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For Heaven's Sake!

By: Rabbi YY Wenglin

When Jews think of Parshas Korach, their minds tend to recall the mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:20) regarding machlokes l’shem Shomayim (a dispute for the sake of Heaven).  One would think that it would be advisable, therefore, for a rabbi who is planning to write about this parsha to avoid this topic and to seek instead for material that might be more novel.  Well, because of the practical importance of the topic of machlokes l’sham Shomayim, I have decided to eschew the advice and plow boldly forward, even at the risk of being seemingly unoriginal in a hackneyed and trite kind of way.

Pirkei Avos tells us that the dispute between Korach and his entire assembly is an example of a dispute that was not for the sake of Heaven.  I just want to bring out a few fundamental and practical ideas regarding the concept of dispute that Chazal teach us.  To begin, it is critical to realize that machlokes – dispute – is actually an integral part of reality.   Machlokes can only exist when more than one entity exists.   The Ohr Gedaliyahu explains that on the first day of Creation, which the Torah calls “the Day of One,” the revelation of Hashem in the physical world was perfectly clear.  Multiplicity and disparity were not yet part of the physical world in a way that would hide Hashem’s Oneness.  On the second day, the concept of diversity and multiplicity became a reality in the world (the firmament separated between the waters).  It is this multiplicity that is the essence of physical reality, which Hashem uses to hide the clear manifestation of His Oneness, thus setting the stage for the operation of human free will.  The second day of Creation represents a mixed bag of sorts: on the one hand, Hashem’s purpose is that His Unity should be hidden by physical reality only to be revealed by the efforts of Jews making free-will choices; on the other hand, the multiplicity actually creates the possibility for the very erroneous perception that Hashem, ch”v, does not exist!  This latter point explains why the verse כי טוב (“It was good”) does not appear on the second day; how could it be remotely good that there could be even a thought that Hashem does not exist, ch”v?  But it is the former point that helps clarify why, at its source, machlokes is a good thing, since machlokes emerges only when diversity exists, and diversity is necessary for the Creation to provide us with the opportunity to fulfill Hashem’s purpose for us.  Ultimately, diversity and separation create a deep yearning for unity.  It is this deep yearning that underlies a machlokes that is for the sake of Heaven.

What exactly is a machlokes for the sake of Heaven?  The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) gives us a critical insight, averring that even a father and son or a rav and talmid who are deeply involved in a discussion of Torah learning will become enemies with each other but they will not move from their place until they love each other.  The question is how is the Gemara so sure that every such a chavrusa will start with the parties becoming enemies and will end with them as loving friends.  The answer is that, as mentioned above regarding multiplicity, once there are two people involved in a debate, there are two opinions.  And these opinions will not be in sync.  The opponents will commence the proceedings by strongly asserting their respective viewpoints – after all, those viewpoints are what they know and what they are comfortable with at this stage – and each person will perceive the other to be standing in the way of the domination of his (the first person’s) opinion.   Thus, the other can only be seen as an enemy.  Literally.  The Talmud is able to make its prediction because it knows that coupled with the existence of multiplicity of opinion is also the power of the ego, which makes each party absolutely certain of the rightness and correctness of his viewpoint.  At that point, the only proper way to view the opponent is as an enemy of truth.

But the Talmud knows that love is the end result because something subtle will start to happen amidst all of that ego-based grandstanding.  Each party will realize something fundamental about himself and his opponent.  Each party will say to himself, “I’m so sure that I’m right, and I’m passionate about it.  But, one second, my adversary is also passionate and he also thinks that he is correct and has the truth on his side.  Hey, when you look at the bigger picture here, we have something in common after all.  We both want the truth – and that’s really the reason why we’re both so fired up!”  At this point, each person will have to make the critical decision to determine which is bigger, which is more important: the need to find the truth or the need to be right. The person who can sublimate his ego to the higher value of truth will come to love his opponent, since the opponent is just there to help bring out the truth.  We love a person who helps us achieve our goals.  But the person who is interested in his ego and in being right will remain an enemy and will view his opponent as one as well. 

