For Heaven’s Sake: the Signs of Destructive “Machlokes”

by

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL
Destruction_of_Korah_Dathan_and_Abiram-Meshichistim
Many are the believers in the proverbial notion that “All is fair in love and war,” or that the end justifies the means, so long as the cause is holy – “For the sake of Heaven” Yet, it may do them good to think again.

Izzy sat faithfully at his wife Norma’s side, every day for several months, as she slipped in and out of a coma.

One day as Norma came to; she looked at Izzy with tear-filled eyes. “Izzy, my Izzy,” she said, “You have been with me and stood by me during my toughest times:
When I lost my job, you were there.
When my first hairdressing business failed, you stood by me.
When I got hit by that car, you were with me.
When we lost our dear Jonathan, you were there for me.
When my health started to fail, you stayed by me.”

“You know what I think, Izzy?”

“What dear?” Izzy asked, as his heart welled up with emotion.
“I think that you bring me bad luck!”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The following incident, involving the saintly Chafetz Chaim, is related in the name of Rabbi Berel Wein:

A squabble had erupted among two residents of a certain town. Left to fester, it soon deteriorated into a full blown war, in which their very lives have become consumed by hate – with no end in sight.

Even the sudden death of some of the quarrelers’ own children R’L, had not compelled them to put an end to the incendiary behavior.

Having become aware of the situation, the Chafetz Chaim saw fit to personally intercede. He is reported to have engaged one of the partner’s pleadingly: “Do you not see how this is harming your family; your children…! Don’t you think it is time to stop?”

“I’m in this to the end…” was the man’s alleged response. “I will bury them all but I am going to win.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Many are the believers in the proverbial notion that “All is fair in love and war,” or that the end justifies the means, so long as the cause is holy – “For the sake of Heaven” Yet, it may do them good to think again.

At the center of this week’s Parsha, is the dramatic and tragic narrative of a man called Korach. The brilliant and charismatic Korach and three pathetic sidekicks – Dasan, Aviram and Ohn the son of Peles, along with a group of 250 prominent people; all heads of Sanhedrin – picked a fight with none other than Moshe and Aharon; challenging their leadership and authority: “They gathered together against Moshe and against Aharon and said to them, ‘It is too much for you! The entire community is holy, and G-d dwells among them, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?’” (Bamidbar Chap. 16)

It is true that not all quarrels are inherently bad. One could only imagine how dry the Talmud would be in absence of its legendary style of assiduous contest and debate. Argument is the very lifeblood of Talmudic technique. Still, this classic Biblical squabble was clearly not of the good assortment. Despite all the “Holy” trappings, Korach’s campaign against Moshe is clear proof of a conflict that is of the destructive variety.

Given the above, how are we to tell the difference between a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven and one that is driven by evil and destructive bias?  How are we, whether perpetrator or victim,  to see through the righteous trapping and holy guise behind which the destructive conflict so often tends to mask its ugly and deplorable face?

The answer lies within our Parsha’s predominate narrative of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe. Korach’s rebellion is indeed held up by the sages as the epitome of “Machlokes Shelo l’Shem Shamayim – an argument, or controversy, that is not for the sake of Heaven” (Avos 5:17).

This is to say that the detailed description of Korach and his attack – associated and identified with any number of negative traits and character flaws – serves as a handbook of sorts, vis-à-vis the nature of malevolent conflict. Any assault that contains the traits associated with those of Korach and his campaign against Moshe, are certain to smack with evil motives and dark underpinnings.

In the above light, here are some of the telltale traits that render a conflict unequivocally defiant and unjustifiable in any way shape or form.

Selfishness

The foremost cause of unholy dispute has to do with intention. If one’s intention is truly for Heaven’s sake then the Machlokes is possibly of the good variety. On the other hand, any Machlokes that stems from self interest is clearly not of the good assortment.

Hence, assert the commentaries, does Korach’s challenge against Moshe begin with the words “And Korach took (Numbers 16.1).” Why the word “Took” in the singular form, were there not many people together with him? Additionally, there is no direct object for the word “Took.” “What did Korach take?” The answer that is given, is that each person involved in the argument had his own selfish motive and agenda, hence the singular form.

The point of the Torah is then simply that Korach “Took;” he was a taker, or in today’s vernacular he was “On the take.” Accordingly, the first sign in determining whether a controversy is holy or malevolent, is the nature of the challenge. If it is of a selfless variety, then there is a fighting chance that it is for “The sake of Heaven.” If on the other hand it is of the self serving – self rewarding variety, it is Trief and should be abandoned at all cost.

Deception

Wholesome controversy and disagreement need not resort to deceptive tactics, truth is its best ally. The slightest degree of deception is thus proof of trouble.

Korach made it appear as if his rebellion was purely for “For Heaven’s sake.” After all, it was not money or riches that he and his men sought, all they asked for was “Equal opportunity”– the same level of Divine service as Moshe and Aharon: “For the entire nation is holy, why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of Israel?” (16:4).

Compare this to the earlier rebellions against the Heavenly Manna, or the fear of entering the Promised Land, and it seems compelling that Korach and his followers were head and shoulders above the petty moaners and groaners that preferred “The free fish in Egypt.” Yet Korach was indeed deceptive. While he hid behind high minded principles he was in truth driven by jealousy, greed and honor.

Presenting himself as a spokesman for the nation, he pretended to demand nothing but equality and fairness, yet in reality he sought for himself the High Priesthood. His ostensible altruistic endeavor, was in reality nothing more than a veneer of so called “Shem Shamayim.”

His image of high principle was in reality a camouflage for self-triumph and aggrandizement. This, say the commentaries, is why the Mishnah singles out Korach and his group as the quintessence of Machlokes.

