There is no shortage of drama and tragedy in this week’s Parsha. The central narrative revolves around a group of 250 prominent people led by Korach, their outspoken and charismatic leader. He contested Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
They gathered together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘It is too much for you! The entire community is holy, and G-d dwells among them, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?” (16:3)
Sometimes a protest is necessary but even a small amount of thought would have allowed them to understand the fallacy of their contention. Moses was the person who liberated them from Egypt and chosen by G-d to not only be their leader but also the conduit through which His message would be transmitted to humanity; is this really the person you want to start up with?
The Mishnah considers Korach’s campaign against Moses to be the paradigm of an argument for the wrong reason.
What can be termed an argument for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shamai (1st century Talmudic scholars who debated issues of Torah law, theology, and philosophy). What is considered an argument NOT for the sake of Heaven? Korach and his followers. (Ethics 5:20)
Hillel and Shamai were trying to arrive at truth. Imagine two engineers working on a bridge that will grant access for poor island people to come to the mainland for food and other provisions. The only desire of this team is to help the poor people. No one will care if (s)he has the winning idea or plan; all egos become nullified toward the larger goal of helping the poor. However, if one of them wants recognition or additional financial remuneration, (s)he will approach the entire project with a different mind frame and the only measure for success will be if (s)he is the one recognized as a star and rewarded accordingly. The more each person is in it for himself or herself, the more arguments there will be due to the multitude of agendas. Hillel and Shamai wanted to arrive at the correct understanding of the various fundamentals of Jewish knowledge not only for themselves, but especially so that they could transmit it accurately to their students.
Many commentaries on the Mishnah point out an inconsistency. Hillel and Shamai, are opponents; they fought each other but Korach and his followers were on the same side. Why is the paradigm for an argument for the wrong reasons characterized as one between people who are on the same side of the argument?
Noam Elimelech (1717-1787; the first generation of the Chassidic movement) answers that the nature of an act done for the wrong reasons is that those involved are really not there for the group but rather for themselves. When people in a dispute are on the same side but self-centered, they may appear to be a group but they are really a collection of separates, each of whom has his or her own agenda. The litmus test to know if a group is for the right purpose (“for the sake of Heaven’) is to see if there is unity among its members. The precise wording of the Mishnah alludes to this idea; the dispute was not merely between Korach and Moses, but even between Korach and his own followers.
This serves as instruction for us. When Jews take their calling in life seriously, when they commit to Torah study and preforming mitzvot for no reason other than it being their mandate as Jews, then there is unity. It will not matter in which shul they pray or group (s)he identifies with. The prerequisite is that people are not in it for self-aggrandizement; effective results may follow.
How can one know, when doing a mitzvah or engaging in a project, if his or her motives are pure? Ask yourself, “if some else would take on this project, would I take pleasure in it?” For centuries in Eastern Europe, traveling Jews would stay at a local boarding house created exclusively for this purpose and whoever needed a Shabbos meal would wait in shul Friday night. After the conclusion of the service, people would approach them and offer to host them for Shabbos meals. One family who lived in a small town that didn’t have many passersby, loved this mitzvah and hosted people whenever they could. One week, Kalman, the father, told his wife and children that he had heard that a guest would be traveling through town. They got excited, set the table for the guest and cooked special food so that his experience would be wonderful. Friday night after services, someone else invited the guest before Kalman got a chance to. When he came home alone, everyone was disappointed and told him it wasn’t fair that someone stole their guest. He told them, “you are mistaken. The goal is not that we are to have guests, the goal is that every guest has a home to go to-and that goal has been fulfilled.”
This idea is alluded to in a homiletical way in the first verse of the Parsha. Rashi comments on the words “And Korach took…” to means that “He took himself to one side to complain…” The 19th century Chassidic master Rav Naftoli of Ropshitz explains that every disagreement has two sides and it is important for each side to understand the other’s point of view. Korach’s mistake was that he took himself to one side without attempting to understand Moses’ side. The wise person does what is necessary to understand why his or her opponent understands the issue as such. The person is wise because (s)he understands that people who constantly find themselves arguing with others (i.e. they take themselves to one side) are not happy and eventually distance themselves from others. In Hebrew, the word “side” (צד) has the numerical value of 94; the numerical value of “wise” (פקח) is 188, which is 2 x 94. These numerical values hint at the idea that a wise person is one who looks at his or her side (94) AND THEN looks at the other person’s side (94). Only then does the wise person (188) enterthe dispute.
Rav Naftoli of Ropshitz concludes his explanation with one more numeric calculation (Gematria). When the people in an argument try to understand each other’s position (side), then both act in a wise way. 188 (wise)x 2 = 376, which is the numeric value of Shalom-peace. We always understand our own position; the challenge is to understand the opposing side-but that is the only way real peace can endure. Agreement is not necessary but clarity is.
May we all have the strength-and guts-required to see the other side of the one with whom we disagree.
(Sources: Kedushas Noam Elimelech: Yalkut al HaTorah; Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 16:3; Torah Wellsprings, Korach 2016p. 3-4)