And such a person won’t even remain in the dispute very long, and this can be seen by implication from the above-cited Gemara.  The Talmud predicts that a person who is interested in the dispute for the sake of Heaven – that is, for the sake of revealing Hashem’s truth in the physical world – and not for his own ego will not move until he loves his opponent.  Why won’t he move?  Because to move – to walk away -- would be to end the interaction with the other party, and this would mean a victory for the ego but not for the truth.  Once a person puts the value of truth over the value of his own ego, he is not going anywhere, because he knows that the truth depends on the exchange of ideas between two disparate individuals.  Only via the multiplicity of the second day can the unity of the Day of the One be revealed in a world of physicality.  But for the person whose ego needs to be right, continued dialogue is dangerous, and for him, the best approach – the only approach – is to walk away before the truth proves him wrong.

The Talmud thus teaches us how to identify a person who is involved in a dispute for the sake of Heaven: he stays engaged in the debate and he loves his adversary.  And in their description of Korach’s antics, the Sages and the Rishonim also let us know how to identify a person who is not interested in arguing for the sake of Heaven.  In general, such a person employs two tactics. The first is to rely upon tricks designed to inflame the emotions, and the second is to avoid logical argumentation involving facts and reason or otherwise discussing the issue on the merits.  Korach waited to incite against Moshe only in the second year in the desert, after several punishments had been inflicted against the nation and after the incident of the spies, knowing that he could capitalize on the low morale of the people.  He agitated by highlighting the apparent nepotism of Moshe’s appointment of Aharon as Kohen Gadol.  He mocked the Torah’s laws of tithes, gifts to the kohanim, and gifts to the poor as being self-serving inventions of Moshe.  He mocked the need for techeilis in the tzitzis.  And when Moshe Rabbeinu engaged Korach in a calm debate, Korach made the conscious decision to remain silent, knowing that any argument that he made would be rebuffed by Moshe, causing all of Korach’s followers to make peace with Moshe.  The Midrashim make clear that Korach was blinded by his ego and need for glory; once the ego gains the upper hand, emotions reign, facts no longer matter, and truth leaves the premises.

Each of us has our opinions.  And Hashem wants it that way.  Once a being has individuated existence, with consciousness and will – in other words, once a being is a “second day of Creation” being – such a being will have a unique perspective and opinion.  And each of us has our ego.  Interaction with any other individuated being by necessity puts our opinions on the line and threatens our egos.  The challenge is to be like Hillel and Shammai, to nullify the ego and argue the issue in pursuit of Hashem’s truth and not our own.  A person should want to be wrong for the sake of Heaven!

We can conclude with a great depiction of the nature and significance of a machlokes l’shem Shomayim by considering the keruvim that were on the cover of the Aron HaKodesh.  The keruvim were located in the Kodesh HaKadoshim, the holiest place in the world, the place where unity was achieved between Hashem and the Jewish People.  They were ten tefachim high, and the Talmud (Succah 5b) indicates that this level represents the conceptual contact point between Hashem’s domain and the domain of human beings.  The Ba’al HaTanya (in Likutei Torah, Parshas Teruma) informs that the keruvim linked the upper and lower worlds.  In short, the keruvim are significant items in a significant place representing a significant connection between us and Hashem.  The keruvim occupied the opposite ends of the cover – the extremes --  but it was forbidden to make them individually and later attach them to the cover; instead, one block of gold was to be banged out in the middle, and the gold that thereby moved to the extremes was to be fashioned into the keruvim.  Thus, from the unity of the middle came the two perspectives of the extremes, reminding us that at their root, the two diametrically opposite points of view are rooted in oneness.  And the keruvim faced each other with the faces tilted downwards, towards the Luchos (the Tablets) that were in the Aron, which represent Hashem’s truth.  From opposite ends, the keruvim looked humbly downwards towards the middle – their source – with their eyes always on the truth between them.   Interestingly, in Parshas Teruma, which describes the vessels of the Mishkan, the verse (Exodus 25:18) commands regarding the keruvimmiksha ta’aseh osam,” which is the only time that the letters that spell “emmess” – alef, mem, and tav – appear as roshei teivos in connection with the description of the manufacture of any of the vessels.  In other words, the keruvim represent the idea of achieving truth – and connection to Hashem -- via disparity of perspective and via nullification of the ego. 

May we merit to sublimate our egos to the truth and be able to find other like-minded individuals to be our partners in dispute!

Shabbat Shalom





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