Korach: For Heaven’s Sake

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08 Jun 2010

A well known mishna frames our parsha – the classic section of the Korach dispute [Pirkei Avot, 5:20]

Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven [l’sheim shomaym], will in the end endure. Any dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. – Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes of the Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation.

Korach then, is the paradigm of an unheavenly dispute. Cloaked under a mask of righteousness and concern for the masses, [“for the whole community is holy!” Bamidbar, 16:3] Korach is ultimately in it for Korach’s glory1.

Hillel and Shammai occupy the opposite pole. Ego knocks not at their door. Classic Hillel stories bespeak his humility [cf. Shabbos 31]. Of Shammai, whom errantly receives a bad curmudgeonly knock, simply consider that his life’s mantra was greet everyone with a pleasant countenance and that [according to one Talmudic position] in practice, Beis Shammai followed Hillel’s dictates, an act of total and remarkable abnegation. To the extent that I am not the issue, then the quest for truth becomes real and enduring. Thus Hillel, Shammai and their students’ words echo forever in every place that Torah is studied.

Herein then, is the equation: More ego, less shomayim [heaven]; Less ego, more shomayim.

A Talmudic line sharply expresses this notion:

R. Chisda say in the name of Mar Ukba: Of him who slanders, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: He and I cannot live together in the world, as it is said: Whoso slanders his neighbor in secret, will I destroy; whoso is haughty of eye and proud of heart, him will I not suffer. Do not read: ‘Otho [him] will I not suffer’, but ‘Itto [with him] can I not suffer [to be together]’. Some refer this to the arrogant.

In our own disputes, [I suspect] that most of us are probably somewhere in between Korach and Hillel/Shammai.

Yet, not all is simple with this Mishna. An obvious asymmetry confounds: First, it lists Hillel and Shammai – they are the antagonists. Then the mishna lists Korach and his group. Ostensibly, they are on the same side!? The proper formulation, it would seem, should be Korach and Moshe.

It is a famous question with several popular answers2.

A well known insight recorded in Chasam Sofer’s name points out that Korach and his group were internally fragmented. Korach wants the tribe of Levi to remain ascendant, – and then he wants to be in control of it. Korach’s eidah according to many, are the first- born [Ramban/Ibn Ezra] who were switched out of the Temple service. They want to be back in; the levi’im should be forced out. That which Korach wants [to lead the most important tribe] is ultimately anathema to his congregation. Indeed, according to Rashi, each of the 250 men wants to be the Kohen Gadol [High Priest]. Korach and his congregation are an implosion waiting to happen!

Only one thing unites Korach and the bechorim: their opposition to Moshe – for in his authority, lay their will prevented.

What emerges is a classic manifestation of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” syndrome and a potent definition for a machloket shelo l’sheim shamayim. An unheavenly dispute is marked by shallow unity and deep internal conflict, reminding us of the wise strategic comment made by Lord Acton that in the world of foreign policy, there are no permanent allies – only permanent interests. Alas, foreign policy is meant to be strategic while the Torah bespeaks ultimate values!

And what of those paragons of heavenly dispute, Hillel and Shammai? Certainly, it must be the total antithesis. While separated by external dispute, a deep internal unity binds them forever.

Make no mistake; they argue about issues of major import. Witness the following Talmudic comment [Yevamos 14a]:

Come and hear: Although Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a perutah and the value of a perutah,

One whom Beis Shammai deems a mamzer, Beis Hillel would marry! And yet their unity far outstrips their divide:

Beis Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beis Hillel, nor did Beis Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beis Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, Love ye truth and peace.

A classic heavenly dispute [machloket l’sheim shamayim] must be marked with the obvious external conflict but adorned with deep unity A famous piece of Talmud expresses this notion poetically: [Kiddushin 30b]

Said R. Hiyya b. Abba, Even father and son, master and disciple, who study Torah at the same gate become enemies of each other; yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other, for it is written, Wherefore it is said it, the book of the wars of the Lord, love is be-sufah; read not ‘be-sufah’ but ‘be-sofah’.

The oyevim become ohavim, the antagonists become lovers. That which unites them is their desire to understand Hashem’s word; they might argue on the not so petty details – but they are one in their desire to know the One.

Leading one to wonder, if it happens that people aren’t closer after their Torah-war, maybe it was not pure Torah they were fighting for – but some unpleasant admixture thereof.

A final cautionary note: Those daf yomi people just covered the classic dispute between R. Eliezer and the sages: It’s very famous and concludes on a troubling note. [Bava Metzia 15b]

Very briefly, R. Eliezer and the sages have a dispute about the ritual impurity of an oven that is not fully bonded. R.Eliezer believes it is pure and proves his point from an uprooted carob tree, a stream which reverses course and the walls of the study hall that move upon his say-so. The Sages are nonplussed. R Eliezer pulls out the heavy artillery, evokes a Heavenly voice affirm his correct stance. The Rabbis remain firm, declaring:

‘It is not in heaven… : the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

And what is Hashem’s reaction to this remarkable dialogue:

Ka chayach v’amar nitzchuni banai, nitzchuni banai – Hashem was smiling and saying: my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.

It all seems so beautiful. And yet …

In the end [and you have to read it yourself for all the fascinating details] Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated and deeply hurt by the subsequent ban placed upon him – which ultimately causes the untimely demise of Rabban Gamliel, the head of Sanhedrin [and his brother in law]. How can this happen? The story requires great study.

One tepid comment that I offer with great reticence and fear [and hope to be proven wrong] to perhaps explain this story:

Even a machloket that commences for the sake of heaven can turn personal.

We must always be on guard.

May Hashem bring peace upon His people and in the world.

1 It is critical to point out that Chazal consider Korach to be a very great man and wonder where he went wrong. Cf. Rashi, 16:1 s.v. v’Dasan

2 Cf. Midrash Shmuel ad loc. for several approaches

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.