Machlokes—A Matter of Principle
While the quarrel between Korach and his followers against Moshe and Aaron
may be the most famous machlokes (argument) in the Torah, it is far from
the only one. Indeed, sefer Bamidbar, of which parshas Korach is the fifth
parsha, seems to have the dubious honour of containing the lion’s share of
discord among the Five Books of the Torah. Here, we find the quarrel over
entering Israel (chapters 13-14); the unhappiness of Israel with the Manna
and their desire to eat meat (chapter 11); and their dissatisfaction over
the lack of water (chapter 20).
When we discuss the topic of machlokes (controversy and debate), it is
important to note that in the Jewish perspective, all machlokes is not
necessarily bad. One could only imagine how dry the Talmud would be in the
absence of controversy—argument and debate are its very lifeblood.
Argumentativeness is a quality with which it seems we have collectively as
a nation been blessed (?), as the old cliché goes, “Two Jews — three
What, then, makes the difference between a “good” machlokes and a bad one?
It seems from Chazal (our Sages—see further) that it all depends where
one’s heart is. If one’s intention is “Le-shem Shamayim/For Heaven’s
sake,” then the machlokes is acceptable and good. Any machlokes without
some sense of altruism, conversely, is not good, and should be avoided.
Bearing this in mind: If we were to grade the afformentioned disagreements
according to their level of “Le-shem Shamayim,” it would appear that the
argument of Korach and his followers was certainly the closest to
being “for Heaven’s sake.” After all, it was not money or riches they were
after. All they asked for was, “equal opportunity” in serving Hashem. “For
the entire nation—all of them are holy—so why do you (Moshe and Aaron)
elevate yourselves (in positions of power and leadership) over Hashem’s
Compare this to a nation dissatisfied with the Heavenly manna, or a
rebellion against entering Israel (“Let us appoint a new leader, and
return to Egypt!” [14:4]). It seems obvious that, at least in comparison,
Korach and his followers were a notch above the petty complainers, moaners
and groaners that preferred, “the free fish in Egypt” to
the “insubstantial Manna.” (11:5)
Yet when Chazal (Avos 5:17) seek to epitomize and quantify the
term “Machlokes She-lo le-shem Shamayim/An argument not for Heaven’s
sake,” they choose as an example the machlokes of Korach and his followers:
What can be termed a “machlokes le-shem Shamayim?” The machlokes of Hillel
and Shamai (two great Talmudic scholars who debated issues of Torah law).
And what is considered a machlokes she-lo le-shem Shamayim? The machlokes
of Korach and his followers.
Why is the machlokes of Korach and his followers; one that ostensibly
takes on the appearance of an altruistic, well-meant, dispute, singled out
among all others as the quintessence of machlokes for the wrong reasons?
I heard the following story from a respected community leader in Toronto:
Jews arriving in Toronto in the early 1900’s did not necessarily find
the “land of golden sidewalks” they were expecting. For these foreigners,
mostly unskilled, working in the “sweatshops” sewing pants and shirts was
often the only chance they had to eke out a semblance of a living. The
hours were long, the conditions were appalling, and the workforce was such
that if you weren’t “pulling your weight” by working your guts out, there
were plenty other immigrants more than willing to take your place.
When this distinguished Rabbi first arrived in Toronto, there were no
communal positions available — at least not ones that afforded him the
luxury of putting bread on the table — so he, too, succumbed to the
lifestyle of the sweatshop slave. Luckily, in a manner of speaking, his
wealthy uncle was the owner of one of the sweatshops. So, while he earned
the same meagre salary as the rest, he at least had the relative peace-of-
mind that he wouldn’t find himself on the street tomorrow—the job was his
for as long as he wanted.
At some point, his uncle decided that the workers sewing the pockets on
the pants were slacking off. He sent instructions that the minimum quota
of pants-pockets-per-hour should be increased to 12—almost double what it
had been! The “sweaters” were dumbstruck. Sewing pockets on twelve pairs
of pants per hour seemed like an impossibility. Yet to dispute the issue
could easily mean losing your job, a risk none of them could afford to
They had a brainstorm: An uncle couldn’t fire his own nephew! Let his
nephew go and plead their case with his uncle. Terrified, he knocked on
the door to his uncle’s office. “Yes?”
