The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Korach , Numbers 16:1-18:32
For Heaven's sake, or each for himself?

by Avraham ben Yaakov

"Every dispute that is for the sake of heaven will endure in the end, but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure in the end. Which dispute was for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of heaven? This is the dispute aroused by Korach and his assembly" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:17).

The Torah sages distinguish between two different kinds of disputes. The first is where the participants debate, argue and counter-argue "for the sake of heaven", seeking to clarify the true meaning and intent of God's Torah. As the classic example of this kind of dispute, the sages cite the wide-ranging legal discussions between the Torah academies of Hillel and Shamai, two leading scholars who lived around two thousand years ago, towards the end of the Second Temple period.

The other kind of dispute is where the real, underlying intent of at least one of the parties is not "for the sake of heaven" but for his own self-aggrandizement. The classic example of this kind of dispute is Korach's rebellion against the authority of Moses as described in our present portion.

Korach was a leading member of the tribe of Levites, whom Moses on God's instructions had appointed as the Temple guards and singers, as described in Numbers chapter 4. Yet despite this great honor, Korach was disgruntled when he saw that Moses - a member of the same tribe - was not only functioning as king over all the people but had also appointed his own brother Aaron with his sons to serve in the seemingly more prestigious role of Temple priests.

Korach wanted the kudos for himself, and in order to gain it he sought to turn the entire people against Moses and Aaron. He realized that the people had little to gain from merely exchanging one set of leaders for another, so in order to stir them up, he presented himself as a populist fighting for equal rights for all. Together with a powerful group of ambitious leaders who were similarly disgruntled, Korach rose up against Moses:

"And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them: 'You have taken too much upon yourselves, for all of the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. So why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of God?" (Numbers 16:3).

When the Torah sages define Korach's dispute against Moses as one that was not "for the sake of heaven", they are pointing out that he was not a disinterested party whose only concern was for truth to win out. Rather, he was motivated by his own pride. Unfortunately in the world in which we live this is true of very many of the disputes and divisions among different groups and factions, whether in politics or in other spheres. Even in coalitions of like-minded people, it often turns out that each is ultimately out for himself and his own interests. Few are the statesmen, thinkers and visionaries who have the ability to rise above egocentricity and work truly for the collective good.

However, this does not mean that we should cynically conclude that without exception, all disagreements and disputes between people of different viewpoints and opinions are doomed to be intrinsically vitiated by self-interest on the part of all those involved. It is possible to disagree with one another yet still conduct healthy debates and discussions about our differences with a view to clarifying the meaning and implications of the various viewpoints and opinions. The Torah sages endorsed the value of such debates when they cited the disputes between the academies of Hillel and Shammai as being "for the sake of heaven".

Hillel's 120 year lifetime is traditionally dated from 110 B.C.E. to 10 C.E. Hillel was the president of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Torah sages, while Shammai was his deputy (Avot 1:12). The two had very different characters. Hillel was a model of meekness, patience and loving kindness, while Shammai, a building surveyor by profession, was strict, rigorous and punctilious. Their differing approaches complemented one another.

Until their time there had been very few disputes among the mainstream rabbis over the interpretation of the Bible text and the practical directives that were to be derived from it. However, the respective students of Hillel and Shammai became two schools espousing radically different approaches. They shared a fundamental acceptance of the Bible text and its laws - the "Written Torah" - together with all the main tenets of the Oral Law. Where they differed was in the ways in which they derived practical directives from the received tradition. Yet despite their disagreements, the later sages emphasized that members of the two rival academies loved one another, and far from turning into to warring factions, they even intermarried with one another (Mishnah Yevamot 1:4). They were able to love one another because they shared a common love for the Torah.

The consensus of the later Torah sages is that in practice the law in almost all cases follows the opinion of the Academy of Hillel, but this does not mean that the Academy of Shammai were in some sense "wrong". Indeed the teachings of the latter are studied by Torah scholars until today just as much as those of the Academy of Hillel , because they help us to deepen our understanding of God's Torah. For the Torah - the repository of God's infinite wisdom - is like an edifice so vast and magnificent that no one person can grasp it all in its totality. From different vantage points different facets are visible. Just as each individual sees what he sees from his own vantage point, so he can benefit from striving to understand what others see from their vantage points.

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel argued with one another, each saying that the practical legal directives were in accordance with their own viewpoints, until a heavenly voice declared that "these and these are the words of the Living God but the legal decisions are in accordance with the positions of the Academy of Hillel". Now if "these and these are the words of the Living God", what made the Academy of Hillel worthy of having the law decided in accordance with their viewpoint? It was because they were easy-going and long-suffering, and they studied not only their own teachings but also those of the Academy of Shammai . Moreover, they even gave precedence to the teachings of the Academy of Shammai over their own teachings! (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 13b).

The debates of the followers of Hillel and Shammai are a model for civilized enquiry and discussion, where the purpose of the participants is more than just to refute and humiliate one another, but to clarify and elucidate the truth.

God has created a world of amazing diversity and variety. We pray and hope for the day when those with different viewpoints and opinions will be able to coexist in peace and harmony.

"And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear will feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the viper, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the serpent's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9).




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