Sermon for June 23, 2017 – Parashat Korach – Friday Night Service
Rabbi Saul Oresky
This week’s Torah portion is parashat Korach, and it describes the greatest rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, one that the text tells us G-d put down in the most definitive manner possible. Upon reading that the leaders of this rebellion, Korach, Datah, and Aviram, and their families, were executed by being swallowed up by the ground breaking open under their feet, and that their 250 followers then died in an all-consuming flame, we might think twice before rebelling or even arguing.
But our tradition tells us that there are correct arguments and disagreements just as there are wrong-headed ones. In the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17, we read “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; 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(s) between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”
Hillel and Shammai were rabbis whose conflicts over what should be Jewish law were epic – each had legions of followers, and it was Hillel whose decisions predominate in our tradition. And yet, their disputes never became rancorous; in fact, we read that their families married with each other. And why did matters remain civil, even cordial, between them? Because neither sought self-aggrandizement – not fame nor riches nor power – but rather they both sought the truth, the correct interpretation of Jewish law. Their mahloket, their dispute, is destined to continue, therefore, because the search for truth is our eternal pursuit.
The word and the concept “Resist!” resonate today, and indeed there is much to resist in our current and very troubled political environment. How do we do so in such a way that our efforts are “l’shem shamayim” – for the sake of heaven? Taking our cues from Hillel and Shammai, we can start by concentrating on issues, not personalities, as difficult as that is these days. When we resort to nothing but ad hominem attacks to make our points, we abandon the search for higher truths. However, we are often thwarted in our attempts to not make arguments personal by engaging in a battle in which the other side does not share our values – when you are constantly being personally attacked, it is nearly impossible, and perhaps not even advisable, to keep your arguments completely issues-oriented.
I have no magic bullet to apply to our difficult situation, but I believe that we must try, despite all opposition, to do what is right and in every way we possibly can to seek justice and equity for all members of society. We might need to leave the rest in G-d’s hands. We can’t expect the ground to open up and swallow our opponents, but we can hope and pray that somehow, with our maximum effort, good will eventually win the day.