into Sheol (the netherworld)” (16:33).

We must remember that, as tempting as it may be to lash out against those with whom we disagree and to seek their demise, holding hatred in our hearts and expending our resources vengefully usually comes at a huge price. Not only does our lust for power and our pettiness separate us potentially from our friends, family and community, it also affects our health, our daily functioning, and our self-image. Little good can come out of such conflict, save a degree – albeit even a large degree — of personal gratification.

On the other hand, legitimate, respectful, impassioned debate over big ideas may very well bring us into relationship with others, sharpen our minds, and give greater meaning to our lives. This is why argumentation is so valued in Jewish houses of study. As Jews, we belief that argumentation at its best is ultimately redemptive for all concerned.

Let us seek to emulate the ways of Hillel and Shammai as we find ourselves in conflict. Let us ask if what we are arguing for is ultimately about ourselves or if there is a larger, sacred purpose. Are we repeating the mistake of Korach and his associates? Or are we carrying on our sages’ legacy of sacred debate? If the former, let us consider if our short-term objectives are worth the longer-term destruction we may cause. In any case, let us stop and think before engaging in conflict and resolve to make all our debates l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.

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