Parashat Korah: Hearing the Other Side
A famous Mishna in Pirkeh Abot (5:17) distinguishes between two kinds of "Mahloket" (controversy) – one which is "Le’shem Shamayim" (for the sake of Heaven), and one which is not "Le’shem Shamayim." As an example of the latter kind of argument, one which is not waged for sincere, altruistic purposes, the Mishna points to "Korah Va’adato," the fight launched by Korah and his cohorts against Moshe and Aharon. This fight was driven by ego and lust for honor, rather than any sort of noble ambition. The Mishna’s example of an argument fought "Le’shem Shamayim" is the arguments between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who debated many Halachic issues out of a sincere desire to arrive at the true Halacha and fulfill G-d’s will.
Many commentators have noted a difficulty in the way the Mishna draws this contrast between the two controversies, distinguishing between "the Mahloket between Hillel and Shammai" and "the Mahloket between Korah and his followers." In reference to the first controversy, the Mishna names both parties of the dispute – Hillel and Shammai. But in reference to the other Mahloket, the Mishna names only the members of one side of the argument – Korah and his followers. Seemingly, the parallel to "the Mahloket between Hillel and Shammai" should be "the Mahloket between Korah and Moshe." Why does the Mishna mention "Korah and his followers" instead of "Korah and Moshe"?
The Talmud tells that when Hillel delivered a class, he made a point of first presenting Shammai’s opinion before proceeding to his own view. Although he disagreed with Shammai, he ensured to study and understand the rationale underlying Shammai’s rulings. He approached every subject with an honest, open mind, driven by the sincere pursuit of truth. He wanted to understand why Shammai said what he did, even he did not agree.
Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) commented that this is one defining characteristic of a "Mahloket Le’shem Shamayim." If someone engages in an argument with sincere, idealistic motives, he approaches the matter honestly and with an open mind. His goal is not to win the argument, not to triumph over his opponent, but rather to arrive at the truth. And therefore he will honestly explore all possibilities to see if perhaps there is merit to the other opinions. But one who fights for the sake of personal honor, to promote his ego, will not listen to the other views. He is not interested in truth; his goal is to win the argument, and so he promotes his side of the debate without giving any consideration to the other side.
For this reason, Rav Schwab explains, the Mishna speaks of "the Mahloket between Hillel and Shammai" and "the Mahloket between Korah and his followers." As far as Korah and his cohorts were concerned, there was no other opinion. They were not interested in truth, and thus they did not consider the validity of Moshe’s position. This was not an argument between them and Moshe; it was all about them. Hillel and Shammai, however, were driven "Le’shem Shamayim," and thus recognized and respected each other’s opinion, even as they strongly disagreed. When one’s goal is not to emerge triumphant, but to arrive at the truth, then he will listen to the other side with an open mind and with respect.
No two people think alike. We have and will always have many disagreements, and this is perfectly acceptable and the way the world has always been. Our goal should not be to agree on every matter, but rather to respect those with whom we disagree. And this begins by listening to other opinions, no matter how strongly we disagree with them. This is the way to ensure that we are driven and motivated by a sincere desire to arrive at the truth, and living our lives genuinely "Le’shem Shamayim."