The Torah reading for Parashat Korach tells the difficult story of Korach and his followers rebelling against Moses and Aaron. Burning with resentment, they said:
Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? (Num. 16:13)
God comes to the aid of Moses and Aaron in a dramatic way. Some of the rebels are literally swallowed up by the earth, others are burned, and still others are struck down by a plague. The scene is so graphic and pivotal to Western civilization that Botticelli depicted the confrontation with Korach on the breathtaking vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
How can we make this difficult story relevant to our lives? Korach invites us to look at the kinds of conflicts in which we engage. In Pirkei Avot, our sages taught that controversies for ritual, moral or ethical purpose are l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). By contrast, controversies based on jealousy or unfounded anger were deemed lo l’shem shamayim (not for the sake of Heaven). Some kinds of conflict can be good – even holy – depending on motive and how it’s expressed.
In this understanding, Korach’s conflict was problematic not because he challenged authority but because he jealously resented the source of his blessings. Instead of rejoicing in his freedom from Egyptian bondage, instead of feeling gratitude for his human and heavenly sources of deliverance, Korach’s freedom became the inner chain that bound him. That kind of conflict was lo l’shem shamayim (not for the sake of Heaven), and it swallowed Korach up.
There is a story about whether we stand or sit in synagogue for the Shma prayer. A newcomer enters the sanctuary and asks whether it is the custom to stand for the Shma.
“No,” he is told.
“Well, then,” he says, “it must be the custom to sit for the Shma.”
“No,” he is told. “Well, then,” he says. “What is your custom?”
“Our custom is that we argue about it!” is the answer.
While this story is clearly a joke, it points to a kind of conflict that might be deemed “for the sake of Heaven” – because its motivation is not jealousy, control or unjustified anger. There are good arguments on both sides, and both sides are worth hearing and respecting.
Another type of conflict l’shem shamayim is an internal struggle with addiction – whether to food, drink, or drugs. It’s especially difficult to lead a life of holiness enslaved to unhealthy biochemical, behavioral or emotional passion. One pursues the conflict-laden path of recovery precisely so one won’t be swallowed up by the physical, emotional and spiritual grief of addiction.
Perhaps the most common kind of conflict occurs between one person and another, each feeling wronged, in the arenas of family life, business, or politics. One of the basic principles of Shabbat observance, shalom bayit (keeping peace at home) is easier said than done, but clearly for the sake of Heaven. In these contexts, we aspire to balance righteous conflict with the higher values of love, relationship and inner peace – so conflict won’t swallow us up.
Jewish liturgy envisions a God of forgiveness, and our High Holy Days resonate with this theme. We are told that for acts against God, Yom Kippur may atone, but for acts against other people, reparation must be made with the ones wronged.
Let us take time to look at the conflicts that swallow us up, or make us burn with resentment, or conflicts that plague our lives, and see how we can make them l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Perhaps we can pray for Guidance, for divine response to our questions. And just perhaps, a way will be shown to bring more peace into our lives.