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The fine line between a kosher and a non-kosher dispute

Written by d fine

Parshas Korach; The Fine Line of Dispute :

With the number of psukim in our sedra being equivalent to the numerical value of my name, I feel a certain connection to parshas Korach (or perhaps it’s because I’m just argumentative!). Our sedra deals principally with the rebellion of Korach and his band of not-so-merry 250 men, who challenge the legitimacy of Moshe and Aharon’s leadership roles. The ‘rebels’ are eventually zapped (well, Korach is swallowed by the ground,[1] whilst his 250 followers are cooked by a Divine fire). We are going to put Korach and his argument under the microscope and see what we can spot.

We shall open with two questions. The Midrash cited in Rashi[2] reveals to us the reason for Korach’s discontent. Elitzafan had been appointed the prince, whilst Korach felt that he was in line for this honour. The Kedushas Halevi asks that Elitzafan was appointed when the Jews were at Har Sinai; why did Korach wait until now to pick an argument? Our second question is a bit more subtle. The Midrash (again quoted by Rashi)[3] reports that Korach posed two ‘halachic’ questions in his challenge to Moshe’s leadership. Korach first asked ‘does a tallis (begged) which is fully coloured in techeles need four techeles strings as well?’ and continued to ask ‘does a house which is full of holy sefarim need a mezuzah on the door as well?’ As Rabbeinu Bachaye explains, Korach was not only trying to challenge the system of law in trying to point out (what he felt were) ‘logical inconsistencies’ in Moshe’s teachings, but he was conveying a deeper message too. He was comparing Klal Yisrael to a techeles tallis begged and to holy sefarim and insinuating that since all Bnei Yisrael are holy, they do not need a leader (16:3) – they do not need any extra techeles strings or a mezuzah at the front; both of which represent leadership. In fact, the Midrash[4] reveals that the 250 rebels had a special ‘rebelling kit;’ they came to Moshe wearing talleisim coloured techeles (Manchester City kit perhaps?!). We shall ask a picky question here: why is it necessary to tell us that Korach chose two ways of conveying his challenge (the tallis and mezuzah); why not one line of argument?

So in short: why wait until now to argue and why chose two lines of argument?
Being Jewish and all, we shall answer with a (final) question – one which arises from a simple, cursory reading of the opening few psukim of the sedra. Korach argues (16:3) ‘the entire congregation is holy and HaShem is within them, why do you (Moshe and Ahraon) rule over HaShem’s congregation?’ Yet Moshe’s response is ‘in the morning HaShem will make it that…the one He chooses will offer to Him.’ Moshe does not seem to be responding to Korach’s case whatsoever; Korach says there should be no leadership, and Moshe tells Korach that tomorrow HaShem will choose the true leader. What’s going on here?

The answer is that Moshe was responding to Korach; he was responding to Korach’s true motivations. The gemarra[5] tells us that Korach’s wealth caused him to have a build-up of self-centredness, which made him want the leadership for himself. What this means is that Korach acted under the guise of arguing against the notion of leadership, but what he really wanted was the leadership for himself. Moshe knew this, and realised that Korach really wanted to be leader himself; and so he responded precisely to Korach’s real underlying claim. This is really the message being conveyed by the above Midrashim; Korach proposed to argue against the notion of leadership (hence the techeles and mezuzah arguments), but it was his being shunned in favour of Elitzafan for the princehood that motivated him to stir up an argument; he had selfish motives which were certainly not ‘for the sake of Heaven.’ It is with this principle in mind that we move towards answering our opening two questions.

There are fine lines between a dispute ‘for the sake of Heaven’ and one for selfish motives (we’ll speak later about how to detect them) – for our purposes, we shall call them constructive and destructive arguments. Some disputes are genuinely necessary and constructive, (picture an argument about the best form of education for one’s child) whilst others are selfish and destructive (insert your own picture). One way of knowing whether your dispute is constructive or selfishly-motivated is the ability to wait before arguing. If you can’t delay your dispute, then it is probably motivated by selfish desires, but if you can hold back for a bit and delay your dispute, chances are that the dispute is constructive and ‘for the sake of Heaven’. One Rabbi used to wait three days before telling off any of his children in order to make sure that he was not acting out of any personal conviction whatsoever; that he was rebuking the child purely for the child’s sake. We asked why Korach delayed his argument from Har Sinai to now.[6] The answer is that Korach was fooling others (and perhaps himself too) into believing that his argument was ‘for the sake of Heaven;’ he made sure that he delayed his argument to give it that heir of genuineness and selflessness /constructiveness. Another indicator as to whether a dispute is constructive or destructive is whether one ‘over-argues.’ If one uses more arguments that necessary, chances are that one’s motivations are personal; it’s probably not a ‘dispute for the sake of Heaven.’ Rav Pinkus used to stress this latter indicator; if one starts adding to the argument and bringing up past history (‘why did you not come on time? You did not come on time last week or the week before either‘), then the argument is probably destructive and personal. This is why the Midrash tells us that Korach used two forms of argument (mezuzah and tallis), for it is conveying to us that Korach ‘over-argued;’ it was a destructive dispute not for the sake of Heaven.

