D’var Torah: The Original Troll

Leon Kraiem, Conservative Yeshiva Student

There’s something rhythmically striking about verses 3-4 of Parashat Korach. “[Korach and his followers] gathered together against Moses and Aaron,” we’re told, “and said to them, ‘It is too much for you! For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy and God is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?”

At which point, “Moses heard and fell on his face.”

We’ve all had moments in which someone- perhaps on the Internet or at a family gathering- presents us with an argument so absurd, or so abhorrent, that we just don’t know where to begin. But Korach’s question, at least to the modern, democratic reader, doesn’t seem so wild. There’s even something beautiful about his construction that “the entire assembly…are holy.” Heschel quotes this pasuk unironically in “God in Search of Man.” So how come Moses doesn’t engage?

“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim) is destined to endure,” say the sages in Pirkei Avot. “But if it is not for the sake of heaven it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.”

This last phrase is an odd construction. Hillel argued with Shammai. They were the two parties of the makhloket. Korach and his congregation, on the other 

hand, together make up only one side of the dispute. The Mishnah does not say “Korach and all of his congregation and Moses,” or “Korach and all of his congregation and Aaron,” or perhaps “Korach and all of his congregation and God.” The construction of the argument demonstrates what makes it not l’shem shamayim. A proper makhloket is relational, it’s a social encounter between one person and another. But Korach wasn’t arguing with anybody, he was only arguing for himself.

This stands in contrast to the relationship Moses has with God, of which Korach is so envious- God talks with Moses, according to Parashat Ki Tisa, “face to face.” Moses even argues with God in this way, although usually it is not Moses defending himself personally, but rather using his influence with God to protect Israel from His wrath. This is the case shortly before the above quoted verse, in Moses’ standoff with God on Mount Sinai after the sin of the Golden Calf. By the time Korach comes along with his leading question, Moses has already had to defend his people three times. This, according to Rashi, is why Moses falls on his face. How will he plead our case this time?

But maybe Moses also falls on his face because he can’t approach this makhloket with Korach “face-to-face” as he would a makhloket with God. Korach says to Moses “Rav l’chem!” It is too much for you! He speaks as though divine service is a commodity to which a person is entitled, to be bought with some sort of inherent holiness. Moses, knowing that his service to God is a relationship, not a job title, can’t respond to Korach’s incoherent premise. All he can do is call on the real party with whom Korach disagrees- God himself, who chose Moses and Aaron to be his servants and did not choose Korach any more than Moses or Aaron chose themselves- to intervene.

At first glance, it might be hard to see why Korach is the villain in this story. We don’t run our societies on hereditary priesthoods or prophecy on mountaintops anymore. We elect representatives, and we encourage our fellow citizens- members of the holy congregation- to challenge those leaders, and often to run in contentious elections to replace them. But we still must remember that the office of President or Prime Minister, like that of Moshe or the kohen gadol, are offices of public (and divine) service- not some glamorous position to which any individual is entitled. And now it is our job, in a time when the Earth does not open up to swallow bad actors as soon as they advocate their cause, to distinguish between a servant and an opportunist, an activist and a troll, a makhloket l’shem shamayim and a makhloket that is nothing of the sort.