How to Have a Fair Fight
This week’s Torah portion bears the name of a man who led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron. Korach was unhappy with the fact that he was passed over for a prominent position that he felt rightfully belonged to him. He expressed his dissatisfaction by challenging Moshe’s authority, accusing Moshe of nepotism. He puts together a coalition of like-minded people who were not happy with Moshe for their own various reasons.
The simple fact of the matter is that positions of authority distributed by Moshe were directives from God and not of his own making. After much argumentation and confrontation, the issue was Divinely resolved when the earth swallowed up Korach and his pals. Ouch.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) uses this event as a prototype of disagreement and argument:
Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure and be long-lasting; and any which is not for the sake of Heaven – in the end will not endure. What type of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Hillel and Shammai (two Talmudic sages). What type of dispute was not for the sake of Heaven? The arguments of Korach and his cohorts.
The commentaries of this Mishna note the lack of symmetry when comparing disagreements “for the sake of Heaven” and those that are not. The initial part of the Mishna makes sense – it mentions the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai. But the second part of the Mishna should have stated “the arguments of Korach and Moshe”, not “Korach and his cohorts”. Korach was not at odds with his supporters who were his allies and on his side against Moshe. He was arguing with Moshe and this is how the Mishna ought to have been stated, “Korach vs. Moshe”.
The solution is found by understanding the personalities of those doing the arguing and their purpose and agenda behind the disagreement. If two parties have differences and their main goal is to figure out the truth of the matter, then even though they oppose each other, they are actually on the same team. The disagreement is an expression of their love for truth and the proper course of action that needs to be achieved. Each party is attempting to understand all possibilities before deciding an outcome.
When arguing this way, the person they are arguing with is not an adversary to be bested, but a foil to refine their perspective, if indeed their perspective is the proper one. And if not, they are more than happy to accept the other’s viewpoint.
A good test to see if you are really interested in truth is if you can see the merits of the opposing side even though overall you may disagree. Few differences fall into the category of 100% right vs. 100% wrong. If you cannot admit any good points of your adversary, chances are that you are not of the school of either Hillel or Shammai and not arguing altruistically “for the sake of Heaven.”
On the other hand, those whose arguments are not for truth and good, but for their own ego and position – these forks, even when they appear to be on the same side and allies to one another, are really not. They are not interested in getting the truth but only in fulfilling their personal agendas. Inasmuch as they are acting only for selfish motives and goals, teamwork is non-existent and this is why the Mishna states that the argument is between Korach and his friends. In reality they are anything but his friends. As soon as they dispose of Moshe and anyone else in their path to power, they will be arguing amongst themselves since each person will become an impediment to the ambitions of the other.
This is the dynamic that (thankfully) takes place amongst Israel’s many enemies. Most of the Arab world today behaves like “Korach and his cohorts”. If their focus is hatred of Israel, then and only then are they unified. But as soon as Israel is not the center of their attention, they then immediately begin to fight violently and horrendously among themselves, perpetrating atrocities to one another far worse than anything from their perceived enemy. This is what we are seeing today as many factions destroy each other in Syria, in Yemen, in Sunni vs. Shiite, in Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, in Qatar vs. many Arab states… and on and on it goes.
One of the most difficult things in life is to have the self-discipline and sincerity to analyze one’s motivations in a disagreement. A genuine sense of honesty is always necessary to assess if one’s arguments are to get to the truth of the matter or if they are ego driven.
Hillel and Shammai were only interested in truth, and it is for this reason that their disagreements are considered “for the sake of heaven” and their views and insights still studied and analyzed, influencing people until this very day. Korach and his associates were only concerned with advancing their personal agendas and hence, they and their silly designs disappear into the nethermost part of the world – their half-baked viewpoints and perspectives buried forever with them deep into the earth.
And it really doesn’t matter
If I’m wrong I’m right
Where I belong I’m right
Where I belong
See the people standing there
Who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don’t get in my door
(It was twenty fifty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…)