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Parshas Korach (5772)

A Tale of Two Jews (And Three Opinions!)

A new rabbi comes to a well-established congregation. Every week on the Sabbath, a fight erupts during the service. When it comes time to recite the Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our G-d, the Lord is One", half of the congregation stands and the other half sits. The half who stand say, "Of course we stand for the Shema Yisrael - it's the credo of Judaism. Throughout history, thousands of Jews have died with the words of the Shema on their lips." The half who remain seated say, "No. According to the Shulkhan Arukh [the code of Jewish law], if you are seated when you come to the Shema, you remain seated."

The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, "Stand up!" while the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing, "Sit down!" (Sound familiar?) It's destroying the whole decorum of the service, and driving the Rabbi crazy.

Finally, it's brought to the rabbi's attention that at a nearby home for the aged is a ninety-eight-year-old man who was a founding member of the congregation. So, in accordance with Talmudic tradition, the rabbi appoints a delegation of three, one who stands for the Shema, one who sits, and the rabbi himself, to go interview the man. They enter his room, and the man who stands for the Shema rushes over to the old man and says, "Wasn't it the tradition in our synagogue to stand for the Shema?" "No," the old man answers in a weak voice. "That wasn't the tradition." The other man jumps in excitedly. "Wasn't it the tradition in our synagogue to sit for the Shema?" "No," the old man says. "That wasn't the tradition."

At this point, the rabbi cannot control himself. He cuts in angrily. "I don't care what the tradition was! Just tell them one or the other. Do you know what goes on in services every week - the people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing ..."

"That was the tradition," the old man says.


This is a joke, of course, but, to a great extent, it reflects the reality of Jewish life in our recent history. It's all been said before - how Jews tend to fight with each other, especially with regard to matters religious, and how they establish one breakaway synagogue after another.


Unfortunately, this is nothing new for our people. We have been going at each other's throats since time immemorial. Even in the desert, when the Jewish people were being led by Moses into the Promised Land, there were Jews grumbling about this thing or the other.

I can just imagine Irving and his wife, Sophie, sitting on beach chairs in the Sinai desert during one of the encampments, complaining about the weather, "Sophie, what's the deal with that Moses ... every miracle he can pull off, but he can't get us central air-conditioning?!" "You're right, Irving, and the food ... oy, such food I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy ... the manna tastes horrible ... and such small portions, too!"

Arguably (pun intended), the most famous rabble-rousing Jew of all time was Korach. He was from the tribe of Levi, and of a distinguished lineage. Korach resented the fact that Moses appointed his own brother, Aaron, the High Priest, and that he was passed by for the position of Chief Levite, having it go to Moses' cousin Elitzaphan, son of Uziel, instead. These and other things made Korach upset, jealous and resentful, which led him to start fomenting a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. [For a more comprehensive treatment of the exact causes and nature of Korach's rebellion and its deadly aftermath, see the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash commentary to Numbers Chapters 16-17, which can be found on pages 820-831.]

So what did Korach do? He did what very other person who has a beef with the Rabbi has done since that time - he convened a board meeting of key figures in the Jewish community, and proceeded to convince them that Moses was this power-hungry leader, who was selfishly taking power and prestige for himself and his close friends and relatives at the expense of the rest of the nation which was just as qualified as he was. So that what started out as a personal gripe that one individual had with his Rabbi, escalated into a full-fledged rebellion, which had the capacity to tear the very fabric that united the Jewish people.

And what happened in the end? (I hate to have to tell you the ending now and ruin it for you when you hear the story being read in the synagogue this Shabbos ..…but I'm sure the suspense is killing you!) Moses asked G-d to step in and prove that he was only acting in accordance with the Divine directive, and that he wasn't playing favorites. So G-d created this massive mouth-like hole in the ground, and it swallowed up Korach and all the other Jews who instigated the argument and rebellion against Moses. (You can't make this stuff up!)

The irony of it all is, that in the end, Korach got some of the fame and notoriety that he so desperately craved. For one thing, the Torah portion is named after the rebellious Korach. And G-d uses Korach and his "gang" as an all-time example of what can happen when we become embroiled in controversy, when He commands the Jewish people after the rebellion dies down, "You shall not be like Korach and his assembly" (Numbers 17:5), which constitutes a negative prohibition for us not to instigate arguments and fights against one another.


Many have asked the question that if, indeed, arguments and disputes are so spiritually dangerous for us, as they have the capacity to tear apart families and even whole communities, why then do we find arguments between rabbis and their students on every single page of the Talmud - the basic text of our Oral Tradition? Can't those Talmudic Sages agree on anything?

For example, Rabbi Yehudah said that a Sukkah (booth that Jews sit in on the holiday of Sukkos) has to have four walls, but the other Rabbis argued with him and said it only require three walls! Even on the very first page of the Talmud, Rabbi Yishmael is quoted as saying that one may recite the evening Shema the entire night, but the Sages disagreed with him, and only permitted it to be recited till midnight. And anything that the school of Hillel taught was immediately opposed and rejected by their competing school, the school of Shammai! If our own great Rabbis can't manage to agree on anything, how can they expect us to get along with each other?

The truth is that those same "argumentative" Rabbis addressed this question themselves in the classic work of Jewish Ethics – Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers). They wrote (Chapter 5 Mishnah 20):

"Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven, such as the conflict of Hillel and Shammai, will endure in the end; and every one which is not for the sake of Heaven, such as the conflict of Korach and his assembly, will in the end not endure".

In other words, every controversy, argument, debate, is about some issue on which opinion is divided. And both sides will often attempt to cast their arguments in theological terms, to make it appear as though they are only arguing "for the sake of Heaven", despite their true intentions to the contrary. (Much like Korach, who claimed to be opposing Moses only because "The entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is among them", so that there is no need for an individual "leader".) But, ultimately, the only arguments that are worthwhile and that will endure, are those which are done truly for the sake of Heaven - in the pursuit of truth and G-dliness - such as the debates that are found in every page of the Talmud, and any other arguments which are started with ulterior motives are doomed to fail, and to bring destruction in their path.

You might wonder - how can we tell which arguments are "good" and which are "bad"? The Mishnah hints at the answer when it tells us that the argument for the sake of Heaven is akin to the argument "between Hillel and Shammai". But the argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, is like the argument of "Korach and his assemblage". Notice that it doesn't mention whom Korach was arguing with, i.e. Moses; rather, it mentions Korach and his "gang".

You see, when a person is motivated by the pursuit of truth and justice, the opposing party's position is taken very seriously, as it might ultimately be the truth. But when you're a Korach, the possibility that Moses' side might be true doesn't concern you - all you need is a "support group" to come with you and gang up on the other party and make a lot of noise. As Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, no doubt referring to Korach-types, "You raise your voice when you should reinforce your argument".

So let's remember the next time we Jews get together for a good fight to make sure that we're being motivated by the pursuit of truth and not just by our own selfish gains - lest we get "swallowed up" like Korach!

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