The stakes were high, the tension unbearable. Although Moses had
his hands full from the very beginning, nothing like this had ever
happened before. Contentious, argumentative, hard to satisfy,
the “stiffnecked” Jewish people had tested him again and again, yet they
had never challenged his authority. But now the aristocratic Korach and his
followers were contesting Moses’s right to lead, and the budding conflict
threatened to rip the community to pieces. Only the miraculous
absorption of the dissenters into the bowels of the earth averted
The Torah portrays Korach’s dissension as the prototype of
corrosive conflict, the paradigm of the type of arguments to be avoided;
“you shall not be,” the Torah tells us, “like Korach and his assembly.”
The Torah’s intent is certainly not to restrict the rights of Jews to
express their opinions and engage in meaningful dialogue on any issue.
What then are the particular characteristics of the Korach affair that
brand it as an unacceptable expression of conflicting opinions?
The Mishnah gives us a clue. Arguments for the sake of Heaven,
the Mishnah tells us, such as “those of the sages Hillel and Shamai,”
have staying power, while arguments not for the sake of Heaven, such
as “those of Korach and his followers,” do not. But why exactly is the
staying power of an argument dependent on its motivation?
A close reading of the Mishnah reveals an additional clue. When
speaking about arguments for the sake of Heaven the Mishnah
mentions “Hillel and Shamai,” the two principal antagonists who squared
off against each other on Halachic issues hundreds of times. When
speaking about Korach, however, the Mishnah mentions “Korach and
his followers.” Why doesn’t it refer to “Korach and Moses,” the two
principals in the conflict? The commentators explain that these very
words, ”Korach and his followers.” hold the key to understanding the
When Hillel and Shamai argued points of Halachah, no matter how
heated and intense the debate would become, there was never any
personal rancor. Both were focused on one clear goal - the discovery of
the absolute truth. Therefore, in a very real sense, they were not
antagonists but allies in the noble quest for the truth. The clash of
conflicting points of view only helped highlight the strengths and
weaknesses of each argument, bringing everyone closer to the common
goal. In this light, these were truly the arguments of “Hillel and Shamai,”
since both were equal partners in this intellectual enterprise.
On the other hand, Korach and his followers were not engaged in a
quest for the power. They were motivated only by the quest for personal
power. They were not interesting in engaging Moses in an intellectual
debate to clarify the issues. They simply wanted him out of the way so
that they could grab the reins of power. Therefore. Moses was not a
partner in this argument, and the Mishnah rightfully refers to it as “the
arguments of Korach and his followers.” Such an argument, which
would readily sacrifice truth for persoanl gain, has no staying power.
A prominent member of a synagogue was persuaded by his rabbi
to accept the demanding position of president. He took his
responsibilities very seriously and devoted countless hours to the needs
of the congregation.
“Well, how is it going?” the rabbi asked him one day. “Are you
happy you accepted the position?”
“I find the work very fulfilling,” said the new president. “But there is
one member who always finds fault with me and complains about
everything I do. It bothers me no end.”
“Indeed?” said the rabbi. “Tell me, when you walk down the main
street of town and a vagrant in front of a bar yells insults at you, are
you personally offended?”
“Of course not. He doesn’t mean me. He yells at everyone.”
“Exactly,” said the rabbi. “The same applies to the fellow who’s
pestering you. He is just venting his own frustrations and insecurities
and taking it out on you. Don’t take it personally.”
In our own lives, we see the drama of the Korach incident replayed
in many different settings, such as shul and office politics, family
situations and the like. Ostensibly, the arguments are about all sorts of
issues, but almost invariably, the real issues lie just beneath the surface
- power. prestige and privilege. If only we could recognize these
arguments for what they truly are, we could defuse potentially explosive
situations and prevent untold pain and heartache. As Korach and his
followers discovered, these arguments never have a happy ending.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.