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Parshat Korach 5768: Content and Intent

by in Korach .



The Torah embraces questioning. Like a teacher secure in his brilliance, the Torah becomes even more vital by questioning. As long as we encourage questioning the Torah will never become mindless dogma or intimidating fundamentalism.

Questioning guards the truth, sharpens the mind, and invigorates our thinking.  We teach our children at our Pesach sedarim to question and challenge. Talmudic methodology is built on question and challenge. No question seems to be out of bounds. Torat Emmet (the Torah of Truth) can withstand any questioning; we do not fear questions, we celebrate them.

Korach was free to question the criteria for the appointment of Ahron and his sons as Kohannim. He was even free to question the integrity of Moshe if he were to have done so with honorable intent. Korach is criticized not for the content of his questioning but for itsintent. The only difference between the machloket of Korach and that of Shamai and Hillel, says the Mishnah[1], was that Hillel’s and Shamai’s argument was lesheim shamayim, for Divine intent, Korach’s was not.

Integrity of Intent: as important as honest content

It would have been hard to identify the falsehood of Korach’s claims in the substance of his arguments. Judging by substance alone, his arguments may have had validity. His deceit lay in his intent not in his content; and intent is hardly discernible. This is why 250 of our nation’s greatest people ever, the Rashei Sanhedrin of the Generation of Sinai were “taken” by Korach - vayikach Korach[2].

So how then ought the 250 men to have identified the Korach fraud? There is a way to know when a machloket (dispute) is lesheim shamayim (in the name of Hashem) and when it is driven by ego. You can determine the intention of a machloket by the level of its energy, by whether the antagonists reinforce each other with the passion of their own positions, or whether each person is fighting a ghost, pitting himself against an inert Quixotic windmill.

Machloket is like a game of tennis. If one player continuously serves and the other player never ever returns a ball, the game will soon be over. If the server continues unperturbed by the absence of reciprocity, you know his intention is not to play tennis, but to let off steam or practice his serve. He is self absorbed, not engrossed in a higher ideal, that of sportsmanship.

The same applies in a machloket. If only one person is arguing and he persists even in the absence of an active antagonist, then his argument is not over any worthwhile issue at all. It is driven by some other self-serving need. It takes two to tangle in machloket. One person arguing on their own ultimately runs out of steam and fizzles out. A one sided machloket is sheloh lesheim shamayim and ein sofah lehitkayeim (it has no power of endurance).

Notice the wording in Pirkei Avot: When referring to Hillel and Shamai, it refers to both antagonists by name. In the case of Korach, only Korach is mentioned and not Moshe or Ahron. The Ramban[3]notes brilliantly: “Vayipol al panav” (and he fell down upon his face), only Moshe responded. Ahron in his nobility and sanctity did not answer a word in this entire dispute. Rather he was silent as if acknowledging that Korach had greater qualities than he, but he was simply carrying out the halachah (i.e. accepting the High-Priesthood– without self-interest, without ego).

Ahron did not play ball with Korach. Korach claimed that he was greater than Ahron. Ahron accepted that this may indeed be the case, but if so, personal greatness was clearly not the criterion for selection to the office of Kohein Gadol. Halachah, as determined by Hashem was the criterion. Korach at that point did not switch his debate to focus on the criteria for selection. He stubbornly persisted to substantiate his assertions of personal superiority, an assertion that no one was disputing. Korach was playing tennis with himself. That is how the 250 great men should have known that Korach’s intent, irrespective of the content of his assertions, was sheloh lesheim shamayim.

Ahron’s shalom-technique

Ahron was a rodeif shalom (pursuer of peace). You pursue peace by fleeing machloket; Ahron did just that. Even when his own persona was under attack, he neutralized the energy of his opponent by acceding the possibility that the other person may be right. What more is there to argue about after that? Ahron would not necessarily accede so easily if the issue were one of principle. But when the issue is merely one of pride then it is not lesheim shamayim and is not worthy of kiyum. Often we intuitively react in the opposite way: we fight when our honor is at stake and we become courteously tolerant when the issue is one of principle. When principle is argued we are quick to grant the other party their right to have a differing point of view. Not so when the issue is one of our pride and honor: then no ones perspective is right but our own!

If I want a machloket to fizzle out and it is not one of principle, then I simply acknowledge the other’s point of view. It is a little hard on the ego at first, but ever so liberating thereafter. If this fails to silence the warring party, then their issue is not lesheim shamayim and not one worthy of engagement. It will wither away.

[1] Avot 5:20 
[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 18;2, and Seforno.
[3] Bamidbar 16:4

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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