There is a time for every purpose under heaven – Kohelet 3.1
This week’s parashah recounts a familiar place to we who are living the nightmare of what the United States has become. As our ancestors in parashat Korakh, we find ourselves in the middle of a long wandering. As then, we are lost, with no clear end to the frightening uncertainty in sight. Friends are irritable with each other, fights break out, people use unkind words. Those with selfish motives take advantage of the confusion.
Out of the general misery, some step forth and offer the clarity of their leadership – and just as now, our ancestors were faced with the question of whose voice to heed. Was it right to continue to follow Moshe, Miriam and Aaron? Or was another Levite, their cousin Korakh, correct in his assessment that those who led us out of Egypt had lost their way?
The Rabbis of antiquity experienced the oppression of the Roman Empire, out of which Jewish voices such as that of Bar Kokhba, the leader of a great rebellion against Rome, promised release. Then as now, rebellion against unjust power may be called for, but how are we to discern the best way, the proper time, the reason and the rationale?
They developed an effective way to judge which of the charismatic voices clamoring for our attention might be the right ones to follow:
Makhloket l’shem shamayim, “strife for the sake of heaven,” according to the Talmud, refers to honorable dissent. Its opposite, makhloket which is not for “the sake of heaven” is that which is self-centered, indulges in ad hominem attacks, and is doomed to fail.
Korakh is the classic case of the wrong kind of strife, teach the Rabbis: he failed because his words showed that, in essence, he did not care about the best leadership for the Israelite people. He simply wanted to be leader himself, and resented having been relegated to a supportive role in the community structure.
The doctrine of makhloket l’shem shamayim is still a Jewish ethical ideal today, encouraging us to engage with our opposition respectfully when we disagree. We are commanded to use just weights and just measures in our communal interactions with each other; just ends require just means.
As for the right time, and the right way, to rise up against power, rabbinic Judaism teaches that the highest value is that of preserving life: both the lives of the oppressed and the life of one who would act for justice. Martyrdom is not a Jewish value; living to fight another day is.
You are not required to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot 2.16
The wandering is long and uncertain; the work is piecemeal and slow.
True voices of justice are full of patient compassion, true arguments leave room for learning and growth, and true leadership rallies the best of the entire community. May we find it within ourselves to step up with our best when we can, despite the stress of fear, and may we never forget that kindness toward each other is the only firm grounding upon which we may expect to build a more just world.