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Arguments for Heaven’s Sake

So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned to death, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, as the LORD directed him through Moses. This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers. — Numbers 16:39–40

The Torah portion for this week is Korach, which means “Korah,” from Numbers 16:1–18:32, and the Haftorah is from 1 Samuel 11:14–12:22.

In the 1980s, an Israeli politician appeared on the Morton Downey, Jr. Show, a controversial talk show that was known for heated, even acrimonious debates between the show’s guests. When this politician made his appearance, everyone was screaming at him – the guests, the audience, everyone. As they called him names, hurled threats, and voiced their hatred of Israel, the Israeli sat completely calm. When Morton asked him how he could sit so calmly, the politician replied: “I’m used to this. This is what our Knesset (the Israeli parliament) discussions are like every day!”

Whether you go into the Knesset or into a yeshiva (a place of Torah study), you will likely find Jews screaming at each other in disagreement. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion we learn about how Korah disagreed with Moses and the punishment that he brought upon himself. In fact, the bronze censers used by the men who challenged Moses and Aaron and were subsequently killed, were used to overlay the altar so that the Israelites would always be reminded not to be like Korah and his followers. So what’s with all the arguing?

The Talmud relates a story about a scholar, Rabbi Yochanan, and his study partner, Reish Lakish. The two studied together for many years, until one day Reish Lakish died. Rabbi Yochanan was distraught, even after his students found him a new partner – the most brilliant man in town! “Why are you still sad?” they asked him. Rabbi Yochanan told them: “This man is indeed a scholar. In fact, he’s so brilliant that he can come up with 24 ways to prove that what I’m saying is correct. But when I studied with Reish Lakish, he brought me 24 proofs that what I was saying was wrong. That's what I miss! The goal of study is not to just have someone agree with me. I want him to criticize, question, and prove to me that I’m wrong. That's what uncovering the truth is about!”

Judaism differentiates between acrimonious arguments and “arguments for the sake of heaven.” The first is destructive, the other constructive. We are allowed to disagree with each other – and we are even encouraged to question one another – when the goal of both parties is to uncover the truth. However, when it comes to arguments with ulterior motives – such as self-aggrandizement or the desire to put someone else down – those are the types of disputes we need to avoid.

So next time you find yourself in a heated debate – or, even better, next time you find yourself about to enter one – ask yourself if your argument is for the right reason. If it isn’t, then walk away peacefully. If it is, then go right ahead!

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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