Parshat Korach: Arguing for the sake of heaven

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner
Rabbi Jennifer Weiner (David Stuck)

By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

In our weekly Torah portion, Korach leads a band of rebels. Korach no longer wishes to follow Moses’ leadership. Instead, Korach wishes to be the leader of the Children of Israel. Korach brings together a group of disgruntled community leaders and leads a rebellion. In the end, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

According to Rabbi Daniel Zemel in “Living Torah,” Korach was a rebel without a cause. Zemel cites Pirkei Avot 5:17, “What is an example of a battle that is not for the sake of heaven? This is the battle of Korach and his band.” In this interpretation, Korach is only rebelling for self-advancement and not for the betterment of our world. This train of thought is also cited in another commentary by Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, who suggested that the reason the verb for “took” is used in the singular in the first verse of this week’s portion is to teach that each rebel was acting as an individual. Nechama Leibowitz, a modern commentator, furthers the discussion and states that pride got in Korach’s way.

Yet, in Judaism, rebelling does not have a negative connotation if it is for the correct reason. Almost 2000 years ago, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai set forth the concept of “Machloket L’shem Shamayim,” meaning disagreements for the sake of heaven. These two rabbis in the Talmud argued a lot with each other’s resolutions to conflicts. Yet, there was a mutual respect between the two during their debates. The commentators of the Talmud crafted the telling of these scholars’ arguments in such a manner as to have them discuss the various topics “L’shem Shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. The two of them did not argue in order to improve their own lives but rather to help others.

There was nothing wrong with the concept of Korach questioning Moses’ ruling of the community. Actually, according to our tradition, we should call out those in leadership positions not acting justly and those acting selfishly. The lesson of this Torah portion is the manner in which we act. Instead of malice, we are taught that one must act with kavod, respect, toward G-d and others. You may be wondering what we do when being polite and following correct channels does not get results. Well then, we rebel! We rebel in a manner that will get us noticed as the those in the right and not those making noise for the sake of drawing attention.

During Pride Month, let us follow the lessons of this Torah portion. Pride Month was founded as a means to remind individuals that one’s sexual orientation or means of living one’s life in love may be different than another’s. By us standing up and declaring that all humans are created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G-d, we are taught by those who suffered that it is good to be rebels with a cause.

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is the interim senior rabbi at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation in Baltimore. She recently received her doctorate of divinity honoris causa recognizing 25 years of serving the Jewish community.

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