There is a marked contrast set up by two similar events in the book of Genesis, Breishis. We read in Vayatzei about Jacob having a dream that is really a visit from God. He sees a ladder stretching, Midrash tells us, from his home in BeerSheva to the place he was sleeping, Mount Moriah, site of the Akeida of his father and the future home to the Holy Temples of Jerusalem. There are angels ascending and descending from the ladder, proving, the Rabbis tell us, that Jacob was being guarded by heavenly creatures during his travels. The sages tell us that because the first angels are going up the ladder; they must have been with Jacob all along. The ones coming down are arriving to take up the guard duty that is being passed to them from the first set of angels. And, one might ask, what about the time that Jacob was unguarded, the time in between the two sets of angels? At that time, our commentaries state, Jacob was being watched over by God Himself. The message from God is then given to Jacob. It is a reiteration of the covenant given to his father and his grandfather: God will bless the fledgling Jewish nation and will give to them the land upon which Jacob is sleeping. God will be with him wherever he goes.
This metaphor of Divine protection seems so comforting to me. From Jacob’s vision, perhaps we can all conclude that we are all under the shelter of God’s wings.
Another story of a dream is related later, in Parshat Miketz. Pharaoh is sleeping and has an encounter with God. The dream is about seven lean cows and seven fat cows, a warning to the king about impending doom to his country. Of course, as we know, it would take Joseph to interpret the puzzling metaphor.
Besides the obvious differences in tone of each dream, there is another telling difference between the two narratives. When Pharaoh awakened from his sleep, the Torah relates that he went back to sleep. What a departure from Jacob’s reaction to his dream! The Torah tells us in Vayeitzei that when he awakens, he is immediately aware of the Presence of God and he dedicates himself to Divine service. Quite different than turning over and going back to sleep.
The Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic master, quoted the Talmud that each day a Heavenly Voice emanates from the mountain of Sinai, urging people to do teshuvah, to return to the Mitzvot. “Of what use is this voice,” asked the Baal Shem Tov, “since no one has ever attested to hearing it?”
He then explained that although the voice is physically inaudible to the human ear, it is heard by the neshama, the soul. The moments that we are moved to do teshuvah and acts of loving-kindness are due to the neshama perceiving the voice from Sinai.
As we see from the two reactions to a call from God, there can be two results. We can ignore the call and go back to the hibernation of ingrained habits, or we can emulate our forefather Jacob and rouse ourselves to a wakened state in order to make positive changes and to take constructive action.
We read in the Torah a number of examples where even the righteous and sometimes the not-so-righteous lie. For example, we know that Rivka encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. She may have believed that she did so because of the prophecy that Jacob would inherit his father’s estate, but it was a lie nonetheless. There are even moments when Adonai lies—for example, he does not tell Abraham the real reason that his wife Sarah laughed at the prophecy that she will bear a child, namely that her husband was so old. These examples suggest that, for us as Jews, lying is a complicated matter and no absolute rules are appropriate. To condemn lying completely might be clearer in many respects but to do so disregards situations where lying might not only be allowed but perhaps even be necessary. As we think about the lies told by Jews and righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, we would be highly unlikely to criticize their actions. But we also recognize that it’s not always the case that “the end justifies the means.” As always, we are willing to live with some gray!
Rav Yonah, a Talmudic scholar, listed nine different categories of lies, with people cheating in business and causing other people financial loss being the worst.
There was once a man who was a tailor and he took a partner in the business. One day, a man left a jacket for altering. After the customer left, the tailor checked the garment and found $500.00 in one of the pockets. This created a great moral dilemma. Should he tell his partner??
Another form of lying, per Rav Yonah, is “changing minor details when retelling an episode” being wrong but less wrong. The lies he cites are all related to self-aggrandizement and/or cheating other people—promising to do something for someone, knowing that one has no intention of doing so, for example. I would guess that many of us have told some of those lies in some of those categories.
On the other side, Talmudic literature provides us with stories where lying seems to be justified, where it is done for “good reasons.” But how do we interpret those stories, given that they can be understood on so many levels? Practical Halachah gives us more specific guidance. For example, we are allowed to say, “I don’t know” (even when we do) if we’re asked about information that is confidential. A wealthy person can lie to avoid ayin hara or arousing jealousy. And a man is permitted to lie to his wife about the time if she will be late for Shabbat! But even there there are limits—he can only do so if she is procrastinating, not if she is rushing to get ready because that would only increase the pressure on her.
