“And Korach the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’has, the son of Levi, and Dasan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Peles, the sons of Reuven, took [themselves to the side]; and they rose up against Moshe…” [16:1-2]

The Mishnah in the Chapters of the Fathers [5:17] reads, “Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Hillel and Shammai. And not for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Korach and his entire congregation.”

Hillel and Shammai were the Chief Judge and President, respectively, of the Sanhedrin, the High Court, during their day. Their arguments were “for the sake of Heaven” because they did not care about winning the argument, or personal gain; they only cared about finding the truth. Korach, on the other hand, was pursuing his own honor, and so were those with him.

But the language of this Mishnah clashes with our expectations. Think about how analogies work: Hillel is to Shammai as Korach is to… Moshe, of course. Hillel and Shammai were adversaries in their arguments as Korach and Moshe were in theirs, the difference being that one argument was for the sake of Heaven, the other was not.

Instead, the Mishnah reads “Korach and his entire congregation,” and never mentions Moshe at all. Korach and his group were on one side, and Moshe, not Korach’s own congregation, was on the other.

The Medrash Shmuel explains that this actually makes perfect sense. “Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? This is the argument of Hillel and Shammai,” both of whom were motivated entirely for the same reasons: the sake of Heaven. So a comparison between the two is correct and appropriate.

When we look at the argument between Korach and Moshe, however, there is no analogy. The motivations of the two parties were not at all the same, and it would be slanderous to claim that Moshe acted “not for the sake of Heaven.” Moshe, for his part, had only the purest of motivations, like Hillel and Shammai in their arguments. So the Mishnah couldn’t say that “the argument of Korach and Moshe” was “not for the sake of Heaven,” because that would wrongly place Moshe into the same basket with Korach.

There is a simple, yet crucial lesson in this Mishnah: one cannot, upon seeing an argument, assume that both sides are equally wrong. It does not “take two to tango.” It takes one person doing the right thing, and another person stirring up trouble, to create an argument.

In reality, Korach and “his congregation” did not agree. Korach was from the Tribe of Levi, and wanted a position given to another in his family. Others with him, however, were from the Tribe of Reuven, and wanted positions for themselves as descendants of the oldest brother. So were they to have had their way, a new argument would have broken out immediately between the children of Levi and Reuven in Korach’s group.

Excuse a reference to current affairs, but look at advocates for LGBTQ and Sharia Law banding together as allies to bash Israel and the Jews. Were they to have their way, they would produce flourishing and tolerant communities like those of Iraq and Syria, where the only right the LGBTQ side could hope for was that of speedy burial. Israel, on the other hand, fights for one reason only: to protect and defend innocent lives.

Korach and his congregation were truly righteous by comparison, teaching us that the underlying lesson applies at every spiritual level. When we see an argument of whatever kind, we often assume that the truth must lie somewhere between the two. This is an entirely false concept, and a person committed to judging others fairly must imagine that each side is completely in the right. Both sides must have the “presumption of innocence.”

Learning to presume that each side in an argument is blameless is not trivial. There is a story told of a rabbi who received one party to an argument, heard him out, and said, “you are right.” Later the other party came in, told his side, and the rabbi said again, “you are right.”

As soon as the second man left, the rabbi’s assistant could not help himself. “You just told both sides they are right,” he said to the rabbi, “and that’s impossible. If one is right, the other is wrong. They cannot both be right!”

“Yes,” replied the rabbi. “You are right, too!”

When we learn of an argument that has no impact upon us, and we bypass it and assume both parties are not to blame, we do our part to making a better and more peaceful world.

Image by Akshay Gupta on Pixahive

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