Office of the Chief Rabbi

D’var Torah: Korach

How would you define a kosher argument?

The Mishna helps us. In Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – we are introduced to the concept of a ‘machloket l’shem shamayim – an argument for the sake of heaven. An example is given: Hillel and Shamai – the debates between the two great Talmudic leaders and their schools of students who follow them. The Mishna goes on to tell us about a ‘machloket shelo l’shem shamayim’ – an argument not for the sake of heaven. Here, the example is taken from this weeks Parsha, Parshat Korach.

It is קֹ֜רַח וְאֶֽל־כָּל־עֲדָתוֹ – ‘Korach and his entire assembly’, launched a vicious attack against Moshe and Aharon. I believe that the lesson emerging from this Mishna is pertinent and relevant for fragile societies across the globe at this time. What is the key feature of a ‘machloket shelo l’sheim shamayim’? It is a purposeful divisiveness – when its proponent tried to create an atmosphere of them and us. Instead of tackling the substance of the issue at hand, they try to demonise their opponent. That is exactly what Korach did. He was aware that there were elements within the Israelite camp who bore an unjustifiable grudge against Moshe and Aharon and he was playing to that gallery.

He cried out against leaders ‘U’madua titnasu kahal Hashem – why are you lauding yourselves, the congregation of the Lord’ insinuating that Moshe and Aharon had usurped their power, that their egos had driven them to take authority upon their shoulders. This was so far from the truth because as we well know, these two exceptionally humble characters were the appointees of none other than Hashem himself.

Notice that in the Mishna the ‘machloket l’shem shamayim’ is Hillel and Shamai but the machloket shelo l’shem shamayim is קֹ֜רַח וְאֶֽל־כָּל־עֲדָתוֹ – Korach and his assembly. It should have been Korach and Moshe and Aharon because they were the foes but here the Mishna wants us to understand that a feature of a ‘machloket shelo l’shem shamayim’ is that sometimes, those who collaborate together – actually come with separate agendas but at that moment they happen to have a common enemy.

Contrast this with Hillel and Shamai, yes they were locked into a continuous debate, sometimes quite bitter but they always remained the best of friends because both sides were seeking to determine the truth.

Both would always quote the view of the other when mentioning their own view and socially they got on well together. The Talmud tells us their families married into the family of the other. Those are the elements of a ‘machloket l’shem shamayim’ an argument for the sake of heaven.

In our Parsha there is a mitzvah – v’lo yehiyeh k’korach v’chadato – one should not be like Korach and his assembly. This is a mitzvah which we call upon the entire world to keep at this exceptionally challenging time. Let us instead always be like Hillel and Shamai, to engage in an argument for the sake of heaven which is a kosher argument.

Shabbat shalom.