Though there may not be clear answers, these examples as well as the examples from the Torah lead us to think about our own actions and our own willingness (or unwillingness) to tell a direct lie or to deceive others indirectly. Thinking twice about such actions can never be a bad idea! Truth is weighed against doing chesed, with chesed held up as a more desirable concept.
As Jews, we try to emulate God. A clue to God’s qualities is the recitation of God’s midot, attributes, words taken directly from Torah. The listing includes, “gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and truth, assuring love for a thousand generations.” Here we see that chesed, kindness, has precedence over truth. It can be concluded, then, that being kind is even more important than the telling of the truth.
Let us all treat each other with kindness, even if it means stretching the truth at times!
I think many Jewish people—perhaps MOST Jewish people—know that there are two central pillars of Jewish faith and practice: TZEDAKA, charity; and CHESED, acts of lovingkindness. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Z”L, tells us that these mitzvot lie at the heart of Judaism’s understanding of mitzvoth bein-adam-le-chavero, of our interpersonal duties We recognize that every society needs laws—mishpatim—but laws are not enough. We also need acts of tzedaka and of chesed.
Every time you make a donation to the Temple, you are doing tzedakah. Often, we give in memory of a loved one, or in honor of someone who has lost a loved one. That is tzedakah, the very essence of it, by remembering someone through an act of goodness.
But tzedakah is NOT charity; it is not a magnanimous act. Rather, it is a simple act of justice, of righteousness. The obligation is not fulfilled by paying taxes. We know that Jews are among the most philanthropic of all people. For example, 24.5% of all MEGA-donors—those who give more than $10 million a year—are Jewish. Business Week’s 50 most generous philanthropists include at least 15 Jews, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s top 50 charitable donor includes 16 Jews. Bear in mind that Jews comprise about 2% of the population.
But what is especially interesting in light of the importance of these commands is that neither tzedakah nor chesed are mentioned in the Ten Commandments. We know that there are 603 OTHER miztvot, but I find it noteworthy that we are NOT told “thou shalt be kind. . . “ OR “thou shalt give charity.” So where do we get these mitzvot?
I think the requirement to do chesed and tzedakah can be found in some key passages in the Torah. In Re-eh, for example, for are told:
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Rather, be open-handed and freely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he lacks.
The Torah also tells us that there will always be poor people among us, thereby making clear that the obligation to give tzedakah is an eternal one. We know that in the shmittah year, which falls this current year, all debts must be forgiven. There was the Jubilee in which ancestral lands returned to their original owners. There were the “corner of the field”, the “forgotten sheaf”, the “gleanings” of grain and wine harvest, and the tithes in the third and sixth years that were given to the poor. We must return the debtor’s cloak before night falls. We cannot make the widow destitute. In these ways and others, the Torah established the first form of what in the twentieth century came to be known as a welfare state – with one significant difference. It did not depend on a state. It was part of society, implemented not by power but by moral responsibility and the network of interpersonal obligations created by the covenant at Sinai. All that is truly beautiful.
But I think that you could argue that CHESED is in some ways even superior to TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah helps those in need, but chesed HUMANIZES the world. Tzedakah is done with one’s money, but chesed can be done through money or through one’s own acts of loving-kindness. Charity is given to the poor, but chesed can be given to anyone, rich or poor. Tzedakah can only be given to the living, but chesed can be given even to the dead through burial practices and our mourning rituals. Through chesed, we follow in the ways of God. We walk in God’s path. In fact, the sages believe that the Torah begins with an act of kindness—God clothing Adam and Eve—and ends with an act of kindness—God caring for the burial of Moshe.
We read of acts of chesed in this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah. The narrative opens with Abraham’s mourning of Sarah, and of his devotion to her, even after she has died. But perhaps the most moving example of chesed occurs just after Abraham, in his old age, has decided that his son Isaac must have a wife. Abraham gives his servant Eliezer no instructions other than to find a wife from “the land of my birth.” But Eliezer seems to decide on his own to create a special test for this woman. He utters a prayer:
Notice that we see the word ‘chesed’ in two places in the passage that I just read. Eliezer is looking for a certain kind of wife for Isaac—a woman who is not just from the right family but also someone who shows kindness to strangers. And Rivka is precisely that person. The Torah tells us that Eliezer had “scarcely finished speaking” when Rivka—Rebecca—came out to greet him. Not only does she tell him, “drink, my Lord,” but she also runs back to the well to draw more water for all of his camels. How many camels was that? TEN!
