Sunday 7 July 2024

The Anatomy of Unendurable Disputes


“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.” – Mishna Avot 5:17


Two weeks ago, we read the Torah portion, Shelach Lecha. It focused on the dispute stemming from the episode of the spies (Bamidbar 13-14) which is also referred to as “the sin of the spies”.

 The Korach Torah portion of this past week centered on another kind of dispute. This one emerged from a rebellion against Moshe, one that was orchestrated by Korach and his followers.

Some of you may question why I allude the two portions together and wonder about the connection between them. The answer is simple, they both embroil a dispute.

Our sages distinguished between two kinds of conflicts, as the quote from Mishna Avot above suggests. The dispute for the sake of Heaven, they explain, is one for the sake of truth. The other is for the sake of victory, power and personal gain.

Though, as shall be pointed out, both disputes were “not for the sake of Heaven.” They originate from entirely different motives and circumstances.

Shelach Lecha chronicles the story of the twelve spies that Moshe sent to scout the promised land prior to entering it. Upon their return, they reported to Moshe, and to the Children of Yisrael, “the land to which you sent us, does flow with milk and honey. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” They went on to describe its inhabitants as giants and extinguished any hope of overcoming them and conquering the land.

One of the spies, Calev ben Yefuneh tried to challenge the other spies and declared, “We should all go up and take possession of the land for we can certainly do it.” But to no avail. The other spies, eventually, succeeded in inciting the members of the community. “If only, we had died in Egypt! Or in the wilderness,” they lamented to Moshe and Aharon. “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Wouldn’t be better for us to go back to Egypt?” Some even call for a rebellion, “we should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Calev ben Yefunneh and Yehoshua ben Nun, the only two spies who remained loyal to G-d’s plan, tear their clothes in agony and keep begging the community to have faith and trust G-d. Their calls, however, fell on deaf ears and threats to stone them were heard.

G-d’s punishment of the rebellious members of the community did not linger. “In the wilderness your bodies shall fall, every one of you, twenty years or older, who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you… except Calev ben Yefunneh and Yehoshua ben Nun.” As for your children,…I will being them in to enjoy the Land you have rejected… For forty years, one year for each of the days you explored the Land, you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have you against me.” (Bamidbar 14:29-34).

Unlike the previous dispute, Korach’s clash with Moshe arose from his opposition to the appointments and role assignments for serving G-d which were made within Moshe’s family, upon the directives of G-d. They included selecting Moshe’s brother, Aharon, as High Priest and giving preference to some members of the tribe of Levi for high-ranking positions. Korach refused to accept it arguing that after Mount Sinai, “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the lord is with them” (Bamidbar 16:3). Korach even went further to doubt Moshe claiming that he made those appointments arbitrarily and not upon G-d’s edict.

Moshe put Korach’s claim to the test. Naturally, he and his devotees failed. Their punishment for challenging G-d and their contemptuous attitude towards His decree was that “the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korach” (Bamidbar 16:28-34).

In his article “Times of Fear,” where he discusses the sin of the spies, Rabbi Sacks, notes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, asked, “How could ten of the spies have come back with a demoralizing defeating report? They had seen with their own eyes how G-d had sent a series of plagues that brought Egypt, the strongest and longest-lived of all empires of the ancient world to its knees. Egypt was far stronger than the Canaanites, Perrizites, Jebusites and other minor kingdoms that they would have to confront in conquering the Land. Nor was this an ancient memory. It had happened not much more than a year before.”

According to him, the spies were not afraid of failure, they were afraid of success. While wandering in the desert, the Yisraelites were provided with food, manna from Heaven and water from miraculous wells. They were constantly surrounded and cloaked by the holiness of the Shechinah and lived close to G-d.

When they enter the Land, though, they would have to engage in battles, provide for themselves and worry about many temptations of the mundane world. In other words, they would end up being just another nation like any other nation.

The “mistake of the spies was the mistake of very holy men”, explains Rabbi Sacks. Ten of them sought to preserve the kind of life they experienced in the desert where they could find G-d easily, rely on Him to provide for them and fight their wars for them. “They wanted to spend their lives in the closest proximity to G-d. What they did not understand was that G-d seeks, in the Hasidic phrase, ‘a dwelling in the lower worlds.’ One of the great differences between Judaism and other religions is that while others seek to lift people to heaven, Judaism seeks to bring heaven down to earth. They should have known that G-d had intended for us for us to engage with the world, to heal its fractured parts and spread light. This was their sin. They misled the people, and thus steered them into the hands of a serious conflict, the kind that the Mishnah categorized as “not for the sake of Heaven.”

When addressing the second conflict, the one generated by Korach and his followers, Rabbi Sacks asserts that, “ if you want to understand resentments, listen to what people accuse others of, and you will then know what they themselves want.” That is precisely what Korach, and his faction wanted. They wanted to be leaders. They wanted power. And if there is a dispute that is spawned over desire for control and power, I doubt that there is anyone who would suggest that it is “a dispute for Heaven’s sake.”

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