Shabbat-Table Talks: Qorah
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil
Value: Disagreeing with civility. Disagreement is a very common aspect of life. Teaching our children the proper way to disagree can lead to better friendships, marriage and a better society. This week’s perasha contains one of the prime examples of the wrong way to disagree—the disagreement of Qorah. On the other hand, the Halakhic disagreements of Hillel and Shamai are the prime example of the proper way to disagree. Let’s examine the stories of Qorah and of Shamai and Hillel to learn the don’ts and dos of disagreement.
Background: Before discussing the perasha, we will begin with a rabbinic statement on dispute:
Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven (leshem shamayim) will end up being established. If it is not for the sake of heaven, it will not end up being established. Which is the dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shamai. [Which is the dispute] not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Qorahh and all his gang.
Explanation: There are disputes that are "for the sake of heaven." In other words, they are sincere disagreements where both parties are searching for the truth and have different perspectives on what the truth is. These kinds of disagreements "will be established"—which means that the truth will become known in a clearer way. It does not mean, necessarily, that one side of the disagreement will be chosen, but that both sides will contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of the world. The Halakhic disputes of Hillel and Shamai, which were taken out of a search for the Halakhic truth, are a fine example of these kinds of dispute. They were not taken personally and even when they disagreed, they still treated one another with respect.
The dispute of Qorah and his gang, on the other hand, was not a sincere dispute. Rather, it was dispute for the sake of gaining power by sowing strife. These kinds of disagreements will never lead to an establishment of a deeper truth. They might even lead to the fatal end of Qorah and his gang.
Biblical Context: God had just decreed that Israel would not enter the land for forty years because of their initial rejection of the land of Israel. Their frustration led some of the tribal leaders of Israel to dispute Moshe’s leadership.
Now Qorah…took himself along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Pelet—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moshe, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moshe and Aharon and said to them, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Hashem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?
Moses responded by offering to put his leadership to a test of God. Moshe proposed that all the contenders would bring an incense offering so that God would make his choice known to the people. Moshe also tried to dissuade Qorah from taking part by saying that as a Levite, he had been given a position of leadership and honor in the community and that he should be satisfied with that. Moshe then called to speak to another of the contending groups, Dathan and Abiram.
Moshe sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, "We will not come up! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possessions of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come up!
Moshe was angered by their refusal to talk to him. He prayed to God not to accept their offering and told the band of malcontents to prepare for the incense contest the next day. After beseeching God not to destroy the nation, he warned the people to distance themselves from Qorah, Dathan and Abiram. He then wished upon them a strange death so that everyone would see that God had sent him. Immediately, the ground opened up and swallowed Qorah and his gang alive.
Analysis: Although Qorah and the other leaders were out for their own advancement, they spoke as if they were concerned for the whole people. In fact, according to the sages, they were several different groups, each with their own grievance that banded together to attack Moshe. They were not interested in the good of the people, but in their own advancement.
Moshe saw through this and proposed a way of dealing with their complaint. He also tried to dissuade them from going through with the contest, which Moshe knew would have disastrous consequences. When Dathan and Abiram refuse to negotiate, Moshe saw the problem as much more serious. The strife and contention might spread to the whole people and lead to a full rebellion. Moshe, with his supreme concern for Israel, cut this whole process short and decided to end the contention by proving to the people that God had chosen him and Aharon.
Discussion: Ask your children to speak about disagreements they have had with their friends or teachers. Discuss with them the ways that you and your spouse work out disagreements. Can we admit to any Qorahh-like disagreements—when we were not sincere in our disagreeing but were seeking power?
One great way to work out any disagreement is to have each person state the other side’s position in a way that the other person agrees to what was said. That is the beginning of creating mutual understanding, which is a step in the direction of civil disagreement. Demonstrate this technique to your children by working out such a disagreement between you and your spouse.
What is the advantage of having different perspectives? What does the phrase "two heads are better than one" mean? Why is that the case?
Our community (our nation, our world) is blessed with many groups of differing opinions. How can we have the disagreements between them expressed in a more civil and dignified way?
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