So, the wife of the first Jewish child, Isaac, is characterized as many things—she is strong, she is beautiful, she is modest. But, most importantly, she is KIND. She is kind to a stranger, and she provides life-sustaining water, perhaps the most precious commodity in a desert culture. And we later learn that Rivka’s goodness is all-the-more remarkable, given how deceitful and conniving the rest of her family is. In the house of Abraham and Sarah, kindness and generosity to strangers were the norm. Only a spouse that held those same values could make Yitzchak happy. The genius of Eliezer is that he understood that.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young, I admired cleverness. Now that I am old, I find I admire kindness more.” Someone once said that “kindness isn’t doing something for someone because they CAN’T but because YOU CAN.” Rav Moseh of Kobrin, z’’l, wrote that, “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.”
Rivka, like Abraham before her, does not hesitate to treat strangers with kindness. She, like Avraham Avinu, thinks of how she can lighten someone’s burden, how she can give light in an otherwise dark world. Let us pray that we can find the strength to give that strength—or at least a part of it—to others, so that they might bless us and so that we might walk in God’s path
“It came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”
(Genesis 22:1 – 2)
Our reading of the third of the triennial sections of this week’s portion ends with the Akedah (“the binding”), one of the most difficult and challenging stories in the entire Torah. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. God decides to put Abraham to the test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain. That mountain, Moriah, eventually became the holy place where the Temple was built.
The story emphasizes the closeness of father and son as well as the enthusiasm of Abraham to carry out God’s command. Twice it says, “the two of them walked together.” At the crucial moment when Abraham binds his son, an angel puts a stop to the sacrifice. Abraham sees a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Seemingly Abraham has passed the test. But this is already problematic. The father and son should have walked down the mountain together as they walked up together. But the Torah says that Abraham walked down alone. Where was Isaac? This is a great mystery. Perhaps the story is telling us that there is estrangement between father and son.
Jewish tradition teaches that this was the great act of faith. Abraham had passed the test. He was willing to go so far as to sacrifice his beloved son to obey God’s command. Obedience to God is the ultimate value. This is the reason we Jews read the story not only this week but on the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, one of our holiest days of the year. This is a story about faith; a faith in God so deep that Abraham could set aside his ethical scruples.
Not only Jews but the other Abrahamic religions see the value of this story. The Koran speaks of Abraham almost sacrificing Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. And the Christian existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made this story central to his philosophy. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard calls Abraham “a lonely knight of faith.” He was willing to suspend the ethical in order to live in the presence of God. The truly authentic life is based on what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” He attacked what he called the ethical life as inferior to true religious faith.
But is Kierkegaard correct? Did Abraham truly do the correct thing? Should we be reading this story on Rosh Hashana? Perhaps the fact that Abraham walks down the mountain alone, never to encounter his son again until he dies, is a hint that there was something wrong. Earlier, Abraham argues with God and bargains to save the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says to God, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” Abraham is willing to call God to an account when God does something not just. Why did he not argue with God here?
Perhaps Abraham failed the test. Perhaps religion is not about suspending the ethical as Kierkegaard would say, but rather living by the ethical. Even God must live by the ethical. And if God commands us humans to do something unethical, our job is to argue with God. Perhaps Abraham should have told God, “No, I will not offer my son as a burnt offering. It is wrong.” The story would have been a lot less interesting, but it would have made a point. Religion demands ethical behavior.
Today we see unethical behavior among many faiths done in the name of God. People believe that God is on their side and therefore all kinds of atrocities are justified. It is not simply Islamists who create acts of terrorism or Christians who murder doctors they believe performed abortions. I see in our own faith, religious Jews who harass and arrest women who dare to bring a Torah or sing their prayers at the Western Wall.
Perhaps the lesson of the Adekah is that faith in God is important, but doing the right thing exceeds even that in importance.
We are told that our father Abraham underwent ten tests over the course of his lifetime, and that he passed all ten tests. Though there is no consensus on what those ten tests were, we do know that the first was at Ur Kasdim, where Abram (as he was then known) was thrown into a fiery pit for his refusal to pay homage to the idols of that society. He survived that furnace, and emerged not only physically unharmed but also committed to his monotheism. In addition, we know that the second test Abram faced was God’s command to LECH LECHA, to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
As we know, he passes that test as well.
