The central focus of this week’s Torah portion is the rebellion of Korach and his followers. Korach was a Levite, as was Moses—both descendants of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). In effect, Korach and Moses were cousins. Nevertheless, within the Torah narrative, God alone had the power and authority to determine the fate of this people. It was God who had appointed Moses as the one who would lead the people out of Egypt, and into a new land and a new life. Moses—not Korach. That should have been the end of the discussion. But Korach did not appreciate having to take this secondary position to his cousin, and fomented rebellion in the desert.
We might be tempted to ask, “What did Korach do that was really so terrible?” Argumentation has always been a characteristic of our people. Nevertheless, we have always made a distinction between mean-spirited, destructive argumentation, and argumentation with the goal of lifting us up toward greater understanding. How do we know the difference? The answer is often difficult and elusive. But that is our responsibility. But Korach was not interested in a respectful exchange of ideas. Korach’s rebellion was mean-spirited and destructive. His intent was to bring Moses down and lift himself up. Period.
To open our Board meeting this past Monday evening, Dr. Marvin Lieberman offered a characteristically brilliant D’var Torah on the art of debating within the Jewish community, which has always characterized our people’s life down through the ages. I offer my appreciation and yesher koach to Marvin. As I noted, it is vital for synagogue leadership, and all leadership, in fact, to be able to tolerate and entertain vigorous discussion, and often, disagreement, as long as the ultimate goal was consensus building within the organization. This has always been a central goal that has driven most of the decisions we have made, and enabled us to function as a congregation, and as a community.
As I have in the past, I would quote, if I may, the locus classicus in Talmudic teaching regarding not only the validity of different opinions, but our obligation to honor them as well. It comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b. It is known popularly by the principle Eilu v’Eilu.
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one school asserting, “The Halakha (law) is according to our views!” The other school asserting, “The Halakha is according to our views!” Then the Bat Kol (Divine Voice) came forth and said: Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim—These and these are the words of the Living God, and the Halakha is according to Beit Hillel.
Since both are the words of the Living God, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the Halakha fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kind and humble, and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.
In our parashah, Korach and his followers were destroyed because they had no interest in entertaining constructive discussion. Korach was a power-grabber, pure and simple, and before he had a chance to destroy the cohesiveness of the community, God intervened and destroyed him instead, along with all his followers. But this story in the Talmud teaches us another way—a better way.
Developing the ability to tolerate, and yes, even honor divergent perspectives is a lifelong process for all of us. I do believe that in many situations, there comes a point at which we absolutely must articulate our position and stand by it. Remember that ultimately the community did accept the rulings of the School of Hillel. Nevertheless, the process of deliberative and open discussion, and acknowledgement of the validity of other opinions, became part and parcel of Jewish tradition. It is wonderful to agree with others, or to be able to work toward a good compromise. But perhaps one of the greatest skills we can acquire is that when agreement is not achievable, then at the very least, we can achieve respectful disagreement. This too, can bring us closer together, in the spirit of Eilu v’Eilu. My wish for our wonderful congregation, particularly during this period of transition, is that our leadership and our congregation at large will work together, not always necessarily in agreement, but always with the goal of respectfully arriving at a workable consensus, and that the discussions may always be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.
And with that, I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom Um’vorach—a Shabbat of blessing, and a Shabbat of peace.