Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Korach (Numbers 16-18) 

 Good—or Bad and Ugly: How to Argue
Over thirty years ago Sara shared a story with me she heard from one of the marriage counselors who trained her. He was called late at night by a neighbor in an apartment building who heard a couple yelling at one another and it seemed to be getting progressively worse. The couple knew and respected this counselor and the neighbor thought that his intervention might calm things down. When the couple opened the door to let him in, they were still screaming; the therapist asked what they were fighting about. The husband said, when they retired for the night, they had forgotten to shut the light. He said that he was exhausted after working hard the entire day and that she should get out of bed and shut the light. She said that she was busy all day with their newborn and was worn out; he should shut the light. One thing led to another, and then everything erupted. The therapist spent a lot of time there and was able to calm them down. When he (the therapist) related the story, he noted that both husband and wife were too exhausted to get up and shut the light but somehow, they had limitless energy to fight.This week’s Parsha is about disagreement; here’s a one Sentence Synopsis. A man named Korach convinced 250 men to join him in challenging Moses’ leadership and accused him of placing his (Moses’) own interests before the rest of the people.
This incident was one of the tragedies of the forty-year period in the desert; when it concludes, the Torah enjoins us to “… not be like Korach and his followers.” Was Korach motivated from an inner sense of justice and doing what’s right for the people? The sages of the Mishnah give two examples of disputes, one with correct motivation; the other not.
Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven will result in a constructive outcome; but one not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What is an example of a dispute that was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Korach and his company.
When people argue in pursuit of truth—“for the sake of Heaven”—their words will endure, but when the motivation is controversy or self-interest, the arguments will not endure. For example, during the Russian revolution (1917) there were three main political factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and SR’s (Social Revolutionaries). All claimed to be motivated by the desire to improve the quality of life for their fellow Russians but ultimately their own personal agenda was their priority, with each side willing to kill the other to obtain their goal. Have these arguments endured? Only for students of Russian history but for everyone else, these once powerful political ideologies are virtually unknown; most people have never even heard of the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Social Revolutionaries and if they have, they can’t tell you what they stood for. At the time each side thought theirs was the answer to the world’s problems but history bears witness that they’ve faded into oblivion.
During the end of the second Temple era (about 2,000 years ago), there were a number of Jewish sects: the Sadducees, Essenes, Dead Sea Scroll sect, and others. Each came to revise the Torah and seemed to pave a new road for the Jewish future but they too had selfish agendas. They left neither synagogues nor houses of study; the only people who even know of their existence and discuss their ideologies are academics and students of history.
The template of a dispute argued for the right cause is Hillel and Shammai, two 1st century BCE sages who constantly debated about the correct application of Jewish ideals. They lived in harmony and their words are the foundation for much of the Talmud, which is still actively studied by hundreds of thousands of Jews every day.
The paradigm of a dispute argued for the wrong cause is Korach when he challenged Moses. Many Jews today have never heard the name Korach and those who do will be hard pressed to clearly state his ideology and raison d’être of his arguments. The Mishnah quoted above mentioned Hillel and Shammai, the two debaters but when it mentioned Korach, it says “Korach and his company,” rather than “Korach and Moses” (his rival in debate). There’s a lesson in this inconsistency; it says “Korach and his company” to teach that there was internal strife in Korach’s camp. The thing that united Korach and his followers was their hostility to Moses’ leadership. There was dissension in Korach’s camp because the enemy of my enemy is my friend was their motivation.)
There’s nothing wrong with taking sides in a dispute and we Jews are even encouraged to do so but there’s a caveat: the dispute must be for a real quest for truth. How can you know? The litmus test is to see how the two sides treat each other. When there’s mudslinging and character defamation, it’s an indication of personal agenda. When it gets bad and ugly, neither G-d nor humanity are the focus. Marriage is one of the most common applications of this. Sometimes a spouse will be nasty or non-communicative with the justification “he or she needs to know there are consequences to actions, and when I am treated like that, I act nasty. An objective onlooker will identify this as narcissistic behavior. Under any other circumstance, like work or friendships, the person would realize this type of behavior is inappropriate, but somehow in marriage he or she justifies it. How can a couple know if their motivations are pure when they have a disagreement? The litmus test is how they treat each other. 
The next time you are annoyed or frustrated, pause for a moment and ask yourself, is the motivation for the ensuing argument for the right reason or just another manifestation of my ego trying to control something or somebody? Is this about me being right or doing what’s objectively right? That pensive moment will be the defining factor in determining whether the conversation you are about to have will be a brawl or another opportunity for effective communication. Good Shabbos
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