So far so good. Korach had selfish motivations and dressed them up in selfless clothing; claiming to argue against the concept of leadership. We learn this from the two Midrashim cited above, as well as from Moshe’s response to Korach. This approach also helps to answer another issue. You will notice that the manner of death of Korach is different from that of his 250 tallis-clad followers. Korach is swallowed up by the earth along with his possessions (16:32), whilst his followers are consumed by a Divine fire (16:35). Why this discrepancy? The Netziv[7] points out that the motivation of the 250 followers was drastically different to that of Korach himself (and Datan & Aviram). The 250 followers did act for the sake of Heaven; they honestly wanted to be Kohannim purely out of a desire to serve HaShem in a more direct way – and they were willing to die for this cause. Their only (fundamental) mistake was that they tried to jump to a level that was not meant for them. As a ‘mark of respect’ HaShem personally sent His fire to consume them – this shows that they were of a certain spiritual level to ‘merit’ such a direct death. But Korach was acting out of selfish motivations, spurred on by the influence of his wealth, and so he received a less noble death, and his possessions – the cause of his downfall and of this destructive dispute- had to go down with him.

There is a fine line between a constructive dispute and a negative dispute. The Chidushei HaRim notes that had Korach passed his test and withheld himself from dispute, he would have been given the (new) position of ‘Head of the Leviim,’ mirrored by Aharon’s position as ‘Head of the Kohannim.’ In fact, it is so fine that we often con ourselves into thinking that a dispute is constructive/selfless when it is really the opposite. How can we work out whether the dispute is selfless or personal? We have already mentioned two indicators; whether one can delay the dispute for a bit, and whether one ‘over-argues.’ A third vital indicator is whether the argument stands up to the test of objective logic; if not, then it is probably a veiled personal attack as opposed to a constructive dispute for the sake of Heaven. Indeed, if we look at Korach’s argument, it made no sense objectively. The Chidushei HaRim asks why Korach picked on an argument that Moshe was ‘raising himself over the kahal of HaShem’(16:3) if HaShem had said Himself that Moshe was the most humble person that lived (12:3); if Korach is going to make something up against Moshe why pick something that is blatantly untrue? The Chidushei HaRim answers that this is the power of a selfish dispute; nobody thinks straight and anything goes as ‘truth.’ Similarly does the Midrash Tanchuma[8] relate that Korach told his followers a story that Moshe and Aharon took terumah, peah, etc from the field of a widow all for themselves and eventually left her with nothing. Korach told this story despite it being impossible for terumah to occur in the desert; nobody owned land there and nothing grew! Indeed, the Ishbitzer Rebbe[9] points out that Korach argued that he was of such a spiritually lofty level that he did not need to wear techeles whatsoever. It is clear that these arguments to not pass the test of objective logic, and are thus indicative of their quintessential self-centred origins as an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven.

The point here is to examine one’s motivations carefully before embarking on any dispute. The Chofetz Chaim[10] cites that it is a biblical prohibition to be like Korah and his followers to stir up machlokes like they did. In fact, Shabbos is a particularly important day to work on this trait of not causing machlokes. Firstly, for Chazal[11] tell us that there is a special spiritual power which tries to stir up arguments and strife on Erev Shabbos. Furthermore, the Zohar understands one level of the pasuk[12] ‘one must not kindle fire in all of your dwellings on the day of Shabbos’ to refer to destructive dispute; one must not incite destructive dispute (fire) on the sacred day of Shabbos.

Have a great (argument-free) Shabbos!

[1] See Sanhedrin 110a for a debate as to how Korach died

[2] Midrash Rabbah 18:2 cited in Rashi Bamidbar 16:1

[3] Midrash Rabbah 18:3 cited in Rashi Bamidbar 16:1

[4] Midrash Rabbah 18:3

[5] Gemarra Pesachim 119a

[6] The Kedushas Levi answers that Korach thought that after Mattan Torah the Jewish People would go into Eretz Yisrael imminently and the positions of princes would be removed anyway. It was not until after the sin of the spies, when Korach realised that there would be a further forty years of princehood, that Korach became incensed at Elitzafan’s appointment.

[7] Netziv, Ha’amek Davar Bamidbar 16:1

[8] Heard from Rav Osher Weiss

[9] Mei HaShiluach, parshas Korach

[10] Mishna Brura 156:3

[11] See gemarra Gittin 52a

[12] Shemos 35:3

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