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Debates "In the Name of Heaven"  #784

06/23/2023 06:12:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Korach
Debates "In the Name of Heaven"

A Chassidic story tells of a young man—a promising Talmudic student—who went from town to town, rabbi to rabbi, asking this question:

“Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

Each time he posed the question, the rabbis brushed him off, labeling him a nuisance.

One day, word came that the Chief Rabbi of Lvov would be visiting the young man’s village and taking questions.

The day before the Rabbi arrived, the young man camped outside the seminary door, spending the night sustained by only a piece of bread and a flask of water.

Finally, as the sun rose, and the Chief Rabbi returned from morning services, the student was permitted to enter the seminary, and was first in line to receive an audience with him.

“Rabbi,” asked the student, “We endure so much in our lifetime. We are seldom at rest. Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The Chief Rabbi paused for a moment, narrowed his eyes, and responded:

“You seem to be an intelligent and inquisitive young man,” he said. “But I am troubled. Why would you want me to answer such a perfect question, by requiring me to provide you with an imperfect answer?”

These days, many are inclined to providing simplistic answers to complex questions. It’s why I cherish the rabbi’s response as I often consider the world we live in.

Why is there so much ignorance? Where has the concept of truth gone? Why do hatred, prejudice and self-interest appear to be on the rise?

“Why, God?”

We can speculate. Perhaps we are on this earth to toughen our souls. Perhaps our response to adversity develops within us spiritual antibodies.

But what makes the young man’s unanswerable question so precious is his undying and sincere pursuit of truth.

This week’s Torah portion offers us a different approach.

We are introduced to Korach—a Levite, who questions why Moses has been designated as, “leader for life.”

Supported by 250 chieftains. Korach mounts a rebellion to depose Moses, along with Moses’ brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam.

Korach asks, “Aren’t we all equal?” “Aren’t we all holy?” And he mounts a challenge to depose Moses.

And, within Korach’s attempted coup, we consider one of Judaism’s central dilemmas:

“Aren’t we, as Jews, encouraged to question and to challenge virtually everything around us?” The word Israel—or Yisrael—translates into “struggler” or “wrestler” with God.

So, what did Korach do wrong, and why did he and his 250 followers ultimately get swallowed up by the earth?

The answer is an answer for our times.

When we pose the hard questions life presents us—when we question those who represent us—we need to do so with a sincere heart.

Our Sages tell us that while Korach challenged Moses for imposing high taxes, he failed to mention that the funds were designated to assist the poor.

Our Sages also note that Korach needled Moses with irritating questions designed to encourage others to question Moses’ credibility.

Our Sages note that while Judaism encourages debate, discourse and disagreement, these challenging conversations should be conducted L’Shem Shamayim—”in the name of heaven.”

They point to conversations—held 2,000 years ago—between two Sages—Shammai and Hillel—who represented then what we could call today the “right versus left.”

The Talmud tells us that during these debates, the rabbis most often favored the opinion of Hillel over Shammai—not so much because Hillel was right—but rather “because he was kinder.”

Before Hillel issued his opinion, he had his followers sincerely consider Shammai’s point of view. And so should we. 

Pirkei Avot, our ancient collection of rabbinical wisdom presents it this way:

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately prove worthwhile but a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven will prove not to be worthwhile.

“An example of a dispute that was for the sake of Heaven are the debates between Hillel and Shammai. An example of a dispute that was not for the sake of Heaven is the rebellion of Korach and his followers. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

It’s a lesson for our time. How often do we see those engaged in public discourse promote positions in order to aggrandize themselves?

Sometimes, like the young man in the shtetl, there are no easy or perfect answers to life’s questions.

But through faith in a higher power, we maintain a belief that all will be revealed in due time. Until then, we can advance our discussions and debates in a positive and constructive manner.

In part, we can do so by choosing friends, acquaintances and leaders with whom we can discuss complex issues through the lens of integrity.

We are also encouraged to embrace the wisdom of our parents, grandparents, teachers and role models—past and present—whose examples “in the name of heaven” sustain us to this day.

Through their eyes, we gain wisdom.

The great rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), noted:

“True messengers present themselves—like Moses at the Burning Bush—as unworthy of the task. Only persons motivated by self-interest, eager for the position of leader proclaim, “I can do better.”

In the end, Moses’ legacy endures. For it is humility and kindness that has propelled our people for centuries.

Indeed, there are no absolute truths to the many questions and unknowns of our time.

All we can do is be kind and treat each other with respect. It is within that context that we can achieve true understanding.

We need to reject the lure of Korach in favor of the teachings of our greatest rabbi, Moses.

For his legacy of humility and kindness “in the name of heaven,” continues to lead us to this day toward our Promised Land.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784