Parshat Korach: Constructive and destructive disputes

How, then, can disputes be utilized for their constructive attributes, without allowing the destructive ones to influence us?

June 19, 2014 22:15
3 minute read.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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In this week’s parsha, Korach, we encounter one of the most common phenomena in humanity – disputes.

Is an argument positive or negative? At first glance at this parsha, disputes are completely negative phenomena. As the story goes, Korach, along with 250 men, organized a rebellion against the leader of the Jewish nation, Moses, and demanded to have him replaced.

By whom? By Korach himself, of course, a respected and wealthy man.

After negotiating with the rebels, Moses discovers there is no room for compromise – they are going for the whole package. Aware that he has no right to give up his God-given job, Moses turns to the nation and recommends that they “keep their distance” from this group of rebels. He declares that he is willing to run a test to see which of the sides is right: “With this you shall know that the Lord sent me to do all these deeds, for I did not devise them myself. If these men die as all men die, and the fate of all men will be visited upon them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates a creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they descend alive into the grave, you will know that these men have provoked the Lord” (Bamidbar 16, 28-30).

And indeed, the test that Moses suggests is carried out, as the Torah tells us: “As soon as he finished speaking all these words, the earth beneath them split open. The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them… and they were lost to the assembly” (Bamidbar 16, 31-33).

As such, it is clear that disputes are negative and destructive; it is not a coincidence that the earth swallowed those involved in the argument. But the wise sages of the Jewish nation concluded from this affair that, although there are negative arguments, there is also such a thing as a positive or constructive dispute. They wrote: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishna, Masechet Avot, 5).

Hillel and Shammai, or their famous students known as the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, represented two different schools of thought on all aspects of life; they had many disputes.

But despite this, they became the model for “a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven.”

In contrast, Korach and his company became the model for “a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven.” What is the real difference between the disputes of Hillel and Shammai versus that of Korach and his company? There are several aspects of disputes. On the one hand, disputes clarify issues that need it, bringing out the best in people’s strengths and advancing humanity. And in general, nothing like disputes can solidify opinions in different areas. But on the other hand, disputes bring about harm to the other, as well as animosity and even hatred. How, then, can disputes be utilized for their constructive attributes, without allowing the destructive ones to influence us? Our sages revealed the answer to this in the definition they provided for each of the models of dispute.

A dispute that is “for the sake of Heaven,” meaning its intentions are devoid of personal animosity and it is intended to really clarify the stands of both sides – this is a constructive dispute that benefits both sides. Such were the arguments between Hillel and Shammai. Other than the areas about which they argued, they maintained an excellent personal relationship.

But a dispute that is “not for the sake of Heaven,” meaning it is motivated by jealousy, competitiveness and social standing, is negative and destructive, with the power to destroy society and lead to its regression. Such was the dispute between Korach and Moses.

This dispute was etched in our national memory as the model of the destructive powers of disputes, which should be avoided at any price.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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