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For Heaven's Sake

06/22/2017 01:33:50 PM


Korah is one of the most remarkable villains in the Bible.   He is a Levite, who gathers a diverse coalition of rebels against the existing leaders, his cousins Moses and Aaron.   It is a rag-tag bunch, including representatives of the tribe of Reuven, assorted princes and levites.  Indeed, the group is so diverse that modern scholars propose that this could not have been a single rebellion, but rather that several different revolts have been condensed into one story.   That proposal need not be true- deeper clues in the story indicate something deeper about the nature of dissent and discontent.
Korach and his followers, who are eventually swallowed up by the earth, or consumed by fire, might seem to be an object lesson that  dissatisfaction with leadership, and disagreement within a community, are wrong, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, Pirkei Avot 5:17  provides the example of  Hillel and Shammai, and the schools that bore their names, who disagreed bitterly, and sometimes even violently. And yet, their disagreements were “for the sake of heaven.”  Their debates were about principle, not personality, and they both respected and understood the views of the other.  As a result, the views of both are still preserved and honored in our tradition,
Pirkei Avot goes on to say, however, that any dispute which is not for the sake of heaven will not be sustained, and gives as an example our own “Korach and his congregation.”   Korach’s side is “not for the sake of heaven.” Korach can only criticize the other side in an effort to aggrandize himself.  He wants to destroy what others have created, without any real plan to create something better.  
We can all think  of many examples in our personal lives, or in the news,  where people seeks to tear down or destroy simply as a way of being oppositional, irrespective of the impact on others, or even on themselves.  Defeating the other side becomes more important than doing what is good or right. I once heard a diplomat describe a blunder he made in negotiations with his counterparts- he responded enthusiastically to a particular suggestion from the people across the table: “that’s a great idea!” Once the idea had been approved by the “enemy” it became tainted and had to be shelved.   How many times in life do we oppose something simply because someone else approves?
A subtle twist in the Pirkei Avot text gives us even more insight.  Hillel and Shammai are presented as the two sides of the worthy dispute.  For the unworthy dispute, it would seem that only one side is listed,  Korach and his followers.  Moses and Aaron, who are presumably the other side, are not mentioned.    This is not accidental.  Korach and his followers, an incredibly diverse group, had almost as much animosity towards each other as they did towards those they sought to replace.  The text is teaching us that they were a dispute unto themselves!  Indeed, had they won, I’m not sure how they would have governed.  The Levites, the Reuvenites, and the princes had no common purpose or principle.  With Moses and Aaron out of the way, they would have devolved into petty squabbling.
Our Jewish tradition allows and encourages healthy debate and principled disagreement.   The best outcomes emerge when controversial ideas are aired respectfully, with the greater good kept in mind. Korach reminds us that when winning the argument becomes and end unto itself, everyone loses.
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