So why do we hear so much more about the second test than the first? In fact, the Torah is almost totally silent on the first test, the only mention being a quick reference in Lech Lecha to UR. It would seem that surviving a fiery furnace would warrant more attention than a journey, a departure from one’s home. And yet the fiery furnace is barely mentioned and comes to us mostly through midrash. Why?
One scholar believes that the trial at Ur Kasdim was barely mentioned because that experience was of Abram’s own choosing. He was an iconoclast in his own day and time, and his devotion to monotheism required that he be willing to give up his life for his belief. On the other hand, this scholar claims, the command to “go forth” comes directly from God, and that makes that test even more important because it was divine. Therefore, it is worthy of more time in our text.
I want to propose a slightly different reason. I think it’s clear that being willing to stand in a fiery furnace is a BIG test. I’m not sure too many of us could do it! But that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was GLAMOROUS. A little like the trials of Hercules or some other spectacular super-hero. In contrast, the journey that Abraham undertakes is one that is on-going, and not the least bit glamorous. In fact, he doesn’t even know where he is going—God tells him “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Now there’s faith! No sense of what that end destination might be. And the Torah tells us, “And Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him.”
Think about how hard it is to leave one’s childhood home. No matter how much we might resist the strictures of our parents and older adults, there is a certain safety in being someone’s child and in remaining a child. There is safety in what we know, in being cared for. No doubt Abram felt that safety as well, even though he must have hated living in a land of idolaters.
But that isn’t all. Abram doesn’t simply leave his childhood home. He leaves without any knowledge of what his destination might be. That journey is one of seeking, not one of exile (like Adam and Eve), and the mystery of that journey demanded enormous faith of Abram.
So much of life is like this, isn’t it? Life often feels like a journey whose end is uncertain, where even the mileposts along the way might not be marked for us. Where we are headed somewhere, and we often don’t know exactly where. Where we might have even less information than Abram did—remember that God tells him that he and his descendents will be blessed, and that his enemies will be cursed.
Unlike Abram, we never know whether blessings or curses follow us as we journey on our way. So much of that journey requires a leap of faith, a trust that we will be OK. And, often, if we try to control our circumstances, the “best-laid plans” often go awry—we end up realizing that the more we try to exercise control, the less control we actually have.
Maybe some of you have read or heard about some of the predictions people have made about the future. For example, Charlie Chaplin once said that “the cinema is little more than a fad. People want the flesh and blood of the stage.” Margaret Thatcher once said, “A woman will never be prime minister during my lifetime.”
Marconi, famous for his invention of the radio, thought that radios would make warfare impossible. Economist Irving Fiske predicted that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Anyone want to guess what year that was? Yes, it was 1929, actually THREE DAYS before the market crashed. Popular Mechanics in 1959 said that computers might some day weigh less than 1.5 TONS. And my personal favorite: in 1924, Science and Invention Magazine predicted that there would soon be a MATING machine that you and your partner could be hooked into to determine if you’re compatible.
Dealing with mystery is tough and challenging. Under some circumstances, it can be terrifying. I don’t want to minimize that reality. But, sometimes, when we open ourselves up to the mystery of the future, we find that we are truly blessed in ways that we did not or could not imagine.
Let us pray that we can have the faith, like our father Abraham, to trust the future and to go forth . . .
We read of the Great Flood this week in the Parsha of Noach.
With the Flood, nature seemed to change. The Chatam Sofer explains the defect which occurred in the creation in the period after the Flood. The people in the generation of the Flood sinned because they were bored and had nothing to do. They did not have to labor in planting crops and raising children. Now the Holy One, blessed be He imposed upon mankind the cares of the world. People now must sow and reap, and “they will not rest.” They will not yawn because of excessive boredom. They will therefore not sin and indeed Noach immediately began to live according to the new order of things (9:20). “And Noach, the man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard.” The Malbim claims that our Sages saw three basic changes in nature. Until the Flood, people had to sow once every 40 years. Now they had to work all the time. Secondly, until then the sun circled the equator and it was always warm and light. Now there were seasons in the year, with all the effects on Man’s nature and health. Thirdly, from then on people no longer had the opportunity to rest; they would not be free to do whatever they wanted.
