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Pursuit of Peace

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

How to avoid a fight.

A Jewish man is shipwrecked on a desert island. After 10 years he's finally rescued by a passing ship. When the rescuers disembark on the island, they are surprised to find the man has built himself an entire civilization: golf course, restaurant, and two synagogues.

"But since you're here all alone on the island," they asked, "why do you have TWO synagogues?"

"Because," replied the man, pointing to the buildings, "that's the one I go to, and that's the one I don't!"

Korach – What's So Bad?

In this week's Parsha, a terrible dispute erupts amongst the Jewish people. A man named Korach accuses Moses of corruption. Korach then recruits 250 men and stages a full-fledged rebellion. In the end, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his cohorts alive.

Why such a terrible punishment? Judaism regards quarrelling as one of the gravest sins. Why? Because divisiveness contradicts the essential unity of God. A flower has perfect form and symmetry, the ecosystem functions harmoniously, the colors of a sunset blend perfectly. Quarreling – with its tension, allegations and incriminations – undermines the harmony of creation. (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 11:7)

In Hebrew, the word for peace, shalom, is derived from the root shalem, which means whole or complete. Peace is not merely the absence of war. Peace is a cooperative, symbiotic relationship, where both parties care for each other, assist each other, and ultimately complete each other.

How to Avoid a Quarrel

We've all been faced with confrontation. It may be a business dispute, or simply jockeying for position at a red light.

So what should we do? The surest way to immediately defuse any conflict is to refuse to participate. Remember: It takes two to argue.

In our Parsha, Moses asks to meet with the provocateurs Datan and Aviram. Moses eagerly pursues peace even though it means the risk of personal humiliation (see Numbers 16:8,12).

The Talmud (Avot 1:12) describes Aaron as the master of pursuing peace. If Aaron saw two people arguing, he would tell each of them that the other admitted his mistake and wants to make up. That way, each party saves face, allowing the dispute to end. How much family dysfunction could be spared with this advice!

Well-Intentioned Argument

The topic of "peace" is a popular one these days. We hear everyone talk about peace in the home, peace with the Arabs, peace in the inner city.

Peace is perhaps the most central theme in Judaism. The words of King David (Psalms 133:1), "How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together," are perhaps the most popular Hebrew song. The Amidah prayer, said three times daily, ends with the word "Shalom." The Grace After Meals ends with the word "Shalom." The Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) ends with the word "Shalom." The entire Talmud ends with the word "Shalom." As well, the Talmud declares, "Shalom" is one of the Names of God!

But if peace is such an essential Jewish value, then why are Jews always arguing?!

Quarreling should not be confused with well-intentioned controversy. Any student of the Talmud knows that the schools of Hillel and Shammai were always arguing. Yet their respect for one another grew because they knew the disputes were for the purpose of reaching a common understanding. In fact, the Talmud (Yevamot 14b) reports that the children of Hillel and Shammai intentionally married each other to show they were at peace.

The Talmud states: "Just as no two faces are exactly alike, likewise no two opinions are exactly alike." Rabbi Shlomo Eiger explains this in terms of peaceful human relations: The fact that other people have different facial features does not bother me in the slightest. In fact, I am actually glad this is so, because it preserves my uniqueness! So too, I should appreciate the unique perspective that others bring to my life.

The Talmud (Avot 5:20) describes a well-intentioned controversy as that between Hillel and Shammai. A poor-intentioned controversy is that of Korach and his followers, who tried to manipulate others for their own selfish power struggle.

Hammering Out the Truth

Judaism does not object to argument, if it is for the sake of truth. In fact, sincere disputants will ultimately feel love for one another. What's most striking about a yeshiva is that the study partners are always yelling at each other. The forcefulness of their positions engenders not animosity, but rather increased respect!

The Talmud relates a story about the great scholar Rebbe Yochanan and his study partner Reish Lakish. The two learned together for many years, until one day Reish Lakish got sick and died. Rebbe Yochanan was totally distraught over the loss. His students tried to comfort him, saying, "Don't worry, Rebbe. We'll find you a new study partner – the most brilliant man in town."

A few weeks later, Rebbe Yochanan was seen walking down the street, totally depressed. "Rebbe," his students asked. "What's the problem? We sent you a brilliant study partner. Why are you so sad?"

Rebbe 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. And 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 Torah study's about."

Israel Today

This week's Parsha states clearly: "Don't be like Korach" (Numbers 17:5) – which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) explains is the prohibition against quarreling.

Hatred, jealousy and infighting are unfortunately not new terms to our people. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) says that it was baseless hatred amongst Jews which brought about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple has lain in ruins for 2,000 years.

Only through unconditional love will it be rebuilt.

Much is said about internal disputes between Jews in Israel. Perhaps we cannot completely eliminate these disputes. But we must never forget an essential rule: "Every person is worthy of profound respect, regardless of their beliefs and level of observance."

I may have differences and disagree with other Jews on various issues. I may disagree with my wife on various issues as well. But just as I would never consider distancing from my wife based on our disagreements, so too I would never consider distancing myself from other Jews.

In Israel - where the issue of Jewish unity is most critical - much is being done to address the problem. Organizations like Gesher and Common Denominator run programs to bring together divergent groups - kibbutzniks with settlers, or secular with religious - to help discover that what unites us is ultimately greater than that which divides us.

How appropriate that the city of Jerusalem is actually a contraction of two words - Yeru-Shalem - "peace will be seen." May the Almighty bless us with the patience and sensitivity to avoid destructive arguments, and to accord proper respect to all.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons


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