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Desirable and detestable disputes

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One of the most well-known and frightening lessons of the entire Torah comes from the portion of Korach. Korach and his assembly chose to have a dispute with Moses. It was a very ugly episode in our history, and the results, which included a plague, were disastrous. The take-home lesson is very clear: avoid disputes like the plague.

How surprising it is therefore that the Ethics of the Fathers Chapter 4 Mishna 20 seems to teach the exact opposite. Says the Mishna, “Any dispute which is for the sake of heaven will ultimately endure; and [any dispute] which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which dispute is for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and his assembly”.

The key to unlocking the message contained in this Mishna is to understand what “for the sake of heaven” means. In order to do that we need to know what the heavens are all about. The heavens represent the ultimate guidelines from above on how to get to the ultimate destination in life down below – the better world we’re looking forward to here on earth. That being the case, the more options the guidelines offer, the better. This is because the more possibilities one has, the more likely one will be able to succeed in reaching one’s ends. This is what the Mishna means when it says, “any dispute that is for the sake of heaven” – for the sake of providing additional means and options of achieving the ends – “such a dispute will endure”. Hillel and Shammai not only held different opinions, they encouraged each other to do so. Each different opinion provides an additional and useful heavenly possibility of reaching the commonly held earthly destination.

But Korach and his assembly didn’t dispute for the sake of heaven, for the sake of getting heavenly guidance about succeeding on earth. They disputed about the heavens. According to them, it was the opposite way round – the heavens were the destination and the earth was the means. Since Abraham, the Jewish people have been dedicated to having heavenly disputes on how to get to a better earth. Korach and his assembly chose to have an earthly dispute on how to get to heaven. Our forefathers were interested in emulating G-d by using heaven for earth. Korach and his assembly were interested in taking from G-d by using earth to get to heaven. This was an alternative earth shattering worldview that couldn’t last. They had lost the plot.

The Torah is full of disputes and debates with myriad differing opinion on almost every subject imaginable. There’s only one subject that has no room for debate at all: that heaven, as lofty as it is, is merely a multi-optional resource centre that facilitates us reaching the real plot, to transform heavenly possibilities into earthly blessings.

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