There was once a wonderful elderly man in our community who started coming with me to the bet midrash (study hall) in yeshiva. He had not received a yeshiva education, so this was his first exposure to a bet midrash. What he saw at first caused him great distress. He saw havrutot (study partners) shouting at each other, each partner insisting that his reading of the text was correct and that the other’s was wrong. The arguing was fierce and furious, and this elderly man was shocked.
He turned to us and gave us some words of musar (repudiation). “How can you fight like this?” he said. “This is terrible. It is because of you that the Bet Hamikdash is not rebuilt!”
Somewhat humorously, he thought that yeshiva students were to blame for our ongoing state of exile, due to the intense arguing that takes place as the students study difficult ancient texts.
After the learning session was over, we all went to the dining hall for lunch. Once again, this elderly fellow was amazed. The same students who moments before were embroiled in a fierce debate were now sitting together calmly and happily, sharing some laughs and enjoying warm camaraderie and friendship.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Do you guys like each other or not? How can you fight with fierce intensity one moment, and then eat together happily the next?”
Two Kinds of Arguments
The answer to his question lies in a basic distinction between two kinds of fighting, a distinction famously drawn by our Sages in Pirkeh Avot (5:17): “Any argument that is for the sake of Heaven – it will endure; any argument that is not for the sake of Heaven – it will not endure.”
When an argument is waged “for the sake of Heaven,” with pure motives, out of a genuine desire to arrive at the truth, then it is an argument that is to be celebrated, that we want to endure. The sight of two students debating the meaning of a difficult Talmudic passage, or whether Tosafot’s objection to Rashi’s interpretation is legitimate, is something beautiful to behold. These are arguments that we cherish, arguments waged “leshem Shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven), out of a sincere commitment to properly understand the Torah. The arguments that we do not want to endure, that we wish would not happen, are those waged “shelo leshem Shamayim,” for selfish and impure motives, such as fights for money, power, and prestige.
The Mishnah then proceeds to present the archetypes of these two kinds of arguments. The archetype of an argument waged “leshem Shamayim,” the Mishnah teaches, is the series of halachic debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were two great sages who debated many halachic questions, with Shammai generally advocating for a more stringent approach, while Hillel usually embraced the more lenient position. This controversy continued after their deaths, as well, as their followers formed two different groups that argued on numerous issues. In the end, it was decided that the halachah would follow the positions taken by the school of Hillel, save for a number of halachic issues regarding which the halachah was decided in accordance with Shammai’s ruling.
The archetype of the second kind of argument, that which is waged “shelo leshem Shamayim,” is a story which we read this month, a shocking and tragic incident that took place during Beneh Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness. Korah, a cousin of Moshe and Aharon (Korah’s father, Yitzhar, was a brother of Moshe and Aharon’s father, Amram), led an all-out revolt against Moshe and Aharon, claiming that he should be given the privileges of the kehunah (priesthood). He assembled a group of 250 people with various perceived grievances against Moshe, and succeeded in garnering a great deal of support from among Beneh Yisrael. The revolt ended abruptly and tragically, as a fire consumed these 250 men, and the ground opened and devoured Korah and the other leaders of his insurrection. Soon thereafter, a plague erupted and killed thousands of Korah’s followers and sympathizers.
Why are specifically these two examples of arguments viewed as the prototypes of the two kinds of fights?
After the Dust Settles
The answer was given by Rav Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), who raised another question about the Mishnah’s teaching. How, he asked, can we know whether an argument is waged “for the sake of Heaven” or for impure motives? As we all know, our minds have a way of playing tricks on us. We are very adept at deluding ourselves, at disguising selfishness and egotism as altruism, thinking we are doing something holy when in truth we are being petty and looking out for our own personal interests. So often we see and hear of people starting fights and embarking on smear campaigns for “holy” purposes, ostensibly for the sake of Gd, when in truth they are just trying to assert control or feel important. How, then, can we tell whether we are arguing sincerely, “leshem Shamayim,” or for selfish reasons?
Rav Yisrael Salanter’s answer is profound, and vitally important. He said that the true nature of an argument is revealed when it’s all over, after the dust settles. The Gemara teaches that after the halachah was decided in favor of Hillel’s school (with a small handful of exceptions), the followers of Hillel and Shammai bonded together. They ate in each other’s homes, and their children married one another. Even though they argued on important halachic matters relevant to personal status, this did not prevent them from social interaction or even from joining each other’s families through marriage. Since their arguments were waged purely “for the sake of Heaven,” to arrive at the truth, they saw absolutely no reason for the fighting to continue once a definitive halachic conclusion was reached. Once thehalachah was finalized, the strife and tension immediately disappeared. The members of the two schools got along with one another without any lingering feelings of friction. This is the sign of an argument waged “leshem Shamayim.”
To understand the opposite prototype – the argument waged by Korah and is followers – we need to use a bit of imagination. Gd intervened to publicly and dramatically end Korah’s uprising by killing him and his supporters, but Rav Yisrael Salanter calls on us to imagine what would have happened if the revolt had ended differently. If Korah had, Heaven forbid, succeeded in overthrowing Moshe as leader of Beneh Yisrael, what would have happened next? Would peace have prevailed? Unquestionably, no. After all, the only “glue” that held Korah and his followers together was a shared antipathy towards Moshe. Once Moshe was overthrown, the conflict would have then moved to within this shaky coalition of malcontents, with each subgroup fighting with the others for its own interests. This is a basic truism about fighting: unless one fights “leshem Shamayim,” he will find something else to fight about the moment the current fight ends. If a person argues sincerely, and not for personal honor and gain, then once the issue is resolved one way or another, he withdraws and moves on, living peacefully. But if a person argues for selfish reasons, he does not stop, as his craving for honor, wealth, or whatever else motives him will continue pushing him forward to new fights.
This is the reason for the phenomenon witnessed by that elderly gentleman when he came to the yeshiva for the first time. He witnessed a true “mahloket leshem Shamayim,” a heated debate waged out of a sincere, genuine desire to properly and accurately understand Gd’s Torah. The argument was, indeed, quite intense, but once the bell rang, and the time came to close the books and eat lunch, there was no animosity whatsoever, just good-natured friendship. The study partners harbored absolutely no feelings of hostility towards one another; they were simply trying to understand the text properly. And thus once the time came to put away the books for lunch break, there was no more arguing and no tension. This is the sign of a “mahloket leshem Shamayim.”
Shouting at the Wall
There is also another significant point of contrast between arguments waged “leshem Shamayim” and those waged for unholy purposes.
Many have noted the lack of parallelism in the Mishnah’s formulation. In reference to the argument between Hillel and Shammai, the Mishnah mentions the names of the two parties to the conflict: “mahloket Hillel ve’Shammai – the argument of Hillel and Shammai.” However, when the Mishnah speaks of Korah’s uprising, it mentions only one side: “mahloket Korah va’adato– the argument of Korah and his followers.” Rather than mention “the argument of Korah and Moshe,” which would parallel the reference to “the argument of Hillel and Shammai,” the Mishnah instead mentions only Korah’s side, without naming the person against whom this fight was waged – Moshe Rabbenu. Why?
This nuance may very well hold the secret to understanding the essential difference between a “mahloket leshem Shamayim” and a “mahloket shelo leshem Shamayim.” Hillel and Shammai communicated with one another. They each fought persistently, confident in the correctness in their positions, but they engaged in dialogue. This was an argument waged between two parties, each listening to and then responding to the other. The goal was not to win the argument, but rather to arrive at the truth, and so each party listened attentively to the other’s arguments, and then responded. This was a healthy dialogue and exchange, with open lines of communication.
Korah and his cohorts, however, were not interested in dialogue or debate. This was not an argument between two parties, but a one-way fight. Korah was not prepared to listen to Moshe. He wanted power and authority, and was willing to do anything necessary to achieve it. The communication was not a two-way street, as it was in the case of Hillel and Shammai, but rather a one-way street – it was Korah trying to shout his way to the top, without listening to, showing interest in, or responding to anything Moshe had to say.
