June 21, 2023
The word Israel means “One who wrestles with G-d.” As a people we have a long and interesting history of engaging in robust debate with G-d. By extension we understand that engaging in debate with our fellow is also part of Jewish tradition.
The Rabbis of the Talmud fine tune our understanding of what healthy, vigorous debate is. They warn us to avoid arguments that are toxic and ego driven. The source of an important Rabbinic idea regarding argument is related to this week’s Parasha, Korach.
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. - Pirkei Avot 5:17
So who was Korach? And why was his controversy not for the sake of Heaven? Korach stages a rebellion against Moses, questions his leadership, and accuses him of favoritism and making decisions for his own benefit. While Korach claims to be fighting for centralized leadership and an equitable distribution of power, Moses sees this as an attempt to usurp power and overturn the leadership. Moses humbly holds the line. The Rabbis agree that Korach is driven by ego and jealousy. For this reason, they see the dispute driven by Korach as a controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven.
The Meiri, a 13th century Spanish scholar and Talmudic commentator says that Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued out of a desire to discover the truth. Korach on the other hand stages his rebellion as a competitive power grab. He seems to be driven by the desire for control.
During these times of divisive argument and toxic debate, we have much to explore in these sacred texts. How can we transform paralyzing disputes into healthy exchanges? The goal is not necessarily to reach harmonious agreement. For it is not just okay, it is actually important to explore disagreement. However, the shared goal must be to create respectful arenas of debate and exchange, such that we push each other to greater understandings of a larger truth. These are “machloket l’shem hashamayim,” arguments for the sake of heaven.
However, when we engage in controversy and debate with goals contrary to seeking truth (i.e. power, control, domination, competition) we become like Korach. These tactics keep us separate and deepen the discord. In fact, we get swallowed up, buried in the noise and dysfunction. Essentially we suffer a similar fate as Korach–who was swallowed up by the earth. This takes us further and further from healthy disagreement rooted in mutual respect. We see this playing out in many different arenas. And we all pay a hefty price tag–bridges of understanding have been dismantled and the rift between the two opposing sides feels impassable.
This week’s parasha is here to teach us something incredibly important. May we draw closer to what it means to engage in debate for the sake of heaven. May we embrace what it means to be “Am Israel” a people who wrestles with Divine truth–not to reign victorious over another, but to reach deeper understanding.