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Torah from Dixie presents "Cloning in Jewish Law" 

Philosophy 101


by Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer

Not by accident does the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers, 5:20) choose the philosophies of Korach (the leader of the rebellion in this week's Torah portion) and of Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai from the time of the Talmud) as the paradigms of self-serving and purely motivated disputes respectively, for they are one and the same, as we are about to explain.

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Not by accident does the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers, 5:20) choose the philosophies of Korach (the leader of the rebellion in this week's Torah portion) and of Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai from the time of the Talmud) as the paradigms of self-serving and purely motivated disputes respectively, for they are one and the same, as we are about to explain.

Our sages teach us that Hashem's original plan for the world required His exacting a strict measure of judgment on all of His creations, but, seeing that the world would be unable to endure this austere approach, Hashem tempered His judgment with mercy. Both Korach and Beit Sham-mai asserted that since judgment represented the ideal, it should be the dominant factor in dictating the style of man's relationship with his Creator.

Beit Shammai applied this philosophy in their teachings of Jewish practice. For example, they held that the Chanukah Menorah should have all eight candles burning on the first night as a representation of the fire of Torah consuming the Evil Inclination until only a single, pure light of truth remains on the eighth night. (We follow the opinion of Beit Hillel -- to begin with one candle and conclude with eight. --Ed.) Even though their approach brought them into heated arguments with the adherents of the prevailing school of thought, namely Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai never spoke of them disrespectfully nor suggested in any way that their philosophy was illegitimate, but always acknowledged that their interpretations in no way violated the boundaries of the Torah and so had an authentic basis in Halachah (Jewish law).

Although Korach shared Beit Shammai's fundamental philosophy, his application of it differed dramatically. The tribe of Levi, from which Korach came, is characterized by the attribute of judgment, evidenced by their avoidance of so many of the errors in which the other tribes stumbled. By Korach's reasoning, therefore, the Levites should be given a higher place than Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim, whose salient attribute is mercy. In his assertion of his convictions, however, Korach sought to discredit the kohanim and undermine the authority of Moses, through whom the kohanim had been appointed to their position. In doing so Korach succeeded only in bringing about his own destruction, prompting the Mishnah mentioned above to point to him in observing that any argument provoked for self-serving motives will not endure.

It is intriguing that despite all of Korach's attacks, Aaron never utters a word in his own defense, seeming to suggest that he had no quarrel with Korach's claims. Indeed, Korach was eminently qualified for the position that he coveted. Tradition teaches that aside from Moses, only Korach understood the secret of the ritual of the parah adumah, the red cow, described in next week's Torah portion. The Shem MiShmuel, an early 20th century Chassidic rebbe, writes that had Korach not rebelled against Aaron's right to the position of kohen gadol (high priest), a special post of levi gadol (head Levite) would have been created for him. Given all of this, where did Korach go wrong?

The S'fas Emes, another great Chassidic rebbe and a leader of late 19th century Polish Jewry, explains that the role of the kohanim, and of the kohen gadol in particular, is to serve as a conduit for bringing Hashem's spiritual emanations to the Jewish people. In order to do so successfully, the kohen must suppress every iota of personal ego. By wanting the position for himself, Korach instantly and automatically disqualified himself. Aaron, by contrast, had no interest other than that the best man fill the position. If it were he, well and good; if someone else, all the better, so long as Hashem's will would be carried out as best as humanly possible.

We learn that in the next world, Beit Shammai's rulings will prevail; the Mishnah teaches through them that an argument which is purely motivated, for the glorification of Hashem, will endure. Alternatively Korach, who sought glory for himself, is remembered only to teach us how self-interest, when inconsistent with the Divine will as revealed through the Torah, brings one to total self-destruction.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson was a teacher at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

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