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Weekly Parasha: Korah & The Intention Behind Disputes

0 Comments 17 June 2014

Judaism cherishes a good argument– so why is Korah punished so harshly in his dispute with Moses?  In Parashat Korah, Rabbi Ehud Bandel shows us the intent that must be at the heart of all disputes– the serving of God and heaven, and the honest pursuit of truth. Korah reminds all of us who question the world around us that we must always do so for the sake of heaven, and never for the sake of power.


IMAGE: The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram by Gustave Dore CC-Wikipedia

By Rabbi Ehud Bandel

At first sight, Korah’s complaint to Moshe seems quite reasonable. How can we, who believe in pluralism and democracy, object to the noble idea that “All the community are holy”?

And yet, Jewish tradition sees Korah’s rebellion as the archetype of “Machloket sh’eina l’s hem shamayim” – a dispute not for the sake of Heaven. The Midrash portrays Korah as the classic example of a demagogue – of someone who uses an over-righteous rhetoric to oppose Moshe’s leadership and to gain power. Even if his argument may seem valid, his motivation nevertheless is dishonest and ill oriented.

The dispute itself is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with a genuine debate. On the contrary, Jewish culture is based on dispute. We became “Am Yisrael” – the Jewish people, the moment our father Yaakov had the courage to stand up and wrestle even with God. “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29). Jewish tradition values the dispute. Every page of the Talmud is based on disagreements and disputes amongst the rabbis.

The question is what motivates people to engage in the dispute? In Pirkei Avot we learn:

“Any dispute which is for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim), will endure while any dispute which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What (is an example) of a dispute which is for the sake of heaven? The dispute(s) of Shammai and Hillel. And (what is an example) of a dispute which is not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korah and his associates” (Avot 5:19)

Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (1445-1524), in his commentary to the Mishna, explains that a dispute which is aimed to reach the truth is indeed a dispute for heaven’s sake which will endure, while a dispute which is only motivated by the quest for dominance and honour will not endure.

Other commentators have noted the language of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “Machloket Korah v’adato – the dispute of Korah and his associates.” Shouldn’t it say the dispute of Korah and Moshe – who are the two opposing sides – like Hillel and Shammai?

Members of the Shabi family and actvists protest for public housing and to show solidarity with the Shabi family, which was evicted from her house and now lives in a park, in the city of Petach Tikva, July 23, 2013. Photo by: Oren Ziv/ cc: flickrThe Malbim – Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (1809-1879) explains this by saying that in the case of a genuine dispute for the sake of Heaven, each side is indeed united internally because they all have one goal – to serve God. However in a dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven, the only thing that binds one side to the dispute is their opposition to the other. Their gathering is motivated only by negative feelings against the other. There is nothing positive that binds them together; therefore even internally there is a controversy and discord among them.

There is another Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, (4:14) which uses almost an identical language:

“Rabbi Yohanan Ha-Sandlar taught: Every assembly whose purpose is to serve God (L’shem Shamayim) will in the end be established; but every assembly whose purpose is not for God’s sake, will not in the end be established”.

All of us who are engaged in communal life must always remember that our assembly will be established and endure only if it is indeed bound by positive motivation – L’shem Shamayim – for the sake of Heaven.

Shabbat shalom!

IMAGE: Protest for public housing in solidarity with the Shabi family. Photo by: Oren Ziv/ cc: flickr

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