D’var Torah | June 23, 2017

Rabbi Michael Wolk

This Shabbat – Saturday, June 24 – we will read in the Torah the story of Korach and his rebellion against Moses and Aaron.

Jealous of the special relationship that Moses has with God and Aaron’s role as the high priest, Korach instigates a revolt against their leadership with the cry, “All the people are holy, why do you raise yourselves up over the congregation of God?”

At the end of the story, after a public confrontation, God opens a pit in the ground that swallows up Korach and his followers and affirms Moses and Aaron’s place as the rightful leaders.

Korach is perceived negatively in Jewish thought. Although his words paint him as a populist looking to raise up the common people, his actions reveal that he is only interested in using those people to install himself as leader.

In Pirkei Avot (5:17), the rabbis taught, “Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven, the legacy of its participants will endure. Any argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, the legacy of its participants will not endure. What is an argument for the sake of Heaven? That of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. What is an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his followers.”

Hillel and Shammai were rabbis who lived in the first century of the common era and were known to disagree on virtually every matter of Jewish law. Yet despite their ongoing disputes, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) teaches “that they showed love and friendship toward each other.”

When contrasted with Korach, these two rabbis are held up as paradigms for how to argue with someone in a constructive manner. While the Talmud is vague about how exactly they related to each other, I would guess that their interactions included respectful dialogue, receptivity to the other party’s opinion, benevolent feelings and goodwill toward each other. Korach displayed none of these characteristics when he challenged Moses and Aaron.

The lessons of Korach, and of Hillel and Shammai, about how to argue are relevant for us today in many contexts. First and foremost is the political climate in America. When supporters of rival political parties or politicians demonize each other, their arguments become like that of Korach. Neither the people nor their ideas will endure and benefit our country. Only arguments characterized by the respect and goodwill of Hillel and Shammai stand an actual chance of helping citizens of the United States.

Closer to home, the same lesson applies to the Jewish community. People often ask why there is so much internal fighting, not only in Louisville but in any Jewish community.

I’m not surprised by these fights and arguments; we all have strong opinions about what is best for our synagogues, JCCs, schools and other Jewish institutions. In our community, we must always strive to make sure our arguments are for the sake of Heaven and will have enduring effects. We do this by arguing with respectful dialogue and an openness to other people’s ideas. It is the only way for our community to endure into the future.

(Rabbi Michael Wolk is the spiritual leader Keneseth Israel Congregation.)

Shabbat candles should be lit on the following nights and times: June 23 at 8:51 p.m., June 30 at 8:52 p.m., July 7 at 8:50 p.m., July 14 at 8:47 p.m., July 21 at 8:43 p.m., July 28 at 8:37 p.m.

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