Parashas Korach – How to Argue, The Kosher Way :
The bulk of this week’s sedra deals with the famous rebellion of Korach and his band of followers. Through their protest they attempted to overthrow Moshe and Aharon as the leaders of the nation and question the legitimacy of their appointment, a grave crime which ended with all of them being swallowed up by the Earth in a phenomenon created by Hashem to end the madness. So what happened here? How did this all start and what was the ikur of their dispute with the two great leaders.
In the opening line of this week’s sedra we are told that… “Korach… separated himself with Dathan and Abiram… and On” [16:1]. Straight away Rashi tells us that we are being put into the heat of a machlokes (dispute) with the word ‘ויקח/and he took’ describing how Korach placed himself at odds with the rest of the assembly with Dathan, Abiram and On to protest against Aharon’sassumption of the priesthood. Korach was not just a rebel without a cause, however, and he was a righteous man from good lineage. The Torah takes up text to describe that Korach was the “son of Yitzhar, son of Korath, son of Levi” [16:1]… clearly showing the chain back to the son of Yaakov. Korach therefore had this illustrious lineage in which he was from the Bnai Kehas family of Levim who were the most important of the Levite families. He was also of course the first cousin of Aharon and Moshe and according to the Midrash he had the very prestigious role as one of the carriers of the aron… but with all this the very intelligent and learned Korach was deeply offended that he had not been assigned by Moshe to undertake a prominent community position… one like Aharon’s, the Kohen Gadol. In gemara Pesachim (119a) we learn that the Korach was incredibly rich and this is said to have led him to have the terrible character trait of haughtiness. Consumed with desires for power and honour and blinded by jealousy of those who, as he saw it, were his equals and had attained higher ranks than he, Korach led a rebellion. From the first words that come out of Korach’s mouth we see his true intentions, he stated, “you have too much!” [16:3], implying he is challenging Moshe and Aharon’s personal power rather than his claim that the position should not exist altogether. What Korach’s basic argument was that Moshe and Aaron had no right to take for themselves the two highest positions in the nation since all Jews were equally holy. This quasi-socialist type argument naturally attracted the masses as most revolutionary concepts do, but unfortunately for Korach there was one key flaw in his proposal. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik Korach referred only to the communal, common holiness citing the truth that every Jew from the Kohen Gadol to the mere tailor is innately holy. What he failed to mention is that there is another aspect of holiness that depends on personal merit, the greater a person makes himself, the greater his degree of holiness. Moshe on the other hand spoke only of the individual chosen by G-d [16:5 and 16:7], trying to continuously talk sense into the Korach and the rebels and make them realise that they were not only disputing himself but also the word of Hashem.
What we see play out in the Torah is a fantastic example of how jealousy leads to madness. Parashas Korach doesn’t bring us just your standard machlokes over who deserves more respect or honour, it conveys to us a very serious dispute which goes much deeper than what it appears to be at first glance. In Rambam’s 13 principles of faith, the seventh declaration states that; “I believe with complete faith that the prophecy of our teacher, Moshe, peace be upon him, was true…”, this is one of the foundations of our belief as Jews! Through Korach rebelling he was attempting to delegitimise the position of Moshe as the spokesman of Hashem… from this it would have been a short step for him to deny the Divine origin of the commandments and hold them up to ridicule. If Moshe could be suspected, through Korach’s testimony, of appointing his brother as Kohen Gadol in an act of favouritism, the next step would have been for him to be accused of fabricating commandments that had no basis in logic and could therefore only be divinely given through Moshe… and this is exactly what we see. It is brought down in Midrashim that attired in blue garments, Korach and his followers presented themselves before Moshe and Aharon asking; “You commanded us to affix a techailes strand to our garments. We did better, we made garments entirely of techailes, do such garments still require techailes string or not?”. Korach’s aim was to ridicule the mitzvah and try to make it seem as though such an illogical requirement was surely invented by Moshe. Through his attack on the mitzvah of tzitzis he began to denigrate all the mitzvos and if there are any claims that Moshe added or subtracted to the mitzvahs then there is the risk that the whole Torah comes into dispute. Moshe was the most humble man that ever lived [12:3] and he defended himself through reassuring them that “כי לא מלבי/it was not from my heart”… as he did not invent anything or appoint Aharon, it was Hashem!! Although this was clearly spelled out to Korach, Dathan and Abiram, they were deluded to the point of no return and Hashem caused “the earth to open its mouth and swallow them” [16:32] which was a ‘מדה כנגד מדה/mida kaneged mida’ punishment for them opening their mouths against Hashem’s appointed one, Moshe. Another interesting ‘מדה כנגד מדה/mida kaneged mida’ I heard from my Rebbi is the fact that this form of punishment was a new creation by Hashem in response to Korach’s proposal for a new order for the nation.
There is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos [5:20] that states; “any machlokes leshem Shamayim (a dispute for the sake of Heaven) will in the end endure, but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure in the end. Which is a machlokes leshem Shamayim? This is the dispute between Hillel and Shammai and which is not a for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Korach and his assembly”. So what is the difference here between what the Mishnah is describing as a ‘kosher’ and a ‘non-kosher’ dispute or division? The general idea here is that there exists two types of disputes between people, the constructive one (leshem Shamayim) and the destructive one (not for the sake of Heaven). So the constructive one given over in our Mishnah is that of Hillel and Shammai who, though they had disputes regarding Halacha, they were not concerned with triumph but rather a sincere search for the truth in the exposition of the Torah. This is described by the Mishnah as ‘endurable’ as it will surely be used to positive effect to strive for the correct Halachic proceeding. The destructive machlokes of Korach and his assembly, however, was corrosive and tried to breed division for no positive goal, merely for honour and pride. We therefore see that their rebellion met a tragic end whereas the machlokes’s of Hillel and Shammai are still very much alive today, still being used to positive effect in order to distinguish Halacha. What we learn from this is that as Jews we love to argue and in fact we are able to, as long as it is done leshem Shamayim. When the ikur of one’s dispute has genuine roots in Torah or Mitzvahs then, as our Mishnah describes, they will endure in the end and will be constructive. Majority of learning done in Beis Midrashim worldwide is based on disputes, but when two chavrusas come together in machlokes for the sake of Heaven, absent of personal ambitions in honour… this is what makes the Torah wholesome according to the Vilna Gaon. The problems are present on the other end of the spectrum however, when one argues for the sake of his own honour, this ultimately won’t endure and will be a wholly destructive affair. How many friends and family fall out over menial issues and then don’t speak for years, forgetting what they even fell out over in the first place, just so that they can retain their own pride and not have to be the one to make up? In Parashas Korach we see a similar situation… having failed to sway the main instigator, Korach, Moshe summoned Dathan and Abiram in order to try and resolve the machlokes at hand, from this Rashi learns out that we must always seek to end controversy no matter how much honour we need to sacrifice. Surely Moshe was not obliged to go and make peace with these two trouble makers but this act of huge modesty teaches us how important it is to strive for peace between our fellows… and what happened to Dathan and Abiram when they refused to be summoned, saying, “we shall not go up!” [16:12]… they uttered an unwitting prophecy, for indeed they “descended alive to the pit” [16:33] when the Earth swallowed them up, never to go up to Heaven.
End all your destructive machlokeses today, and save the proper ones for the Beis Midrash as that is what is ultimately keeping the world running, “ leshem Shamayim”.
I hope everyone has a restful and enjoyable Shabbat and successful week ahead.
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)