Many people enjoy a good argument. It helps clarify the issues, it creates a passion, challenges the mind and stimulates the heart. Much of the development of Judaism was through machlokes. Arguments were never considered a tragedy. I can remember being challenged to memorize every argument between Abaye and Rava in the first chapter of Bava Metziah. Rashi’s grandchildren dedicated their lives to arguing with their grandfather, and the tradition continues until today. So what was the problem with Korach?
There is a Mitzvah derived from this weeks Parsha. “It is forbidden to sustain an argument, as it is written, ‘…and you shall not be like Korach’.”
Korach was a great man. He was considered a very holy man, one of the carriers of the Holy Ark. He was a great scholar too. He attracted a prestigious group of 250 princes, presidents, people of fame and honor. Datan and Aviram, Moshe Rabbeinu’s opponents from way back in the slavery days in Egypt, were there too. He stood up and challenged the leadership of Moses. The entire community stood by, watching in silence as a controversy grew. People were confused. Probably many were rooting for Korach in their hearts but were afraid to speak out. He had a point. He seemed to be more democratic, “for the entire congregation is holy and Hashem is amongst them! So then, why do you [Moshe and Aharon] raise yourselves above the community of Hashem”. This all seems acceptable, even healthy. So what was the problem with Korach?
The key concept here is sustaining an argument “lehachzik”. Credibility depends on the motive of the arguer. Everyone is entitled to articulate his or her point of view. Everyone, certainly a man of Korach’s stature, is entitled to question leadership. But, there comes a point in a debate where it becomes obvious that the argument is not for the sake of truth but for argument’s sake. When you argue to win, not to reach truth, you automatically lose. Besides losing the argument, one violates a mitzvah of the Torah.
The argument between Hillel and Shamai was an argument for the sake of Heaven. The argument of Korach and his people was an argument for personal gain. (Avos 5)
In an argument that is for the sake of Heaven, both parties are interested only in discovering the truth. Each one is praying to know the truth, each one is perfectly open to being proven wrong. The issue is not to win the argument, but rather to discover the truth. This was not the case in Korach’s rebellion.
The Talmud (Eiruvin 13) asks: If Hillel and Shamai were both arguing for G-d’s sake why does the Halacha remain with Hillel? The Talmud answers that there was a difference between the school of Hillel and the school of Shamai. When someone would ask a member of Beit Shamai for halachic advice, he would state his opinion only. However, when someone would ask a member of Beit Hillel for halachic advice, he would offer his opinion and the opinion of Beit Shamai. And not only that, he would state Shamai’s opinion first!
Although impressive from a mentchlichkeit point of view, this does not seem to answer the question. Maybe the students of Hillel were nicer, gentler and warmer than those of Shamai’s Yeshiva down the street but how does that prove that Hillel had the truth?
The Talmud is teaching us a monumental lesson. If two people are arguing and they both sound right, they both sound true, how do we choose the right opinion to follow? The answer is, we should listen carefully and choose the opinion that considers his opponent’s position first. The person with the truth is the person who is able to fathom that perhaps his opponent is truer than he is. This can be explained mystically, psychologically, logically or ethically. But any way you explain it brings out the same point. The person who doesn’t need to be right is probably the person who is right.
This chapter of the Torah should give us all cause for pause. In our Synagogues and in our communities, if we have something to say – we must say it. We must always question and even argue – for the sake of Heaven. But the moment we feel we must be right, we are probably wrong. “Don’t be like Korach…”
We often obsess about those who have no place for us or our style of Judaism in their world. We are upset at the narrow-mindedness of those who cannot tolerate our derech in Yiddishkeit. Yet perhaps at times we are guilty of the same racist sin. Perhaps we feel that our brand of Torah and our priorities are so in order, that our tolerance level is so high, that we become intolerant of anyone who is less tolerant than us! It’s not about who is more to the right and who is more to the left. Truth is on the side of the humble and of those who are always ready to grow. If we can give equal or more respect to our opponents then there is a chance that we are on the right side – if not, who knows?