D’var Torah: For Heaven’s Sake


When Korach and his two hundred fifty followers rebel against Moses in this week’s Torah portion Korach says to Moses. “All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” At first glance, this argument by Korach could resonate with one’s democratic values. After all Korach seems to be expressing the idea that every individual is created equally with the same intrinsic worth. Moses played a critical role in taking the Israelites out of Egypt, but perhaps it was time for someone else to take on the mantle of leadership. That seems to be a reasonable claim.

But Moses response gives clarity that perhaps Korach’s motivations are not that pure. Moses says, “Come morning, God will make known who God is and who is holy.” Then Moses added, “You have gone too far, sons of Levi. Is it not enough that God has set you apart from the community of Israel by having you perform the duties of the Lord’s Dwelling Place? Will you seek priesthood too? Truly, you rebel against God.” Korach is not some random Israelite, but a Levite. His challenge is not merely about a question of Moses’s leadership, but a challenge to God as well. And in the end, Korach and his followers perish, swallowed up by the earth.

In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:23 the rabbis distinguish between two types of controversies – those which are “for the sake of heaven” and those “which are not for the sake of heaven.” The rebellion of Korach and his followers is often used as an example of the latter.

It is unavoidable in life to avoid conflict and controversy. Some do a better job than others at shying away from confrontation than others. One lesson to take away from the story of Korach is to not avoid conflict but when we do find ourselves in a debate or disagreement we should make sure our purposes and intentions are for the sake of heaven and not for our own personal gain or selfishness. If we act with this in mind, we will be contributing to the well being of the community and not dividing the community like Korach and his followers.

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Rabbi Brad Horwitz is Director of the JCC Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.