In telling the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah wished to explain the reason why there are a multitude of languages today, although Adam was born alone. No doubt there was a failure in civilization and Hashem directed the people to become separated and many languages were developed immediately. The Abravanel points out that the expression that they traveled “from the east” meant that they moved away from the ancient days of old. The type of government that existed was evil and forbidden, yet the Torah never prohibited it. The Abravanel says, “When Hashem saw that Adam and all his descendants had immersed themselves in all the lusts for luxury, and had defiled themselves with them, He did not forbid His people… but encouraged the Children of Israel to behave in those matters with justice and in a proper manner, not in a despicable manner.” In any event, the purpose of the world according to the Abravanel is for it to be as it was before, before humankind ruined it by progress and by building the city and the Tower. The ruination of mankind by making technology into a god is also seen in the words of our Sages in the Midrash that at the time of the generation of the separation “if a man fell and died no-one would pay attention to it, whereas if a single brick fell they would sit and cry exclaiming when will there be another like it.” Technology, which was created to serve mankind, appeared as a goal, upon whose altar man was to be sacrificed, and that was the failure of this post-Flood generation.
In this week’s parsha, PINCHAS, we see Moshe passing on the leadership of the Jewish people to his successor. Given that the Torah portion is named after Pinchas, it would seem to make sense to think that the next leader is Pinchas. But that is not the case. Even though we may admire the passion and zeal of a Pinchas, we know that those qualities are not sufficient to make someone a leader. So, instead, Moses confers smicha on Joshua.
We’ve seen Joshua before—in the story of the Golden Calf, he’s the one who points out to Moses that the crowd seems to be riled up. We know that he was also one of the 12 spies, and he is one of the two to have the faith that the Israelites can conquer the land. Midrash also tells us that Joshua learned Torah directly from Moshe. And something you may not know: our sages have said that the face of Moses was like the sun, but that the face of Joshua was like the moon.
Think about that. What is the difference between the sun and the moon?
One rabbi tells us that the sun is the heavenly body that lights up the entire universe, but the moon allows other heavenly bodies to shine. That’s a nice distinction when we think about the differences between Joshua and Moshe. Moshe is the leader who speaks directly with God; he is an almost overwhelming presence, and there’s a lot of evidence that that aspect of his personality kept him separate from the Jewish people, even from his own family.
But Joshua is like the moon. Joshua lets others shine. He allows others to step forward and share in the glory. Moshe, as a brilliant leader and strategist, must have realized that the Jewish people needed a different kind of leader. It was time for the Israelites to be in their promised land, and to take more responsibility for their own actions. They have lived with Moshe and one miracle after another. The time has come for them to experience a new kind of leadership and a new phase in their history. The true leader is the one who can share leadership, and in so doing, can help others also become leaders. Like the moon in the sky, a true leader does not dominate but is able to delegate and share the glory. The Jewish people, with Joshua at the helm, will have to grow up. They are entering a new phase of maturity, leaving behind miracles and a direct connection to God. This is the phase we continue to find ourselves in. It remains our challenge to find and sustain a connection with God.
There is a Midrash that states that Pharaoh was deliberating what to do with his “Jewish problem” in Egypt. He had three advisors: Bilaam, Job, and Yitro. Bilaam gave him advice and ultimately was killed; Job remained silent during the deliberations and was consigned to suffer the punishments that are outlined in the book that bears his name and Yitro fled, earning the merit of having his descendants sit adjacent to the Sanhedrin. Bilaam witnessed everything that occurred, even at the Splitting of the Sea, and made no attempt to reach any conclusion, contrary to the experiences of Yitro. Near the end of today’s Parsha, even as he has failed to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam offers advice which causes many Jewish people to sin and lose their lives.
“Behold it is a nation that dwells alone and is not counted among the other nations” (23:9). The Beit HaLevi noted that Bilaam realized that B’nei Yisrael can only exist as a nation if it does not assimilate with other nations. Truly they must be a “nation alone” – only then will it continue to dwell and exist. However, “among the other nations” – if B’nei Yisrael attempts to become like other nations, they will not be counted! When Jews attempt to become like non-Jews of the world, they do not gain respect in the eyes of the Gentiles. To the contrary, they are looked down upon and reviled.
