“A Controversy with an Ignoble Purpose”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the rebellion that Korach led against Moses, Aaron and G-d.

Korach, who was Moses’ cousin, was resentful of the authority that Moses and Aaron had assumed for themselves and decided to rebel. He effectively appealed to the masses, trying to show that Moses and Aaron were unscrupulous usurpers of power and privilege.

Korach attracted followers from various disaffected groups: Among his followers were Datan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben, the tribe that had been replaced as the firstborn tribe of Israel by the tribe of Joseph, who received a double portion due the firstborn. Korach also gathered 250 distinguished people who were possibly disgruntled either because they were themselves Reubenites or were firstborns who had been replaced by the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle.

Our sages in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 5:17, state that any controversy that is for the sake of Heaven (that has a noble purpose) will result in abiding value. But, any controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven, shall not have abiding value. To clarify, the sages ask: Which controversy was one that had a noble purpose? The controversy between Hillel and Shamai. And which controversy had no noble purpose? The controversy of Korach and his collaborators.

The Mishna in Avot sheds much light on disputes in general, and on the dispute of Korach, in particular. What is the difference between a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven and one that is not for the sake of Heaven? A dispute for the sake of Heaven attempts to determine truth. Therefore, a key feature of a controversy with a noble purpose is one in which both sides of the issue in dispute receive a fair hearing. So, when the sage Hillel disputed with his rival, Shamai, both Hillel and Shamai’s opinions are cited. And although the decision is usually rendered according to the opinon of Hillel, the opinion of Shamai is always preserved and recorded for posterity in the Talmud because both sides seek truth.

This explains why the Mishna states that a noble dispute will result in abiding value. Since the dispute is intended to clarify the truth, not only will the truth abide forever, but all the arguments that were used to arrive at the truth will also be preserved. Judaism maintains that such disputes are of eternal value because, through the process of wrestling with the issues, we learn much. That is why, in Judaism, “doubt” is never considered heresy. Doubt, in fact, leads to questioning, which leads to truth.

Another element often seen in productive arguments is both sides respecting each other and remaining on good terms. Consequently, even though the houses of Hillel and Shamai had many major disputes, the Talmud, in Yevamot 14a, teaches that the houses of Shamai and the houses of Hillel never ceased to intermarry, proving that there was love, affection and respect between them.

On the other hand, when the controversy is not for a noble purpose, it is usually for the sake of domination, power seeking, achieving control or prevailing over one’s opponent.

Power seekers rarely get along among themselves. This important lesson that we learn specifically from this week’s parasha is emphasized by the unusual wording of the Mishna. The Mishna states that an example of a dispute for a noble purpose is the dispute “between Hillel and Shamai.” However, the example of a dispute for an ignoble purpose is referred to as “the dispute of Korach and his cohorts,” not Korach and Moses and Aaron, not Korach and G-d, but Korach and his followers.

Thus our rabbis learn that there were significant differences and substantial areas of dispute between Korach and his followers. That may be why the verses in the Torah (Numbers 16:1-2) group the protagonists separately: Korach, Datan and Abiram, On the son of Pelet and the 250 men of Israel. Furthermore, the Hebrew verb describing the initial action in the dispute is “V’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach, singular, took, instead of the plural verb “va’yik’choo” that they [Korach, Datan, Abiram, etc.] took. A singular verb is used because Korach and his cohorts were not united. In fact, they each had their own agenda and personal reasons for rebelling. The Gaon of Vilna says that Korach’s factions did not unite because their entire intent was to stir up controversy.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his studies on the weekly portion known as Hegyonah Shel Torah, explores the likely differences that there were between Korach and his cohorts. The 250 men basically had an issue with the leadership of Moses. After all, they say (Numbers 16: 3), “Koolam K’doshim,” all the people are holy! Why then should Moses and Aaron usurp so much authority for themselves?

However, says Rabbi Firer, the complaints of Datan and Abiram were far more insidious. When Moses invites them to come reason with him, they say (Numbers 16:12), “Lo Nah’ah’leh!” We will not go up. Furthermore, they complain (Numbers 16:13), “Ha’m’aht kee heh’eh’lee’tah’noo may’eretz zah’vat chalav ood’vash, lah’ha’mee’tay’noo ba’midbar?” Is it not enough that you [Moses and Aaron] have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey [referring to Egypt!] to cause us to die in the wilderness? Yet you seek even to dominate further! Moreover, say Datan and Abiram, You [Moses and Aaron] did not bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor give us a heritage of field and vineyard. Even if you would gouge out the eyes of those men, we shall not go up!

The issue of Datan and Abiram was far more intense than that of the 250 men. Their issue was not only with the authority of Moses and Aaron, their issue was with G-d. They maintained that it was not G-d who took the people out of Egypt, but rather Moses and Aaron. Datan and Abiram refused to recognize the sin of the scouts as the reason for their not being allowed to enter Israel, even after the scouts themselves and the people of Israel acknowledged that they were wrong. Datan and Abiram continued to believe that it was impossible to capture Canaan and that everything Moses did was of his own accord and for his own personal gain. He promised to lead the people out of Egypt to the “Promised Land,” but he never did. In fact, from Datan and Abiram’s perspective, Moses did not take the people out of slavery, he took them out of the wonderful fleshpots of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey! Hence, Datan and Abiram effectively denied G-d’s existence and G-d’s role in saving them from Egypt.

Therefore, notes Rav Firer, the punishment meted out to the 250 men was different than the punishment of Datan, Abiram and Korach. The 250 men died in fire, which is a punishment fit for rebels. On the other hand, Datan and Abiram were swallowed up alive when the earth opened, which is the equivalent of stoning, a punishment appropriate for those who deny G-d or worship idols.

While controversy is often destructive, when it is part of the process of seeking truth it is constructive and life-enhancing. Disputes that are conducted with mutual respect and for noble purposes result in much blessing.

May you be blessed.