By Rabbi James Gordon, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
It is the practice in many synagogue communities to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) prior to Shabbat Mincha on the long afternoons between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah.
In Avot 5:20 we are introduced to the concept of Machaloket (Machalokot – plural). Translated as “dispute,” “controversy,” or “conflict,” we are taught that there is both positive (L’Shem Shamayim – – “for the sake of Heaven”) and negative (Sh’eino L’Shem Shamayim – – “not for the sake of Heaven”) Machalokot. The author of this Tannaitic text tells us further that the “good” Machalokot will have enduring value, while the “bad” Machalokot ultimately will not.
In a pedagogic manner, the Mishna’s author provides examples of both types of Machaloket:
“Eizo hee Machaloket Sh’hee L’Shem Shamayim? Zoh Machaloket Hillel v’Shamai. V’Sh’eina L’Shem Shamayim? Zoh Machaloket Korach v’khawl adato.”
“What is an example of a Machaloket that is for the sake of Heaven? The Machaloket between Hillel and Shammai. And that which is not for the sake of Heaven? The Machaloket between Korach and his entire following.”
It is easy to understand that – if any type of Machaloket would be considered to be “L’Shem Shamayim” – it would be those between Hillel (and the students of his Yeshiva) and Shammai (and his students). After all, these two erudite Sages agreed in (an “estimated”) 99.9 % of the Halakha. The purpose of their Machalokot was totally selfless in nature, as they wanted to clarify/refine the law so more Jews would have a better opportunity to observe the Mitzvot in the most correct manner. There was no ego involved. Nobody was looking for personal recognition, honor or power.
On the other hand, when citing the controversy caused by Korach (the protagonist of this week’s Sidra – – that bears his name), the Torah does not cite Moses or Aaron as his opponents. Rather, his adversary in the Machaloket is listed as “v’khawl adato – – and his entire following.”
Who were the members of Korach’s Eida (following) or in Professor Nehama Leibowitz’s words (in translation): “band of malcontents”?
The Torah lists the starting line-up of Korach’s team: Datan v’Aviram, Ohn ben Pelet (all three descendants of Reuven), along with 250 n’si-im (princes; community leaders).
What were their beefs with Moses and Aaron?
Outwardly their complaint was:
“Rav lakhem ki khawl haEida kulam k’doshim u-v’tokham HaShem u-madua tihtn’su ahl k’hal HaShem?”
“It is too much for you! The entire community is holy and HaShem is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves over them (Numbers 16:3)?”
They communicated to the Children of Israel that an immediate change in leadership was necessary. After all, look what happened under the failed leadership of Moses and Aaron? The majority of Israelites (including the respected leaders of ten tribes) lost faith in the Almighty that He would protect them, ensuring their ability to overcome the challenges of conquering the enemies now living in the Land of Israel. Under the current Israelite leadership, the members of the generation born and raised in Egypt were now prohibited from entering Eretz Yisrael. Instead they were “sentenced” to wandering in the desert an additional 39 years until they all passed away.
Were their reasons for wanting to overthrow and replace Moses and Aaron holy? Did they really have the best (holy) interests of the Children of Israel in mind? Of course not. Their interests were 100 percent selfish in nature.
Korach and his followers were all upset that Moses and Aaron were entrusted with both of the major leadership positions of Israel. While Aaron – in his role as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) – administered the everyday affairs of the Mishkan (Sanctuary), Moses was the Almighty’s human agent in leading B’nei Yisrael.
Why did they feel a sense of entitlement?
As summarized by the Malbim (1809-1879) and other commentators, a first cousin to Moses and Aaron, Korach felt that too much power was given to the sons of his father’s brother Amram. While Amram was the eldest (b’khor) of the four sons of Kehat, Yitzhar (Korach’s father) was number two in birth order. Instead of appointing his own brother as Kohen Gadol (an act that Korach interpreted as nepotism), Korach felt that he should have received this honor. As descendants of Reuven (Jacob’s first born), Datan, Aviram and Ohn felt that they were entitled to at least one of the leadership positions. Moses’ appointment of Joshua as his successor added even more fuel to the fire, as Joshua was a descendant of Joseph. The 250 community leaders were b’khorim (first born) who felt that they were entitled to serve as the Kohen Gadol.
Simple math tells us that when there are 254 men vying for two positions, when all is said and done, 252 people will end up disappointed. While Korach and his followers were united in their shared belief that Moses and Aaron had assumed too much power, they were in total disagreement as to whom should be their replacements. Deposing Moses and Aaron was merely Round One. Round Two would be an all-out war between Korach and his 253 followers.
Returning to the question of why Moses and Aaron were not listed in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot as Korach’s adversaries in the Machaloket, the answer now appears obvious. Korach’s real adversaries were his 253 followers. After all, they all wanted the impossible – – to replace Moses and Aaron.
While the Machalokot between Hillel and Shammai were for holy purposes, the Machaloket between Korach and his 253 followers were for personal egocentric reasons, under the guise of being holy (i.e., replacing ineffective leaders with ones who were better qualified).
Let us all strive to engage in only Machalokot L’Shem Shamayim.
Rabbi James M. Gordon is the assistant rabbi of Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation A.G. Beth Israel (Traditional-Orthodox) in Lincolnwood.