The sign is then once more clear. When the struggle for power and self- interest are guised in a fight for high principles, despite obvious personal gain, it is a most dangerous and contaminated form of Machlokes.

Confluence of Interests

There is a saying that “Politics makes for strange bedfellows,” this can be said of Korach’s eclectic coalition as well. Korach’s mutiny is referred to in the Mishnah as the “Dispute of Korach and his followers.” Many are the commentators who pose the obvious question: Seemingly, it should be referred to as the dispute between Korach and Moshe. Why the use of the misleading term: “The dispute of Korach and his followers?”

In answer to the question the commentators identify yet another characteristic belonging to the ungodly class of dispute. A dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, they assert, has clearly defined sides – each camp is united in their views and understanding of their position. With regards to the Machlokes that is not for Heaven’s sake, on the other hand, there is no unity even among the allied factions, for each faction of the same side possesses a differing agenda. They have become bedfellows out of a sheer sense of expediency – limited common interests.

Such was the case with Korach and his followers. All of them were united against Moshe and Aharon, but divided among themselves. Korach wanted to become the Kohen Gadol, for he felt that the position belonged to him. Dasan, Aviram and Ohn, on the other hand, were angry about the birthright that had been taken from Reuven, in addition to Dasan and Aviram being long time adversaries of Moshe and Aharon.

The 250 leaders had yet their own agenda – they each sought their own honor and aggrandizement. A marriage of convenience had brought them all together, but they were not in the least united. Thus, conclude the commentaries, this dispute is referred to as “The dispute of Korach and his followers.” The fact that Korach and his followers did not agree with one another regarding their opposition of Moshe and Aharon, is the ultimate proof that their argument was not for the sake of Heaven.

How prevalent is this characteristic in the world of Machlokes. How often do contestants of various backgrounds and interests flock together in defeat of a common enemy, convinced of the holiness and sanctity of their own cause. Yet is that really the case? If the story of Korach is any proof, this type of alliance smells like rotten fish. The integrity of this type of alliance should to be treated with utmost suspicion.

Playing on Weakness

Bearing in mind that the mutiny against Moshe consisted of separate groups with divergent arguments and agendas – Korach sought self aggrandizement while the notorious trouble makers, Dasan and Aviram, continued to advocate the “Riffraff” (Asafsuf) sentiment that had already spread through the nation and found expression in the sin of the scouts – another nasty tactic was introduced into the mix – the “Gang-up” factor.

Smelling blood, as a result of Moshe’s weakened stance in face of the new onslaught, Dasan and Aviram decided to make the most of it and take another cheap shot at forcing their worn out agenda: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

Their argument, that “You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of fields and vineyards,” was the same old mischievous complaint advanced by those who “Felt a gluttonous craving” at Kivros Ha-ta’ava (Bemidbar 11:4), as well as by the spies, yet they aimed to take advantage of Moshe and Aharon’s beleaguered circumstances.

It does not take a brain surgeon to know that arguments that are for the “Sake of Heaven,” do not resort to exploitive tactics. Yet in our self delusion we sometimes convince ourselves that by exploiting weakness we can advance our Divine objective. The story of Dasan and Aviram’s gang up tactics, is a clear message that this is not a way of attaining spiritual victory; it has no place within holiness.

Avoidance of Direct Communication At All Cost.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110: a) derives from our Parsha that one must not perpetuate a Machlokes, and those who do are in violation of a negative command: “And you shall not be like Korach and his men” (Bamidbar 17:5).

In expounding this Talmudic statement, Rashi muses over which particular element of the narrative the Talmud bases this prohibition. Rashi concludes that it is from Moshe’s bold overture towards Doson and Aviram, who, in the midst of the bitter mutiny, gave-up on his own honor and prestige and stuck out his hand in peace to the very adversary that attacked him. (Bamidbar 16:12). This nuance contains its own powerful lesson.

Nowhere in the narrative is it related that Korach and company, or for that matter Doson and Aviram, have attempted to approach Moshe and Aharon directly with their complaints. Quite the contrary, as it has just been noted, when Moshe takes the initiative and seeks to establish a face to face dialog, he is rebuffed in the most vulgar and insulting manner: “’We won’t come! Is it not enough that you brought us out of [Egypt], a land flowing with milk and honey, just to kill us in the desert?! What right do you have to set yourselves above us? Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up.”

Instead of attempting to resolve the matter through dialog, or at least give their opponents a fair chance to explain their position, they, in classic Machlokes style, go behind their backs like snakes, spreading all kind of Lashan Hara and forming all kinds of expedient alliances, only then do they spring their ambush.

The Torah is not a story book, it is rather a book of guidance and instruction. Nothing is recorded in the Torah that does not contain a clear and concise message. Accordingly, the reason the Torah includes all the details and side stories, within the general narrative, i.e. Dasan and Aviram’s joining the rebellion and their rebuff of a face to face dialog with Moshe etc., is because it contains invaluable lessons regarding our own Modus operandi.

One who engages in this type of warfare, believing that he is fighting the war of G-d, must know that he is, beyond a scintilla of doubt, delusional. The Machlokes that is l’Shem Shamayim leaves no room for such underhanded, despicable tactics.

Those who are of the belief that “All is fair in love and war,” and that the end justifies the means, are not only flat out wrong but dangerous as well. They are no less delusional than those who mix politics and religion, or better said: who drag religion into politics – a rather serious dilemma in our modern Jewish landscape (V’dal).

By taking to heart the keen lessons associated with our Parsha’s narrative, especially the critical event of Korach’s Machlokes against Moshe and all its surrounding details, we will certainly acquire precious insight into the proper service of the Almighty and thereby be better suited to fulfill our true Divine mission in this world (beginning with “First do no harm”). This, of course will hasten the coming of Moshiach BBA.

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