Korach and his Dishonest Argument // Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)
By Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, founder of
, downtown Toronto’s newest Reform congregation
“Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Korach and his assembly.”
So teaches Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, chapter 5, mishnah 20. The Rabbis choose Korach’s dispute in this week’s parsha as the template for how not to debate. They aren’t against debate itself—just take a look at any page of the Talmud to see how much they debate among themselves!—but as a warning against the “wrong” type of debate. Why Korach? There are many good arguments in the Torah, especially between Moses and the Jewish people and even between Moses and God. But Korach’s argument is singled out as the kind which will not stand.
We need to look at the question two ways: First, what does the Mishnah mean by “not endure”? And second, what was the nature of Korach’s dispute that makes it so unique?
The word the mishnah uses for an argument enduring or not enduring is the Hebrew
is something that is well-established; it has the sense of something standing firm and solid. It is built well and will last well. Thus the Mishnah proposes that any disagreement which is to further Judaism—”for the sake of Heaven”— is a solid, well-standing argument. Because it is grounded in love of Judaism—even if it is a critique—in the future, we will learn from it. We will use it as an example. And in fact, it could be argued, such an argument will be repeated from generation to generation.
These were the disagreements of Hillel and Shamai; and in fact we continually read and reread those disagreements and learn from them. They were disagreements to get at an answer that would fit for all Jews: how to properly light a Chanukiah, how to correctly hang a mezuzah. Hillel and Shammai never argued about whether or not to light that Chanuliah or hang that mezuzah. They only argued about the mechanics of it. That is why their debates stand. When we read them today, we are not led to ponder the efficacy of Chanukah candles or the need to have a mezuzah on the door. We are only left to ponder the
, not the
And their arguments were honest. They were seeking not to aggrandize themselves. They were not seeking argument for argument’s sake. They didn’t leave the questions hanging; they were prepared to work out the answers.
But not so with Korach. His arguments in this week’s parsha begin reasonably enough; in fact, from the outside it would appear that this rebellion is “for Heaven’s sake.” It wasn’t fame or fortune that he and his cronies was seeking. All they wanted was “equal opportunity” – the same level of Divine service as Moses and Aaron have. “For the entire nation is holy, why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of Israel?” (Numbers 16:4).
Yet the second half of his claim seems to be missing. He doesn’t follow up his critique with a “therefore let us help you serve” or “we will stand with you all the way and help the whole congregation be holy.” There is no advice given nor protocol suggested. They just leave their critique hanging in the air, and so, in the end, it is a complaint against Moses’ authority—a
complaint—and not a suggestion on how to improve—constructive criticism.
Korach comes off as a concerned citizen, but in the end, he isn’t.
The Rabbis are concerned with deceptive appearances. Like Korach, they use the pig as a prototype: it has split hooves but doesn’t chew its cud. The pig presents the external trappings of a kosher animal. It looks kosher. But it isn’t. As Midrash Rabbah says, the pig pretends to be something it isn’t. Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 65:1 says “…when the swine is lying down it puts out its hoofs, as if to say, “I am clean!” Like Korach. Korach puts out his foot, metaphorically: “Look, I care about you! I care about the community! I care about all our spirituality!” But he doesn’t finish the job. He just complains.
Korach is singled out because he couched his debate as a positive one, when in the end it was all just a big “kvetch-session.” Like the unkosher pig, he made his argument look kosher, but upon close inspection, it wasn’t. Deception won’t stand firm in the end, even if it looks good at the beginning.
Don’t we all know members of the Jewish community who do the same? Couch their complaints in lofty language when in the end they aren’t willing to do the tough jobs, to make the corrections, to see through the changes?
Only honesty and
concern for the Jewish future will last—or at least we hope so.