view from Jerusalem

An argument for the sake of Heaven


In Israel, even a bus ride can become an existential experience. On a long, crowded bus ride from Haifa to Jerusalem, a fellow in a long black coat and black hat was sitting towards the rear of the bus, when the man sitting next to him suddenly jumped up and off the bus. A woman standing in the aisle grabbed the seat, and this religiously-garbed fellow now found himself trapped next to the window with this woman between him and the aisle.

Not wanting to give up his seat, and yet uncomfortable that this woman had chosen to sit next to him, the fellow opened the window. It was a cold winter day and the wind gusting in was clearly upsetting the woman who immediately glared at him, and in a loud voice said: “Could you please close the window?”

To which he responded: “Could you please lengthen your dress?”

“You’re being ridiculous,” the woman responded.

“Your dress is ridiculous,” he replied.

“Why are you going to Jerusalem?” he asked, eyeing her short sleeves and short skirt. “You should go to a yeshiva!”

“Why are you going to Jerusalem?” she retorted. “You obviously need to go to a pub!”

At which point various members of the “audience” began to pipe in as well, and the bus ride very quickly degenerated into a full-fledged session of the Knesset!

• • •

Ever have the impression that people are arguing just for the sake of arguing? At first glance, this seems to be what happens this week in our parsha of Korach.

Korach, who bursts onto the biblical desert scene seemingly from nowhere, is upset about something, but it is difficult to logically deduce what that really is. He challenges the leadership of Moshe, as well as the priesthood of Aaron, and none of Moshe’s attempts to enter into a dialogue with either him or his followers bear fruit. Eventually, he meets a horrible end, as he and all those involved in this insurrection are destroyed, either by fire or by earthquake.

This story raises challenging questions:

First of all, how could anyone in his right mind challenge the leadership of Moshe? After all Moshe has done, leading the Jews out of Egypt amidst a barrage of miraculous plagues, capped off by the splitting of the Red Sea, one would have thought his authority to be unquestionable, especially after witnessing his direct communications with G-d at Sinai.

However, to be honest, when one considers the actual contention of Korach, it does not seem all that unreasonable: “Ki Kol Ha’Eidah Kulam Kedoshim” (“For the entire congregation are all holy”) (Bamidbar 16:3). Korach points out that everyone witnessed G-d at Sinai, and everyone is holy — so why do we need a priesthood, why can’t we all serve in the Temple?

Our parsha begins with the words “Va’Yikach Korach” (“And Korach took),” but the verse never explains what it was that Korach actually took, and we are left without the end of the sentence. What did Korach take?

Equally challenging is the fact that a closer examination of the story of Korach reveals quite clearly the inconsistency of Korach’s claim. After all, the same individual rallying the people to the cry of “we are all holy,” challenging a system that creates a hierarchy of leaders and those being led, has no problem claiming that same leadership (the priesthood) for himself.

Ultimately, G-d makes it clear that Korach’s rebellion is so terrible that it must be completely destroyed.

What exactly is so terrible about Korach’s contentions? After all, this is not the first time the Jews have argued with, murmured against, or even challenged the leadership of Moshe? 

There is a beautiful teaching in Ethics of the Fathers (5:20) which discusses the concept of debate or argument.

“Every argument (machloket) which is for the sake of heaven (“Le’Shem Shamayim”) will ultimately endure, but every argument which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. And what is an argument (or debate), which is for the sake of heaven? This is the ‘argument’ of the students of Shammai and the students of Hillel.

“And what is an argument which is not for the sake of heaven (and therefore will, says the mishnah, not endure)? This is the argument of Korach and his congregation.” 

The mishnah says that the argument fomented by Korach, “Ein Sofah Le’Hitkayem,” will not endure.

Here, Judaism is taking an important stand. The issue is not what Moshe and Korach were arguing about; the issue is why argue at all.

The Torah does not tell me exactly what Korach took, because it isn’t important. Korach, says the Torah, was a taker. And in the end, the only cause Korach was fighting for was Korach.

That is why, suggests tradition, the mishnah calls this argument the argument of Korach and his followers and not the debate of Korach and Moshe. Korach was really thinking only of Korach; in the end, there was no room for anyone else.

The mishnah describes an argument that is a righteous, or legitimate, debate as one that is for the sake of heaven (“Le’Shem Shamayim”), it doesn’t refer to it as being for the sake of G-d. Why?

Heaven (shamayim) is a term that has its counter in the earth or the ground. “Ha’Shamayim Shamayim La’Hashem, ve’Ha’Aretz natan Li’vnei Adam” (the heavens belong to G-d, but the earth has been given over to mankind).

Heaven represents endlessness, that aspect of our selves which is truly unlimited. The earth, on the other hand, represents the finite limitedness of this material world. 

The question to consider then, when involved in any debate, is which of these two am I feeding — is the goal of the debate to further the cause of heaven, or is it really only about me?

If all that I do is about what I can give back to the world, then ultimately I am recognizing that there is a part of G-d inside every human being; I am recognizing the endlessness, the unlimited, in all of us. That is a debate for the sake of heaven and such a debate, whatever side of the fence we choose, ultimately serves to bring us all a bit closer together.

But a debate that is in the end only about me, and about feeding my own ego, will only serve to set us all further apart. Such a position does not recognize the fact that everyone has a part of G-d inside of them.

That is why Korach is swallowed up in the ground, because that is what his argument was all about; ultimately, the world was better off without any Korach at all.

Which leaves us with the question we need to struggle with each and every day, and in each and every decision we make: Are we givers or takers? And is what we are doing in any given moment really an act of giving, or have we somehow become, even if for only an instant, a taker, from the family of Korach?

A version of this collect appeared in 2012.