The Torah educates by subtle instruction that we should “not to be like Korach and his company” (Bamidbar 17:5). How does one avoid emulating Korach; what activity or behavior is this prohibition limiting? Our Sages teach (Sanhedrin 110a) that this is a proscription against instigating or maintaining arguments.
Persuasive, witty, rebellious and seditious, Korach was definitely an iconic figure. Yet, the typical rabble rousers sojourning in the desert were the infamous Dasan and Aviram. These two nefarious characters were constantly looking for a pretext to undermine Moshe’s authority. Nevertheless Korach is selected as the prototype of the great challenger, so that when the Torah chooses to warn against arguing, Korach is selected as the example. Why?
Perhaps by delving into this rebellion, we can learn from his motives. What was the driving force propelling this man to his pathetic death and why he is chosen as the model of how not to disagree.
The Mishnah in Avos tells us about Korach and his followers:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure, and 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)
How does an argument merit classification “for the sake of Heaven”? Korach was probably disillusioned into thinking that he too was furthering the cause of Heaven. Secondly, how does the quality of endurance depend on the cataloging of the debate?
Rambam in his commentary to Mishnayos explains:
Anyone who debates not for the purpose of dismantling his friend’s reasoning but out of desire to know the truth; his words will endure without ceasing.
The Rambam has given us the key to elucidating this Mishna. He provides us with two different agendas in a dispute; to reach the truth or to defeat one’s partner. From these two options we are obviously led to the following conclusion; an argument for the sake of truth is an argument that is for the sake of Hashem. This is logically sound, Hashem’s is the ultimate truth, thus when the objective is to uncover the truth, successful or otherwise, the debate will bring you closer to Hashem.
With this foundation we can now connect the type of quarrel to its longevity. Hashem endures forever. He is first and last and the source of all life. Association with the truth is association with the Enduring one. Therefore arguments that try to uncover the truth – i.e. bring you closer to Hashem – will be arguments that are destined to last.
We have now exposed the root of Korach’s problem. He was a man who wasn’t searching for the truth. He was trying to trump Moshe, and that would have been a great victory. Korach is the ultimate example of how not to argue. In a Torah society the backbone of any debate has to be the search for truth and “not to be like Korach and his company”.
This is an important axiom which we need to internalize. Arguing is so inextricably linked with our national nature, we are called a stiff-necked-people because we are reluctant to be convinced. In fact the finer parts of the oral law are only conveyed by method of case disagreements. But at times when people resort to personal barbs and stinging attacks they are signaling that there are trying to win and overpower their adversary. Argue by all means, but don’t lose direction, the goal is not to defeat but to find the one and only truth.