Parashat Korah: An Argument for the Sake of Heaven
A famous Mishna in Pirkeh Abot distinguishes between two different kinds of “Mahloket” (arguments): a Mahloket which is waged “for the sake of Heaven,” and one which is waged “not for the sake of Heaven.” As an example of the former, the Mishna points to the arguments between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. These two schools debated numerous different matters of Halacha, and the Mishna affirms that these arguments were waged “for the sake of Heaven.” As an example of the other kind of Mahloket, the Mishna mentions the Mahloket instigated by Korah and his followers against Moshe and Aharon.
How can we determine which arguments are waged sincerely, for the sake of Heaven, and which are waged insincerely, like Korah’s fight against Moshe Rabbenu? Is there a tell-tale sign of one or the other?
The Gemara relates that although the school of Shammai and the schools of Hillel disagreed on many different subjects, nevertheless, once the Halacha was decided, the students got along. In fact, the Gemara relates, although these two schools disagreed on matters relevant to personal status with respect to marriage, the students nevertheless married each into each other’s families. When the argument ended, they were friendly, respectful and peaceful. This phenomenon can be seen even today in Torah study halls throughout the world. When one enters the room, he sees study partners arguing vociferously with one another. Each student valiantly defends his position, insisting that his reading of the text, or his understanding of the topic, is the correct one. I even remember one time when an elderly member of the community, who did not have a yeshiva background, came into the yeshiva where I was studying and scolded us for fighting. He gave us a lecture about how hatred destroyed the Bet Ha’mikdash, and how we needed to be nice to one another. We explained to him that we were arguing over words of Torah, but did not hate each other at all. And the proof is that when the students close their books and finish their studies, they are the best of friends. They help each other in every way, and enjoy close, meaningful camaraderie. The arguments in the study hall are “Le’shem Shamayim,” sincerely for the sake of Hashem, and not out of personal animus. And so when the study session ends, so does the arguing, and the close, genuine bonds of friendship are expressed.
This was not the case with Korah’s fight against Moshe. His fight, of course, failed, resulting in terrible tragedy, but had he succeeded, Heaven forbid, and defeated Moshe, the fighting would not have ended. After all, he and his cohorts were united by only one common cause: to defeat Moshe. Other than that, they were enemies. They each vied for power and prestige, driven by their own egotistical motives. And so had they defeated Moshe, they would have continued fighting – among themselves. This is indicated by the Mishna, which says that the example of an argument that is “not for the sake of Heaven” is “the argument of Korah and his following.” The Mishna speaks of not Korah’s argument against Moshe, but rather of Korah’s argument with his own people. This argument, which would have erupted if Korah had defeated Moshe, proves that this argument was not waged out of sincere motives. When a sincerely motivated argument ends, peace prevails. When an insincerely motivated argument ends, the fighting continues.
This is the difference between a legitimate argument and an illegitimate argument. A person cannot claim to be sincerely motivated if he is constantly waging battles and always finds himself embroiled in one conflict or another. One can be said to be engaged in a truly sincere argument only if he is otherwise peaceful and amicable, and is not, like Korah, always fighting to push his personal agenda. This is the tell-tale sign of a “Mahloket Le’shem Shamayim.”