According to the Midrash, Bilaam was a prophet who curses, and he offered himself out for hire. The Midrash states that Sichon hired Bilaam and Bilaam’s father to curse Moav. Hence we see something that Rashi alluded to in the beginning of today’s parsha when Moav sent messengers to Midian so that the two countries can work together against Bnei Yisrael. Normally these two countries hated each other, but in order to fight Israel they made peace. We see this repeatedly in Jewish history. Several years ago, when Iraq and Iran were conducting a war against each other, but when it came to fighting Israel they become friends and allies. The Moabites, Midianites and Amorites hated each other, but when it came time to face what they perceived as a common enemy they would work together. When the enemy is the Jewish people, we have that unique ability to inspire people to get along with each other!
In this Parsha, we read of the death of Miriam who was Moshe’s sister, but, even more, his confidante. She provided the ear that he needed to be able to manage the challenges of leadership. I think that Miriam told him the truth. She was even willing to suffer God’s wrath when it came to speaking her mind. Soon after her death, Moshe committed the sole sin of his life-striking the rock in order to obtain water from it.
We all need a confidante. For some of us, it’s a spouse. But sometimes that’s a problem. Why? Well. Because there may be times when we might want to speak about our spouse. So, a friend, someone we can be honest with, who can tell us when we’re not being true to ourselves, that kind of friend is so precious.
I had a friend like that, a friend whom I told virtually everything to. I trusted him, and he never judged me, no matter how off the wall I might have been at the time. Jason passed away, and now, looking back, I think that, like Moshe and Miriam, I did not have the time to mourn him appropriately. It was Pesach, and I had sermons to write and services to lead. I was moving my residence. I was overwhelmed with grief, and like many men, I didn’t know how to express that grief. So, I exploded during a family Seder, damaging relationships within the mishpacha for years. I can’t help but connect that event with Moshe and Miriam.
We need to give ourselves time to grieve. We need to recognize the vacuum that the loss of a beloved friend leaves in our lives. We need to be patient with ourselves when we experience feelings of loss and disorientation and grief.
Of course, for those whose faith is strong, God can be a confidante. Praying to, speaking to God in times of difficulty can give us great comfort. But I suspect that there are times when we really need someone who talks back to us, someone who can nudge us back to where we want to be and where we should be. This is not an either/or—we can fill our lives with God AND with the friends so dear to us. Friends are mortal and we have to recognize that they will not be with us forever. But the story in our Parsha makes clear-as crazy as it may seem-that sometimes God is not enough-we need a friend.
The Parsha of Korach describes a mutiny against Moshe and his authority, an authority bestowed upon him by God. It has led our rabbis to comment that this conflict exemplifies an argument “not for the sake of heaven.” Such an argument, we are told, is one whose issues do not endure. Because they do not endure, like Korach and his followers, those arguments are swallowed up by the earth. They disappear, having never had any credibility in the first place. In contrast to such arguments, the Talmud makes it clear that the halachic debates between Hillel and Shammai were in the name of heaven and therefore enduring.
As we consider these different sorts of arguments, we can’t help but think about this distinction-between arguments that endure and those that are lost in time-might be a useful one by which to consider other questions. For example, think, back to the Lincoln/Douglas debates and the issue of slavery. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, we can now see very clearly that that argument was not for the sake of heaven. Its issues have not endured. Every civilized person acknowledges that slavery is immoral and unjust. Perhaps even incomprehensible. Like Korach, those ascribing to the opposite view have been consigned to the earth’s depths. In fact, there was probably even evidence for this perspective back in the mid-19th century or even before. The founders of this country, rather than defend slavery, worried about the impact of so radical a change on the young country’s formation. Our Constitution never even mentions ‘slavery,’ perhaps an indication pf the moral embarrassment we hope our forefathers felt about the practice. Likewise, 19th century defenders worried about the economic losses the South would suffer if slavery were to be abolished. Such indirection, again we hope, may suggest discomfort with such a vile practice.
Similarly, no one challenges the right of women or people of color to vote, However long and divisive those struggles were, we look back and wonder how anyone could have defended the opposite view. Not for the sake of heaven.
Where, then, is a Machloket L’Shaym HaShamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven? I’m sure we cal all come up with different examples-and as Conservative Jews, we are likely to have different examples than our Reform or Orthodox counterparts. But some occur to me: What characterizes the next life? Why is there evil in the world? How do we understand the nature of the soul? We may never-at least until the Mashiach comes-have the true answers to these questions, but the debates themselves will never be swallowed up by the earth because reasonable people can entertain differing points of view on these subjects. These are indeed Godly discussions and perhaps, regardless of our views on these issues, we can all learn something from them and even from those with whom we disagree.