By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
A friend posted that her adorable toddler has discovered the magic and wonder of the word, “no.” Apparently, regardless of the question, the answer is always, “no,” spoken loudly, with hands on hips and a defiant twinkle in the eyes. Such is the power of finally having language with which to dissent.
We all go through this stage as we grow. For some of us, it lasts longer than for most, and for others, it never really passes. We all know contrarians who will insist that the sky is not blue because they enjoy the act of arguing too much to acquiesce, even when common sense says otherwise.
As Jews, we understand this compulsion to disagree and to question as a way to advocate for change. As I wrote in my previous Parsha, much of our motivation is for betterment, and that is apparent in our Holy Books.
When we read Parshat Korach in the book of Numbers, we learn that Moses’ first cousin, Korach, is leading a rebellion. He petitions to remove the seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of Moses as leader and Aaron as High Priest, and he gives a superficially reasonable argument: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (16:3).
Moses does not question Korach’s right to argue about this. In fact, Moses begins making arrangements to come to a reasonable resolution. Then comes the kicker: Two of Korach’s followers, Dathan and Abiram, spit in the face of Moses’ efforts at diplomacy and say, “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” (16:13).
Moses is stunned that, yet again, a false memory emerges, this fake news, of how wonderful life was in Egypt. He is so distressed by this bald-faced lie that his diplomacy departs and he ends up, with G-d’s help, dispatching the rebels to an abrupt and sandy death.
The Sages make clear that arguing was not the crime here. For them, it is the motivation behind the argument that determines its righteousness, or lack thereof. “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishnah Avot 5: 21).
In our daily interactions via email, social media, and family conversations, Korach can be a good “check engine” light. What’s going on under the hood? Are we gossiping? Are we tired, sad, lonely, hungry? It’s ok to disagree, as long as our motivations are for good. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”
It’s tiring to always have to be the grownup; sometimes our inner toddler comes out. Our culture today is full of off-the-cuff remarks, comments that sting, and trolls who want a laugh. But our problems are not going to be solved by juvenile responses. It will be kindness combined with understanding, and a heart full of well-meaning, that will bring us peace in the tumultuous days to come.
Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.