Parshat Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32; I Samuel 11:14-12:22.
Among the many gifts Judaism offers us are two seemingly contradictory notions. The first gift is future-oriented: When the messianic era arrives, all humanity will unite behind shared truths and peace among peoples will prevail. In those times even “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb; the leopard (will) lay down with the kid … And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw” (Isaiah 11:6-7). The gift is the confident hope in the attainability of quiet, contentment, rest from our journeys, and cessation of suffering.
The second gift is focused on the present. Until that time of Messiah, we all must learn how to fight with each other with decency. God demands that individual arguments must proceed with civility, and we’re commanded to overcome our animal instincts and build a society to make God proud.
This week’s portion offers an example of fighting that fails to pass the test of divine-
ordered civility. To explain the swift and significant punishment rendered by God against Korach and his followers, our rabbis teach that Korach and company challenged Moses’ leadership under false pretenses. Selfishness and greed fueled their complaints; gossip and slander powered as their grievances.
In contrast to Korach’s rebellion, our rabbis offer the ongoing debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai as fulfillment of God’s expectations of us. In the Talmud, we read that for three years Hillel and Shammai argued over a matter of Jewish law. Then, “a Divine voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God.” In a profound moment, God declares that two versions of truth can indeed exist side by side. God gives Hillel and Shammai the permission to agree to disagree.
Nevertheless, even when both versions of truth hold merit, followers of Jewish law require a path forward. As such, the Talmud instructs us that, by and large, Jewish law follows the teaching of Hillel because Hillel displayed pleasantness, humility and respectfully brought forward its opponent’s finest points. Hillel “fought” not just fairly, but with civility.
Judaism assures us that better days are ahead. However, until the time of the Messiah, nations must learn to live alongside other nations, and individuals must learn to live alongside other individuals.
We must balance truth and compassion. Our demeanor must be pleasant and our approach humble. We must give the benefit of the doubt and, in so doing, we consider even and especially the finest points they make.
May we strive to behave like Hillel. With prayers for a better tomorrow, we do what we can today to achieve civility in our times: to utilize with pride and joy the gifts that Judaism gives us.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.