We are all familiar with these kinds of arguments, when the parties are not communicating to one another, but rather shouting past one another. This happens very commonly among family and friends, such as between husband and wife, or parent and child. The most destructive arguments are the ones in which the two people are speaking – or shouting – at the wall, rather than communicating with each other. If a person argues solely to arrive at the truth, then he will listen carefully to the other party’s claims and then address those arguments. He will not just shout randomly. But if a person’s goal is to win, then he tries to outshout the other party, rather than carefully listening and responding.
This is an important message not only in terms of our relationships with our family members and peers, but also in the public square, as we debate the controversial issues that our community faces. At any given moment, there are many important, and understandably heated, debates in which we are engaged. As our community continues, baruch Hashem, to grow and prosper, and as our world continues to change and to become ever more complex, many difficult questions and issues come up, giving rise to different opinions. There is nothing wrong with arguing and debating, and it is in fact valuable, but only if it is done “leshem Shamayim.” And this means that we are listening to the other view and responding. It means that we are not hurling insults at, or making sweeping accusations against, those with whom we disagree. Instead, we are trying to understand their viewpoint, to see the rationale behind their position, and then explaining why we cannot accept it. This is the Torah way to argue – the way of Hillel and Shammai, as opposed to the way of Korah.
Losing Our Identity
In conclusion, let us examine another aspect of the Korah story that, if properly understood, can go a long way towards reducing conflicts and arguments in our homes and in our community.
Our sages teach that Korah was an exceptionally wise man. He was not a fool, yet he did something very foolish, by trying to launch a campaign to oppose Moshe Rabbenu. How did this happen?
The answer is one word: jealousy.
Korah had a privileged status, as a member of the tribe of Levi, and as a member of the Kehat family of Leviyimwho carried the ark through the wilderness. He was also wealthy. Korah enjoyed wealth and prestige, but he craved more. His younger cousin, Elitzafan, was appointed the leader of the Kehat family instead of him, and so he felt slighted. This jealousy led him to pursue greater power and greater prestige, which, of course, ultimately led to his tragic downfall.
King Shlomo teaches us in Mishleh (14:30), “…urekav atzamot kin’ah– jealousy is like rotting bones.” The Talmud (Shabbat 152b), in a remarkable passage, explains this verse to mean, “Whoever has jealousy in his heart – his bones will rot; whoever does not have jealousy in his heart – his bones will not rot.” One who lives a life feeling envious of others is punished in the afterlife with the decomposition of his flesh. Those who are able to live without jealousy are rewarded by having their bodies remain intact even after their passing.
What does this mean? Why did our sages draw this association between jealousy and the body’s decomposition?
The answer, I believe, is that if a person lives his life wishing he were somebody else, then he loses his own identity. His appearance, representing his essence, is lost. If we envy what somebody else has, then what we are actually saying is that we don’t want to be ourselves, and we would rather be somebody else. And therefore we “decay,” we lose our essence. Instead of cultivating our own identity, and being the best version of ourselves that we can, we live life trying – in vain – to be somebody else.
Elsewhere in Pikeh Avot(4:21), our sages teach us that jealousy is among the three qualities (the others being lust and the desire for honor) that have the effect of “removing a person from the world.” In light of what we have seen, we might explain that a person who lives with jealousy “leaves his world,” and tries to inhabit somebody else’s world. Rather than spend his life building his “world,” making his contribution and serving the role that Gd has destined him to serve, he tries to mimic the “worlds” of other people. Gd gives us what we need to do our job, to build the “world” we are supposed to build. If we feel jealous of other people, then we will fail to do our job, as we will spend our lives trying fruitlessly to do somebody else’s job.
With this perspective, we can help avoid damaging conflicts and arguments within our homes and within our community. Our objective in life must be to accomplish our individual roles to the best of our ability, not to earn other people’s respect and accolades. And once we make this our objective, we will find that there are very few things worth arguing about. We will live with our priorities straight, and avoid the selfishness and pettiness that lead to unnecessary fights and arguments. We will then succeed in building happy homes and in making Am Yisraelthe model nation that it is meant to be.