Machloket is not something we want to get involved with. And we see this poignantly from this week’s parsha from Korach and his followers. Machloket is so influential and contagious, that Rashi says that in the case of Datan and Aviram—two of Korach’s followers—their children were also included in the decree of being eradicated from the world, although, generally speaking, the Heavenly court only punishes those above the age of 20. And Rav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that this is because when it comes to machloket, parents who are “ba’alei machloket” (people who are habitually involved in machloket) affect their children’s behavior, so much so that it’s inevitable that even the children will grow up to be like them, and even worse.
When we look at Korach, the leader of the machloket, we can, on some level, understand why he would get involved in it. As irrational as it was for him to create this machloket, at the end of the day, he wanted something out of it, be it prestige, honor, power or social stature. He thought he could potentially gain something out of it. However, what’s particularly intriguing is, why would his followers get involved? They had seemingly nothing to gain! Indeed, Ohn Ben Pelet, one of the original followers of Korach, was convinced by his very own wife to retract his commitment to Korach when she told him, you have nothing to gain—whether you are under the leadership of Moshe or Korach, your stature will not change. Based on that logic, Ohn decided he wanted to renege (see Sanhedrin 109b). It’s a wonderment if you think about it: Didn’t Ohn realize this on his own? Why did he need his wife to bring it out to him? Perhaps we can answer like we mentioned above: Machloket is influential and contagious, and whether it makes sense or not, it catches fire.
Yet, even something as destructive and negative as machloket can potentially be channeled in the right way. Pirkei Avot teaches: Any machloket which is l’shem Shamayim will be successful, and if not, it won’t; the machloket which is l’shem Shamayim is the machloket between Hillel and Shammai, and the one that’s not is the machloket of Korach and his followers (5:17). Hillel and Shammai argued in order to discover truth, to reach the precise Will of God. They were not motivated by personal interest, but rather by God’s interest. Perhaps this mishna is inherently teaching us that there are situations in which machloket is commendable—when it’s for the purpose of finding out truth, unbiased, and for the sake of God. Hillel and Shammai weren’t arguing to be right, they were arguing to find out what is right.
Perhaps we can say that to some degree, we have a nature to be argumentative. We are people of opinions and we enjoy the back-and-forth of differing opinions, thoughts and perceptions. But if our opinions are centered around attempting to fulfill an egoistic desire that is related to oneself and not to the greater good and objective necessity, then the subject matter easily becomes misconstrued and can eventually lead to a destructive sequence of events. However, when argumentativeness is channeled towards the desire to extract and discover newfound truths, to unfold and uncover the preciseness of Halacha and the Will of God, then this machloket is lofty and will be successful. The Gemara teaches us that if the yetzer hara meets up with you, drag it to the beit midrash (Sukkah 52b). Maybe we can say that even in the area of machloket, if we entertain a pull towards inappropriate machloket, we can drag that pull into the beit midrash—the place where truth of God’s Will is studied and discovered—and use it in that arena. That is our place to cause a ruckus, but of course in the right way.
There’s a story in the Gemara (Bava Meztia 84a) of R’ Yochanan whose study partner—Reish Lakish—passed away. R’ Yochanan was extremely pained over the fact that he lost a study partner of such stature. The Sages, attempting to console R’ Yochanan, had R’ Elazar ben Pedat, a sharp and brilliant scholar, take the place as R’ Yochanan’s study partner. When they would sit and learn together, every time R’ Yochanan would posit an idea, R’ Elazar would respond by bringing support to R’ Yochanan’s idea. While we would think this is quite flattering, R’ Yochanan found this to be quite frustrating. He said to R’ Elazar: Do you think you are comparable to Reish Lakish? When we would learn, and I would say an idea, Reish Lakish would counter with 24 various arguments in order to disprove my idea, and I would answer him in 24 ways; through this exchange, the topic of discussion would be significantly broadened and clarified.
We can learn from R’ Yochanan the importance of being argumentative in a purposeful and correct way, and how it’s greatly encouraged in a Torah setting. While on the one hand, machloket is a behavior that can lead us to places we wouldn’t want to be, on the other hand, it’s also a behavior that, when applied appropriately, can help us understand the truth and unveil new insights in Torah.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected]