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Torah Attitude: Parashas Korach: For Heaven's Sake
Korach's apparent motivation for the revolt was his belief that everyone is equal. Korach questioned whether a completely blue garment still requires blue threads of tzitzis on the four corners and whether a room full of Torah scrolls still requires a mezuzah. Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end. In all of Talmud, we never find any personal attack between Hillel and Shammai or any of their students. The common purpose of both the Houses of Hillel and Shammai were to clarify and reach the truth which is the real meaning of a dispute for the sake of Heaven. It is clear that whatever Moses did was for the sake of Heaven with no personal interests. A person must always investigate and scrutinize the reasons behind his conduct. A difference of opinion involving lack of respect is not a dispute searching for truth but rather a dispute searching for self-aggrandizement. Just like a bird cannot fly without its wings, so too has the Jewish nation no standing without its elders.
In this week's Torah portion, we read about the revolt of Korach against Moses; however, as we read the Parsha we see that Korach was not just a revolutionary seeking to overthrow the existing authority of Moses. Rather, Korach's apparent motivation for the revolt was his belief that everyone is equal. As he said (Bamidbar 16:3): "For the whole assembly, all of them, are holy and G'd is in their midst. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G'd?"
Blue threads and mezuzahs
Rashi explains from our sages that Korach complained that it may be justified that G'd appointed Moses as the leader, but why did Moses then appoint his brother Aaron as High Priest. Korach argued that only Moses had received the Torah directly from G'd and Aaron was merely a bystander like everyone else. The Midrash relates that Korach dressed the 250 leaders that followed him in garments made completely of techeilis, a special blue thread that was used for tzitzis. He asked Moses whether a completely blue garment like this still requires the tzitzis of techeilis in the four corners? Similarly, he asked that if there is room full of Torah scrolls, would it need the scroll of a mezuzah on its doorposts? The hidden message behind these questions was that if the whole congregation were equally holy and all heard the words of G'd at Mount Sinai, why was it necessary to appoint a High Priest who appears to have more holiness than everyone else?
For the sake of Heaven
We see that the apparent rationale behind Korach's revolt was not just to assume control over the leadership but also to allow everyone to get equally close to G'd. It seems that it was for the sake of G'd that Korach started this dispute. However, in Pirkei Avos (5:20) it says, "Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure in the end. But if it is not for the sake of Heaven, it will not endure in the end." The Mishnah continues, "Which dispute was for the sake of Heaven, the dispute between Hillel and Shammai and which one was not for the sake of Heaven, the dispute of Korach and his entire assembly." How do our sages know that Korach did not start this dispute for the sake of Heaven? It seems that he had very pure intentions. Further, why does the Mishnah say "the dispute of Korach and his entire assembly" and not "the dispute of Korach and Moses"?
Hillel and Shammai
We find a very fundamental difference between the dispute of Hillel and Shammai and the one between Korach and Moses. In all of Talmud, we never find any personal attack between Hillel and Shammai or any of their students. On the contrary, in Edeyos (4:8) the Mishnah says that although there were serious differences between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai they lived in complete harmony with each other. There was even a case where according to the ruling of Hillel a certain person would not be allowed to marry another Jew, contrary to the ruling of Shammai that permitted the marriage. Nevertheless, the Mishnah tells us that the Houses of Hillel and Shammai never refrained from intermarrying because they had mutual complete trust that each would inform the other to alert them if there was a problem according to the other party's opinion.
Reach the truth
The common purpose of both the Houses of Hillel and Shammai were to clarify and reach the truth which is the real meaning of a dispute for the sake of Heaven. The Mishnah (ibid 1:4) asks why do we always mention the opinion of both Hillel and Shammai? Would it not make sense to just mention the final decision of how we should conduct ourselves in our practical lives? Says the Mishnah, this is to teach the coming generations that a person should never stand on his right as these great sages did not stand on their own opinion. Both the Houses of Hillel and Shammai were not looking necessarily to justify their own opinion. On the contrary, the Mishnah (ibid 1:12-14) enumerates a whole list of rulings where the House of Hillel changed the ruling to rule like the House of Shammai. There is a further case where both Hillel and Shammai revoked their original rulings in favour of two laymen who testified concerning a ruling by Shmayoh and Avtalyon (ibid 1:3).
No personal interests
Both Hillel and Shammai were peace-loving sages. The disputes of their Houses of Study were totally for the sake of Heaven and never affected their personal relationships in any way whatsoever. At the time of the revolt of Korach, we find a similar trait by Moses who through any possible venture tried to make peace and calm down the disputants. As it says (ibid 16:4) when Moses heard the accusations of Korach and his followers, his initial reaction was to fall on his face. Moses could not have done a more humiliating act at the time when his authority was being challenged. Only a person of the caliber of Moses with no personal agenda could act like this. He later tried to appease the revolutionaries. First he pleaded with Korach to appreciate having the special position of the Tribe of Levy and that it was not appropriate to seek priesthood as well. When he failed to appease Korach, he sent a message to Dathan and Aviram to try to appease them (see ibid 16:12). And in a final attempt, he went himself to the tent of Dathan and Aviram hoping that they would make peace (see ibid 12:25). It is clear that whatever Moses did was for the sake of Heaven with no personal interests.
On the other hand, although Korach no doubt in his own mind thought that his actions were for the sake of Heaven, our sages reveal to us that what really prompted him was his jealously on the appointment of his younger cousin, Eltzaphan, as leader of their family. Korach felt this appointment belonged to him. The outcome is known. Because of his jealousy, Korach attacked Moses on a personal level and challenged his leadership and authority. He failed to do some soul searching to analyze what were the deeper motives for his conduct. The Talmud says (Eruvin 13:1) that a person must always investigate and scrutinize the reasons behind one's conduct. Only then can one feel secure that one's actions are honest and pure without personal motives.
Lack of respect
The Midrash Tanchuma (Pinchas 10) teaches that just as no two individuals have the same facial expressions; neither do any two have the same mindset. Difference of opinion is not negative; rather, it is an expression of one's individualism. However, the moment it involves lack of respect for another human being, we know that this is not a dispute searching for truth but rather a dispute searching for self-aggrandizement. This is how the sages of the Mishnah knew that, unlike Hillel, Shammai and Moses, Korach did not enter his dispute for the sake of Heaven.
Bird without wings
We learn from here that just as a house full of Torah scrolls still requires a mezuzah and a garment made completely of threads of techeilis still requires the tzitzis of techeilis in its four corners. In the same way, although every Jew is holy, nevertheless it is imperative that we accept the authority of our spiritual leaders. As the Midrash Rabba says (Shemos 5:12): "Said Rabbi Akiva, why is the Jewish nation compared to a bird? Just like a bird cannot fly without its wings, so too has the Jewish nation no standing without its elders."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network