REBELS WITHOUT A CAUSE
Korah goes down in history as a self-centered, egotistical rebel without a cause. For no apparent reason, except for his lust for power and fame, he gathers some 250 followers and attacks Moses and Aaron declaring: “Rav lakhem—you have gone too far! All of the community are holy and the Lord is in their midst, Why do you dare to raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3).
And how does Moses respond to this baseless challenge? He falls on his face appalled and shocked saying, “Comes the morning and the Lord will make known who is the rightful leader of Israel.” The fateful morning came and the earth swallowed up Korah and his followers—lost forever.
Poor Moses: After all he had gone through; after all his personal sacrifices; after all the perils and travails—and this was all Korah and his gang could say of him! Now Moses was not rejecting the right of others to disagree with him; he wasn’t challenging Korah’s ability to question his rulings or opinions. But he was declaring to Korah: “If your argument is just about power and glory then you have no right to challenge me, God’s chosen leader!”
And indeed, that was all Korah’s rebellion was about: power and glory. He had every right to disagree with Moses about a law or a ruling or an interpretation or a political policy. But there was no legitimate basis for his rebellion: it was aimed at sheer power and glory (kavod). The rabbis taught (Mishnah Avot 5:17): “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will succeed. But if it is not for the sake of Heaven, it is doomed to fail. What is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korah and his gang. And what is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.” We know that those two schools of jurisprudence fought over hundreds of issues ranging from when the world was created to what foods are kosher to what marriages are legal. And despite it all, they remained respectful colleagues and loving opponents who associated with and married with one another. Their disagreements were never for power and glory, unlike Korah; rather, their disputes were always for the greater glory of God and for the growth and prosperous development of Jewish law and theology. That is why Korah and his gang were swallowed up and forgotten while Shammai and Hillel still live and are cited in all rabbinic sources and debates. Indeed, there is scarcely a page of the Talmud from which their names are absent.
So by all means, let us differ and debate, dispute and disagree. But let us not disagree disagreeably. And let our political, religious and social disputes aways remain l’shem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven. That is the true spirit of legitimate disagreements in Judaism. And that is, in my opinion, our source of greatness and eternity.
Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Schechter grandparent