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Korach 5771

By: Rav David Milston

Arguing for Truth “Any argument made with the right intent (lit: in the name of Heaven) will result in abiding value; but any controversy that has no noble purpose (lit: not in the name of Heaven) shall not have abiding value. Which arguments were motivated by good intentions? The debates between Hillel and Shammai. And which controversy had no noble purpose? The controversy of Korach and his community.”(Avot 5:17) This famous Mishna is interesting for a number of reasons. Let us first deal with the opening statement: “Any argument made with the right intent (lit: in the name of Heaven) will result in abiding value.” The Ritva asks a fundamental question.[1] Generally, in any given argument, one person is right and the other wrong, so surely an argument cannot be everlasting however noble it is? What is eventually determined to be true will surely be everlasting, but the other opinion will fall aside, so what exactly does our Mishna mean? Rav Hirsch says, “When both parties in a controversy are guided solely by pure motives and seek noble ends, and when both parties seek solely to find the truth, then of course only one view will constitute the truth and only one of the two opposing views can and will prevail in practice. But actually, both views will have permanent value because, through the arguments that each side has presented, both parties will have served to shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as long as there are men sincerely interested both in the subject of the debate and in the finding of the truth. For such men, retaining an abiding memory of the differences and the attempts on both sides to prove the validity of their views, will study the arguments of both sides thoroughly and repeatedly, thus advancing the cause of the general knowledge of truth. Thus, controversies such as those between Hillel and Shammai and between the other Tana’im and Amoraim have remained a permanent component of our Torah and its study.”[2] From here we can see there is inherent value in understanding the pros and cons of any debate. The more we discuss the more we truly understand the meaning of the outcome. I often wonder why the Talmud sometimes raises seemingly weak hypothetical arguments against established rules, when from the outset we know the challenge can easily be swept aside. Now, with Rav Hirsch’s comments, we can suggest there is a value in closely analyzing how we reach a particular conclusion even in the case where it is blatantly obvious. The Gemara clearly knows the challenge can be easily revoked, but nonetheless cites it so we can appreciate the process that has developed. This in turn strengthens our in-depth understanding of the subject at hand. Similarly in our case. Even though one of the conflicting opinions will ultimately be rejected, it serves a crucial role in helping to clarify the truth. As a teacher, I can tell you this principle is very clear. When teaching young adults, I have to be alert at all times. When a suggestion is thrown out to the class, the questions come flying back, and as we attempt to reconcile the proposed theory with the various objections, the hypothesis either gains validity or falls by the wayside. However the process is crucial, and is quite probably the rationale behind the “chevruta” system of studying in pairs. We can also learn a more general axiom regarding controversy from our Mishna, especially with regard to religious issues. If the objective of the debate is to establish the truth and not to flout authority, truth will ultimately prevail and the authority vindicated. The service of truth is an action done for the name of Heaven, or for the sake of the Almighty. Both the contending parties may be equally sincere in their desire to serve the truth, whilst simultaneously differing in their opinions of what the truth actually is. As we have said, one view will stand and the other will fall, but the main result will be that the truth will win out and God’s name honored. With this understanding, we reveal an interesting fact about argument and debate. Just as there are people who thrive on argument, there are those who avoid it at all costs. But it is important to make the distinction. If those involved are genuinely involved in the pursuit of truth, the debate itself has inherent value. Hillel and Shammai were so devoid of egocentricity that their mutual respect was unparalleled. Their only objective was the revelation of truth. No one-upmanship; no desire to win an argument for the sake of academic glory. And although they were regularly in dispute they shared the same objective – attaining truth. They saw themselves more as partners in Torah study as opposed to rivals. Indeed in Yevamot 13b, we see that despite a fundamental disagreement regarding the laws of Yibum, and consequently marital legislation, Bet Shamai, nonetheless had no qualms whatsoever about marrying off their children to those of Bet Hillel. In reality, their example is not so easy to emulate. The Gemara in Berachot is quick to mention that the talmidim of these two giants were not always able to uphold their Rebbes’ pure standards, and their infighting almost resulted in two different religions![3] Rabban Gamliel is another inspiring example of humility in the pursuit of knowledge.