“Do you mind if I ask you something? You sent instructions that we are to
sew twelve pairs of pants per hour. With all due respect, it’s impossible!
We’re working our hardest, but 12 pairs of pants per hour simply can’t be
“Is that so?” asked his uncle sarcastically. “One can’t sew pockets on 12
pairs of pants per hour? I think one can! Come—let’s go together—and I’ll
prove it to you.”
All the workers stood up when “the boss” entered the shop. From the look
on his nephew’s face, they knew they were in for it. He had them clear an
area for him and set up a machine. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the
owner of the sweatshop took off his expensive suit, sat himself down at a
sewing machine, took a look at the time, and began sewing like a madman.
Employees stood around him like worker-bees, quickly handing him pieces of
material and pockets at his command. He sweated profusely, and his
agitation was intense. While he hadn’t sewn for many years himself, he
hadn’t forgotten how. In the end, he somehow managed to finish 12 pairs of
pants in just less than an hour.
Shaking, he stood up from the machine; his voice quivered from exhaustion.
He gazed as his astonished workers: “There—now who wants to tell me you
can’t sew twelve pairs of pants in an hour!?”
“Yes, but uncle, you worked like a madman for one hour. Workers stood
around you handing you everything as soon as you asked. We work 13 hours a
day—for us to produce twelve pairs of pants an hour is an impossibility!”
“It is true, my nephew, you are correct. But in principle I was correct!
And I’ve just proved it.”
How many times, after a bitter argument over a narishkeit (senseless
issue), have you heard similar justifications? “It’s not the
(money/honour/affront etc.) that bothers me — it’s the principle!” You
were short-changed in a store; overcharged by a taxi; your seat was taken
in shul; this kosher symbol is better than that one . . . Self-righteous
indignation begins to bubble within . . .
I’ve got news for you: It’s not the principle. If it was “the principle,”
you would feel the same feelings if it happened to someone else as if it
happened to you. If it was the principle, your emotions would be lead by a
sense of sanctity, calmness, and a desire for truth. Yet that’s rarely the
case. It is the money, the prestige, or whatever else might be motivating
us. It’s just that internally we realize it’s so petty we’re ashamed. So
we withdraw from our bag of argumentative-ammunition that trusty old
warrior called “principle,” a point over which wars have been waged,
families broken apart, and people’s lives been ruined. Now, if it were at
least indeed “the principle” that was at stake, perhaps the discord would
fall under the category of machlokes le-shem Shamayim. Yet the flag-of-
principle rarely displays its true colours. More often than not, it’s
really just an ‘alien’ flag in camouflage. How careful must one be, when
raising one’s flag-of-principle, to be sure that the winds blowing are
winds of truth and justice, and not winds of contention, self-
gratification, and triumph.
On the outside, the arguments of Korach and his band had a veneer of truth-
seeking and shem Shamayim. They presented themselves as spokesmen of the
nation — they asked only for equality and fairness. Yet inside, each one
of the 250 men wanted to be the Kohein Gadol/The High Priest. They were
warned by Moshe that at best, one of them would succeed; the other 249
were doomed to fail. Yet knowing this, they went ahead and offered the
Incense. There were no “principles” at stake here; only a power-struggle
over who among them would emerge as the “next” leader of the up-and-coming
This, says the Oznayim La-Torah, is why the Mishnah singles out Korach and
his group as the epitome of machlokes she-lo le-shem Shamayim: because his
is the most dangerous form of machlokes of all. When arguments are petty,
the thinking man will avoid them; he realizes that to get involved in a
skirmish over narishkeiten isn’t worth the cost to his reputation and to
his peace-of-mind. Yet when power-struggles and petty-wrangling become “a
fight for principle,” even the most sound-minded individual must labour to
keep his distance.
Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org