Parshat Korach: Reflections on Dispute in Times of Dispute

Tal Numan is the Rosh Beit Midrash at the Ohr Torah High School for Girls, named in memory of Jennie Sapirstein, in Ramot, Jerusalem

e1719748478847Our story is a familiar one. Three groups join forces to challenge the leadership of Moshe: Korach and his assembly, Datan and Aviram, and the 250 leaders of the congregation. The Torah details the accusations of the first two groups. Korach’s claim is: “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Bemdibar 16:3).

Datan and Aviram’s claim is: “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (ibid. 13).

Korach’s argument seems reasonable and even aligns with Moshe’s own statement to Yehoshua regarding Eldad and Medad: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them! (Bemidbar 11:29).

In contrast, the accusations of Datan and Aviram are not based on truth. Egypt is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” and Moshe is accused of causing the death of the Israelites in the wilderness and of tyrannical leadership—both severe and unfounded claims. As the Ramban writes, these statements likely stem from the accumulated bitterness of the people of Israel following the sin of the spies. Realizing that they must wander in the wilderness for many years, their frustration is vented on Moshe, and such accumulated bitterness often distorts the perception of reality.

Nevertheless, whether the claims are based on truth or falsehood, this is not the first nor the last complaint of the people in the wilderness. So why does Moshe respond so harshly to this particular dispute? What is so severe about this sin specifically? Why, in response to this sin, does God, at Moshe’s initiative, create a new phenomenon where the earth opens its mouth and swallows Korach and his assembly? “But if the Lord brings about something unprecedented, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them…” (Bemidbar 16:30).

Moreover, we might ask, what is the significance of the punishment and how is it connected to the sin of Korach and his followers?

Regarding the first question, many commentators suggest that Korach undermined Moshe’s authority as the transmitter of God’s law, thereby damaging a fundamental principle of Judaism—the belief in Moshe as God’s messenger. Another interpretation is that the severity of Korach’s dispute with Moshe does not lie in the disagreement itself but in the manner and root of the conflict. Korach’s actions were driven by jealousy, leading to a non-substantive debate aimed not at seeking truth but at gaining power.

The Sages have already labeled Korach’s dispute and his followers as “a dispute not for the sake of Heaven”: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is viable; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not viable. Which is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Pirkei Avot 5:17).

A dispute, in itself, is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to clarify the truth. The diversity of opinions broadens the scope and enriches the discourse. Disputes sharpen different perspectives and can reveal new aspects of reality.

What then, is a non-viable dispute?

Let’s attempt to answer this using a wonderful interpretation by the Kli Yakar on the verses describing the Creation in the Book of Bereshit. The Kli Yakar asks why on the second day of Creation, God changes the name of the firmament [“rakki’a”] to “heavens” [“shamayim”] and why the phrase “it was good” [“ki tov”] is not mentioned on this day. He explains thus:

“God did not want it to be called rakki’a because this name implies separation and division, as in the verse ‘and they hammered [וירקעו, vayerake’u] out sheets of gold’ [Shemot 39:3]; ‘rakki’a’ means spreading out as a division. For every firmament is a dividing screen between two things, and for this reason, too, it does not say ‘it was good’ on the second day, because it was the day on which division was created.”

The term rakki’a may seem like a simple word, one of several used to denote the sky above. However, the words chosen to describe Creation carry deeper meanings and convey significant messages about the Creation itself.  Rakki’a suggests separation and division. According to the Kli Yakar, the Creator did not want to embed separation at the heart of Creation and then pronounce it to be “good.”

What is the uniqueness of the name “shamayim”? The Kli Yakar states: “It is called ‘shamayim’ which signifies peace because ‘shamayim’ is derived from ‘esh’ [“fire”] and ‘mayim’ [“water”], which made peace between them and merged to form ‘shamayim’.”  Though shamayim is a concept which is comprised of contradictory forces with distinct differences, it is a manifestation of unity since these opposing forces have come together to create a whole entity.    

According to the Kli Yakar, on the third day, God said “it was good” twice because it is written: “Let the waters be gathered together into one place.” There is a search for a unifying place. Here, the Kli Yakar establishes an interesting principle: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven… meaning a dispute whose purpose is peace, as implied by the name shamayim.”

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