[4] In response to his overly harsh methods of education, the yeshiva deposed him from his position as Nasi. Rabban Gamliel did not respond by establishing another yeshiva. He immediately went to the Beit Midrash and continued studying almost as if nothing had happened. He revealed his motives by his response. The Rabbis disagreed with his methods; he was temporarily removed from his position but this did not affect him personally. This shows his harsh teaching style was only an educational philosophy and certainly not the actions of a demagogue dedicated to fortifying his power base. He is ready to step aside and continue his pursuit of truth from the benches of the Beit Midrash. There is no self-interest whatsoever. Our emotional response to opposing views will so often indicate what our true motivations really are. How many shools and schools have been established for the wrong reasons, simply because individuals were unable to accept another point of view? How many people don’t speak to each other because of some historical argument? If we are really involved in Avodat Hashem then that’s all that matters. It is irrelevant who gets the public credit and glory. Our aim is to discover truth and glorify the Almighty’s Name on this Earth. That is our only goal, and by working together we can fulfill it. Our heated discussions should bring us one step further towards the truth. This is quite possibly one of the lessons the Almighty was teaching us during the events of Migdal Bavel.[5] The masses apparently confused unity with uniformity, and so the Almighty gave them different languages and different countries. The message is clear. We do not become a united force by doing the same thing and agreeing with each other. Argument is good, and diversity of opinion is desirable if we share the same objectives. God intentionally created diversity in order to achieve genuine unity. Korach and his congregation represent the absolute antithesis of Hillel and Shammai. When reading the Mishna one would have expected Korach and Moshe to be the parallel to Hillel and Shammai. Why is Moshe not mentioned? Because he is honestly astounded at Korach’s allegations; his involvement was forced upon him, and he is only driven by truth. The Mishna therefore purposely leaves him out of the equation, and includes the congregation of Korach. Korach’s coalition against Moshe and Aharon was a group with contradictory objectives. If we suggest Korach came to Moshe as a Levite demanding his true social position, how could he possibly join together with the firstborns? They themselves were fighting against the tribe of Levi (of whom Korach is a member) who replaced them as ovdei HaMishkan in the aftermath of the scandal of the Golden Calf? Theoretically, had Korach overthrown Moshe and Aharon, it is fair to assume that civil war would have been the immediate consequence of his actions. The firstborns would have seemingly turned on Korach and his brothers in a final push to overthrow the Leviim from their hierarchical position in the Mishkan. Korach and his congregation were only interested in themselves. They came together to establish a formidable force against Moshe and Aharon, but deep down they had as much contempt for each other as they did for Moshe – such an understanding is implicit within our Mishna, Korach and those who joined with him, did not do so for the sake of Heaven, but for themselves alone! Each party had its own interests at heart and as such would ultimately end up by turning against their so called allies. (*Also see Abarbanel at the beginning of our parasha.) Hillel and Shammai had the utmost mutual respect and argued only in search of truth, while Korach and his crowd were opposed to each other’s causes and secretly fostered ulterior motives while outwardly joining forces. Indeed, when comparing Korach and his ‘followers’ to another famous dispute in Sefer Bereishit, we discover an inspiring truth about the sons of Ya’akov: As the story of Yosef and his brothers develops, we seem to be witnessing a power struggle amongst the children of Ya’akov. Just as Korach and his men temporarily joined forces to dispose of Moshe, it appears as if the brothers come together with the sole aim of killing Yosef. However, in contrast to Korach, the brothers actually succeeded in ‘deposing’ Yosef, who was sold, ‘never to be seen again.’ But surely, if there really was a power struggle amongst the brothers, we would have expected to see further conflict once Yosef had gone, but no. There is no overt struggle between Yehuda and Reuven. From the brothers’ unity we understand that their conflict with Yosef was not a fraternal power struggle but a fundamentally ideological one that would take many years of anguish and pain until its ultimate resolution. Bnei Ya’akov can perhaps be indicted for misreading the situation with Yosef, but their motivation remains pure. As we said in our introduction to Sefer Bamidbar, this is a book of reality. And the Korach episode is real too, both from a micro and a macro perspective. When we are involved in debate we must remind ourselves that arguing for argument’s sake serves no purpose. It is a pointless exercise to win an argument because you are the better debater or because your manipulative skills are more advanced than your opponent’s, irrespective of whether your view is actually correct. When we argue we argue for Heaven’s sake and for Heaven’s sake alone. And what is true of the micro is certainly true of the macro. Am Yisrael is a diverse people, and after 2,000 years of exile, with Jews slowly returning home from Ethiopia, Russia, North America, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, we are being provided with the ultimate challenge. Our cultures are almost irreconcilably different, but the objective is the same. Just as Hillel and Shammai were able to act as brothers despite their differences, may we too succeed in truly uniting our people!


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