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orach’s alliance was doomed from the start. That’s what happens when coalition partners are propelled by their own self-interest

 

Parshas Korach is the story of the archetypical machlokes. To this day, we’re still straying down the path of divisiveness that was forged in the Wilderness, but what does the parshah wants to teach us about the underpinnings of machlokes?

Korach called for an uprising against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, and his battle cry was one of equality: “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim!” He demanded more humility from the leaders: “Why should you raise yourselves above Hashem’s assembly?” (Bamidbar 16:3). Yet his whole protest stemmed from haughtiness and pride (relative to his high madreigah), from a feeling of deprivation and envy over not having been chosen for a position he believed he was worthy of.

Even a great and righteous man like Korach can fall prey to envy, sink into bitterness, rise up in protest, start a new ideology as an adornment for his struggle, and believe that it isn’t personal at all, but a just campaign against “corruption in high places.”

In what dark recesses of the human mind does this tendency toward machlokes originate? Chazal clearly define machlokes as a form of madness. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, asks, “How did Korach, who was astute, see fit to commit this folly?”

The description “folly” is given to any act that serves no purpose and is not based on any obligation, and factionalism fits the description, “for machlokes has no constructive foundation or nuance…  its whole essence is destructive” (Nachalas Yosef on the parshah).

Our great teachers say there is nothing in the world that a person or a society can’t achieve through peaceful means. Rav Chaim of Volozhin said it pithily in the will he left to his children: “…and through the quality of patience, a person achieves his aims much more than by all the aggressiveness in the world….”

Nevertheless, history shows that people habitually turn to aggression, to the yetzer to triumph over others, to divisiveness, which embitters and hardens even the so-called winner and erodes the morals of the individual and the society. Even the victor comes out a loser.

Korach was not alone. He stood at the head of a coalition of embittered individuals. And here lies the root of the problem, and the falsehood of the “holy rebellion.”

Who were Korach’s allies? “Dasan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On ben Peles, of the tribe of Reuven… and 250 men of Bnei Yisrael, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute” (Bamidbar 16: 1–2).

The brothers Dasan and Aviram, and On ben Peles, were descendants of Reuven. Although it wasn’t evident on the surface, some members of Reuven’s tribe were grumbling. They carried a sense of injury over the fact that the leadership of Am Yisrael had been taken from Reuven, who was Yaakov’s firstborn, and divided between the tribes of Levi and Yehudah. By joining Korach’s rebellion, they gave voice to that deep-seated grievance.

And what about the “two hundred fifty men, chieftains of the congregation”? According to commentaries, each was a bechor, a firstborn son who, until the Sin of the Golden Calf, was of the group who served as the leaders and priests of the people. After the cheit, they were relieved of that task, pushed to the sidelines. Now they had an opportunity to retaliate against Moshe and Aharon.

The declared aim of the membership of this coalition was to replace their current leaders with some form of rule by the people. But in the hearts of each party to the rebellion, a completely different ambition was concealed. Korach, the Levi, sought the crown of leadership for himself. The descendants of Reuven wanted to return the leadership to their tribe and depose the Leviim. And the 250 chieftains dreamed of regaining their former status by reinstating the privileges of the firstborn.

 

THEIR UNITY, THEREFORE, WAS A SHAM — nothing more than a temporary political alliance. Had they achieved their joint aim of deposing Moshe and Aharon, a new and bigger machlokes would have broken out immediately. The personal ambitions of each party in the coalition would have been exposed, and the truth would have emerged: They were all using each other, trying to climb on each other’s backs in their scramble to reach the top.

In Pirkei Avos, Chazal teach: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Avos 5:17).

Note the precision of Chazal’s language. They don’t cite “the dispute of Korach and Moshe” as a machlokes sh’einah l’sheim Shamayim, but rather “the dispute of Korach and all his company.” It is the internal divisiveness within Korach’s supposedly united camp that indicates the impurity of its motives in coming out against external forces.

It’s no wonder, then, that the alliance around Korach failed. Despite the fact that they acted in unison, he and all his followers were lost.

Another identifying mark of a dispute that is not striving for the truth is total refusal to hear the position of the other side. The baal machlokes has simply made up his mind that he is right, and he has no interest in listening to any other view of the situation.

When Korach comes and hurls his accusations at Moshe, Moshe tries to reason with him: “Is it small in your eyes [Bnei Levi] that the G-d of Israel has distinguished you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Him?” (16:15).

Yet Korach deliberately chose not to answer Moshe, as the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni explains:

“Moshe said all this to appease Korach, and you don’t find that he said a word in response. For he was astute in his wickedness, saying to himself, I know he is great in wisdom. If I answer him, he will get the better of me in the argument, and I will be forced to concede. Better that I not engage with him at all.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Korach 16).

That’s how you can “win” in any conflict — just refuse to discuss it.

Dasan and Aviram were coarser in their response. Moshe sent a message, summoning them to come and speak with him, and they answered with chutzpah:

“We will not go up. Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey… must you also exercise authority over us?” (16:12-13).

Dasan and Aviram refused to appear before Moshe. Instead he, the injured party, went to them:

“Moshe arose and went to Dasan and Aviram, and the Elders of Israel followed him” (16:25) in an attempt to make peace and avert disaster.

Is this an extreme example of a man overlooking a slight to his honor? Was it an act suited only to someone like Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of all men? Was he exceeding the limits of strict justice?

That is not how Chazal viewed Moshe’s gesture. In fact, the Gemara draws a halachic conclusion from his course of action: “From here [we learn] that one must not sustain a quarrel” (Sanhedrin 110a).

Moshe didn’t start the fight and has no desire for it. The accusations against him are utterly false. But nevertheless, he is required to go and make a sincere attempt at conciliation, putting his honor aside. Otherwise, the halachah would view him — who did nothing wrong — as a party to the quarrel, and he would be labeled as one who sustains a machlokes.

This entire chapter is multi-layered, but one thing is clear — how detestable machlokes is in the Torah’s eyes, and how beloved are rapprochement and peace.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 714)