The Rabbis of the Mishnah say, “An argument which is for the sake of Heaven will have a positive outcome, and an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a positive outcome.” The paradigm presented of a sincere argument “is the dispute between Hillel and Shamai. And what was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his men” [Avot 5:20].
The Rabbis fail to mention Moshe, Korach’s antagonist, as they had mentioned Hillel’s opponent, Shamai. Why do they write asymmetrically, as if Korach was disagreeing with his own group?
The most common answer is that a major indication of Korach’s insincerity was the infighting amongst his followers. Korach and his men each had their own motives and fought not only against Moshe but among themselves, as well. Another popular explanation is that since Hillel and Shamai were both genuine, it makes sense to list them each as members of a sincere dispute. However, in the case of Korach against Moshe, it was only Korach who was insincere. Moshe was not engaged in an artificial fight and therefore his name is not mentioned here.
Perhaps the reason why Moshe is not listed as the other side of Korach’s fight is because from Korach’s point of view Moshe’s perspective did not exist. When someone is engaged in a fight that they just want to win rather than wanting the truth, they close out the other side.
This applies in every phase and arena of life. Most people want their political party, sports team, religion, sub-group within religion, and sub-group within sub-group of religion to emerge victorious, period. As a teacher, my experience is that many of my students just want a higher grade, while a select others truly wish to understand why I saw fit to take off points. The truly spiritual and sincere person who wishes to fulfill God’s will, fights honestly for the truth. Within that fight for truth he acknowledges the possibility of his own error and grants truth even when it rests on the other side of the party line.
When I was 17 and studying in Israel, I was primed to meet with the rabbi of the shul in which I grew up. He had been sent by my parents to convince me to go back to America. I was ready to explain why I was planning to stay in Israel, even against my parents’ will. On my way to the rabbi, I told a friend, “I’m off to an argument and I hope I win.” My friend said that he was sure I would not win. I was incredulous. Yet, he made a strong point, saying, “If you have a discussion you can get somewhere, if you have an argument you never win.” This Mishnah explains that an argument can be won if it is a sincere discussion with ears attuned to the other side.
When Moshe responds to Korach, he makes curious use of the same words that Korach said to him [Numbers 16:3-7]: “Rav lachem — it is enough for you.” Moshe tried to show Korach, by repeating Korach’s own phrase, that there was another side to the story. Korach could not, would not, allow himself to hear his own words echoed back to him from a different vantage point. This is often the case if someone is not open; they are unwilling to allow the other side the same right that they have to an opinion.
The sincerity of Hillel and Shamai trickled down to their students. The Mishnah in Yevamot [13a] says that although their two schools disagreed about major elements of Jewish law, the communities of Hillel and of Shamai were friends with each other and did not hesitate to marry one another. The Gemorah says that the reason why we follow the view of Beit Hillel is because they would study the opinions of Beit Shamai even before they delved into their own viewpoints [Eruvin 13a].
In a related note, the Talmud is sometimes puzzled by a statement made by a rabbi that didn’t seem to fit with his just stated standpoint. The Talmud’s resolution of this apparent inconsistency is that sometimes, in his earnest search for truth, a rabbi would enter the thinking of his opponent and speak l’divreihem — from the point of view of the other side.
The lesson of Parshat Korach is that when we conflict with others we must do it solely for the sake of Heaven. This applies to ethical, political, and religious issues of global import. It would serve us well to wisely take note even when we differ with others over seemingly mundane matters. What is the litmus test by which we can gauge if we are voicing our opinion for the sake of Heaven? Whenever we disagree with others we should truthfully answer one simple question, “Do I hear the other side?”
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School as well as a writer and poet whose work can be found here.