parashat hashavua Korakh: Makhloket

Our concept for the week is makhloket, which means “argument” or “disagreement” but comes from a root that can also mean “slippery”. It is a Hebrew word with impressive pedigree. In the Talmud, our Sages explain that there are two kinds of makhloket, that which is “for the sake of heaven” and that which is “not for the sake of heaven.”

Any makhloket which is for the sake of heaven will endure; that which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.

What is a makhloket which is for the sake of heaven? that of Hillel and Shammai.

What is a makhloket which is not for the sake of heaven? that of Korakh.   (Avot 5.17)

So who is Korakh and why is our parashat hashavua, our Torah reading of the week, named after him? We see that by the time the Rabbis of the Talmud want to illuminate a form of disagreement, they use Korakh as a prime example.

Korakh leads a rebellion against Moshe. His protest against Moshe’s leadership, as the Torah records it, is:

“You take too much upon you. Look: all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and G-d is among them. Why then do you lift yourselves above the assembly of G-d?”(Numbers 16.3).

This sounds reasonable enough. G-d calls upon all the Israelites to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” in Exodus; Korakh is protesting, it seems, against too much totalitarian control of the people. Korakh speaks high-sounding words here – why should our tradition call his argument a makhloket without merit?

The answer is because Korakh’s argument was disingenuous. He didn’t really want to promote democracy. As a member of the Levite tribe himself, close kin to the families chosen to be priests, Korakh wanted a piece of that action for himself. He was using an argument that sounded far more noble than his actual intentions were. This manipulation caused other, non-Levite Israelites, to be encouraged that they too might rise to leadership; 250 of them joined Korakh.

The Torah records that the rebellion ended when the earth itself opened her mouth and swallowed up Korakh and all his fellow protesters. This may seem like a harsh punishment, so I encourage you to think of it differently. Korakh’s argument had no grounding.

Makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement for the sake of a higher cause, can be difficult but is always praiseworthy. Anything less is hurtful, dismissive of the real stakes, and devoid of any positive outcome. When you are next involved in a makhloket, ask yourself: is it truly for a worthwhile cause, or are you actually veiling lesser feelings and needs? If so, is there a way you can take a step back and consider your grounding, and what the lack of it might cost you – and others?

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