"And Korach the son of Yitzhar, the son of K'has, the son of Levi, and
Dasan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Peles, the sons of
Reuven, took [themselves to the side]; and they rose up against Moshe..."
The Mishnah in the Chapters of the Fathers [5:17] reads, "Which is an
argument for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Hillel and
Shammai. And not for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Korach
and his entire congregation."
The language of this Mishnah clashes with our expectations. We expect an
analogy -- Hillel vs. Shammai, Korach vs. Moshe. Instead, the Mishnah
reads "Korach and his entire congregation," and never mentions Moshe at
The Medrash Shmuel explains that this actually makes perfect sense. "Which
is an argument for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Hillel and
Shammai," both of whom were motivated entirely for the same reasons: the
sake of Heaven. So a comparison between the two is correct and
When we look at the argument between Korach and Moshe, however, there is
no analogy. The motivations of the two parties were not at all the same,
and it would be false to claim that Moshe acted "not for the sake of
Heaven." Moshe had only the purest of motivations. The Mishnah simply
couldn't say that "the argument of Korach and Moshe" was "not for the sake
of Heaven," because that would wrongly place Moshe into the same basket.
There is a simple, yet crucial lesson in this Mishnah: one cannot, upon
seeing an argument, assume that both sides are equally wrong. It does not
"take two to tango." It takes one person doing the right thing, and
another person stirring up trouble, to create an argument.
It could be that one of the parties is no more responsible for the
argument than Moshe was "responsible" for Korach's rebellion. So the
principle of judging others favorably requires that we assume that each
individual side is entirely right, until we know better.
If an observer had come along who did _not_ know better, he or she
could have imagined that our parsha describes a simple power struggle
between Moshe and Korach. This would be ridiculous, and a disgusting
accusation against someone whom the Torah describes as "more modest than
any man!" Moshe was acting entirely for the sake of Heaven, and he had no
interest in making an argument. He was forced into this situation by
Korach, and Heaven forbid that anyone should attribute the least blame to
Moshe for what transpired.
It would also be an error to imagine that this is only true when one of
the parties is as holy as Moshe. A person doing the right thing can be
falsely attacked, and in this there is no difference between Moshe
Rabbeinu (our teacher) and Moshe Schwartz who lives down the block.
What requires Moshe Rabbeinu, or Hillel and Shammai, is that they
_remained_ entirely for the sake of Heaven. The average person is not able
to keep his or her own honor and ego out of an argument. But this does not
mean that he or she was in any way to blame.
Sometimes it may even be you whom people think is "involved" in an
argument, and this may lead you to doubt whether you are truly doing the
right thing. You may consider yourself at least partially responsible for
an argument or ill-feelings, and in so doing will treat _yourself_
In this situation, it is important that you seek out a wise and impartial
counselor. Your Rabbi might be the right person (parents, by the way, are
probably too inherently biased in your favor). It may be absolutely true
that you are "over the line" -- but perhaps people are blaming you for
something which is none of your doing.
A story of this nature once happened to me while I was studying in Israel.
Without being too specific about the details, the Rosh Yeshiva, the Dean
of my Yeshiva, told me that in his judgment it wasn't worthwhile for me to
become involved with a particular program. It was a "kosher" activity,
nothing that would ordinarily be considered wasting time from study -- but
the Dean felt that it wasn't appropriate for me. [He was right, as I
learned several years later.]
Of course, I didn't go to the people involved and tell them that I refused
to participate -- I simply said that I wasn't available, which was true.
Another student let the reason why slip out. Of course, they really
have an argument with the Rosh Yeshiva, but the news quickly traveled back
to me that they had heard about this and were essentially blaming me for
following the Rosh Yeshiva's advice.
Of course, I have been in a host of arguments in my life where I was wrong
-- this was one of the fortunate exceptions. Nonetheless, I was somewhat
upset about the situation, and discussed it with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi
Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman, of "Lakewood East," the branch of Lakewood in
Israel (Bais Medrash Gavoha D'America B'Eretz Yisrael).
At the time, we were studying Tractate Bava Metziah, which covers various
financial laws. The Mishnah on page 75b says, "One who hires workers, and
the workers fool each other, they only have claims (Tarumos) against each
other." The Talmud explains the situation: a business owner asks someone
to hire workers at a particular rate, and the middleman then tells the
workers that the owner will pay them, naming a higher fee than what the
owner actually said. At the end of the day, the workers go to collect
their wages, and the owner gives them only the smaller amount.
The Mishnah is telling us that a court not only cannot force the
additional outlay upon the innocent owner, but also cannot force the
middleman to pay the difference. Since he told them that the owner alone
was responsible for paying them, and because both rates were reasonable
for workers of that type, he ends up walking away free. The workers can
claim that they would have made the effort to try to find higher-paying
work, but the middleman can respond that without him, they would not have
found work at all -- and thus he escapes liability by claiming that his
deception was actually to their benefit.
A court cannot force the middleman to pay, but the workers do have
"Tarumos," claims. The middleman will be judged in Heaven for his
actions, for deceiving the workers.
So Rabbi Schwartzman told me: from here we learn that "Tarumos" are also
a "zechus," a privilege. Not everyone gets to have "claims." These
workers have claims against the middleman, because he deceived them, he
caused an argument, he created trouble. But when people are doing the
right thing, it is not their responsibility if others decide to be angry
with them for doing the right thing. Those others are the ones creating
the argument, not the innocent they accuse.
Once again, this needs to be discussed carefully with an impartial
counselor or Rabbi. But we must not be afraid to do the right thing,
merely because someone might use this as an excuse to be angry. It is true
that Hillel sought peace, and pursued peace, and we should be like Hillel
-- but Moshe is no less a role model. Sometimes, we need to be ready to do
the right thing -- and that doesn't make us "part" of an argument!