columnTorah Portion

Dissension in the ranks

Conquering conflict, quarrels and strife.

An illustration of the deaths of Korah, Dathan and Abiram as described in the Book of Numbers, by Gustave Doré, 1865. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An illustration of the deaths of Korah, Dathan and Abiram as described in the Book of Numbers, by Gustave Doré, 1865. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from and Amazon.

The rabbi was busy doing marriage counseling with a couple in distress. He listened attentively to the wife’s tale of woe, and then nodded his head sympathetically, saying, “You’re right.”

Then he listened, with equal sympathy, to the husband’s side of the story. When the husband was done, he nodded his head in agreement again, saying, “You’re right.”

Whereupon the Rebbetzin who was standing outside the door listening said to her husband, “How can they both be right?!”

And the rabbi nodded his head, saying, “You’re right, too.”

In most conflicts, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Both sides always bear some responsibility for the disagreement.

Yet this week in the biblical story of Korach, we read of an exceptional disagreement in which one side was completely right and the other side was absolutely in the wrong.

Korach was the clever, wealthy, aristocratic cousin of Moses who disputed Moses and Aaron taking the highest positions of leadership for themselves. Though it was God Himself who instructed Moses to become the leader of the Israelites and appoint his brother Aaron as the High Priest, Korach challenged their positions, accusing them of brazen nepotism.

In the end, God created a supernatural disaster for Korach and his henchmen. The earth itself opened and swallowed them into the abyss. It was a clear, Divine sign that Moses was 100% correct and Korach was 100% wrong. 

But that is the exception. In most cases, whether the fault can be divided 50/50 or 80/20, there is always some responsibility for the disagreement on both sides.

I remember my wise grandfather once saying, “When two Jews fight, both are wrong.”

Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” distinguishes between a dispute “for the sake of heaven” which is a genuine, ideological disagreement, and one which is not “for the sake of heaven,” but is rather personal and vindictive. The former is illustrated by the classical Talmudic debates between Hillel and Shammai, whereas the latter is represented by the dispute of “Korach and his assembly.”

Commentary points out that the Mishnah deliberately does not call it the “dispute between Korach and Moses,” but rather “the dispute of Korach and his assembly.” Moses was completely innocent in this dispute. To even mention his name here would be justifying Korach and giving him some merit as an equal disputant to Moses. Not so. There was no moral equivalence whatsoever to Korach’s argument. It was completely subjective, cynical and malicious. And Moses was completely innocent here.

And yet, we read how Moses continued to make peace with Korach and his henchmen up until the bitter end. He even reached out with a message of peace to his two nemeses who had been provoking him from the early days back in Egypt—the infamously diabolical Datan and Aviram. Defiantly, they spurned his invitation and, in the end, they too went down with Korach.

Concerning the Korach catastrophe, Rashi goes so far as to say, “Come and see how grievous the effect of dispute is, for the earthly Beth Din does not punish a person until the age of majority and the Heavenly Beth Din does not punish until age 20. Yet here, even suckling babes perished.”

If dissension and conflict are the cause of such tragedy, then surely, we should be doing everything possible to avoid it in the first place or to nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand.

How sad and tragic to see dissension in our ranks, not only in politics, which is “normal,” but in families and communities on a personal level.

A congregant once told me he had experienced a miracle in his family. His two warring nephews had made peace. He never imagined it would happen. He was more excited than I’d seen him in years.

Conversely, how many family members never make peace until they are forced to say Kaddish and sit shiva together when they lose a parent? Sadly, I’ve also seen two separate houses of mourning for the same parent because two siblings refused to sit together even then.

Not long ago, I read of what must be the worst such tragic story. Two brothers were the only survivors of their whole family from the Holocaust. And at some point, there was a disagreement between them, and they never talked to each other for 30 years. And they died not talking! I can think of nothing sadder.

If there is a conflict in your family, I beg of you, please don’t wait for the other party to apologize. You take the initiative. You be the man or the woman and extend the hand of peace. Rise above it. Even if you are convinced that they are wrong, do the right thing.

Be a Moses, not a Korach, and be blessed for it.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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