In this week’s Torah portion we read about the disconcerting efforts of Korach and his followers to challenge Moshe’s authority, accusing him and his brother Aaron of monopolizing all of the power over the Jewish People. Why, wonders Korach, are Moshe and Aaron better than anyone else, and more fit to lead? He therefore rallies a group of people against them and rebells, which ultimately leads to he and his followers downfall in which they are literally swallowed alive by the earth. Interestingly, in the immediate aftermath of their demise, the Torah records how Elazar, Aaron’s son, is given the charge of taking the copper fire pans that Korach and his people had used, and to hammer them into a covering that would be used for the alter. At first glance it seems strange that we would use such an item for the cover of the alter—an item that symbolizes a failed, inappropriate rebellion against Moshe and Aaron. The Torah itself tells us the reason these copper fire pans should be used as a cover for the alter is because it will serve as a reminder “that no alien who is not of the offspring of Aaron should draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before Hashem… that he not be like Korach and his assembly…” The Talmud, and the Mishnah Berura, the decisive halachic volume for Ashkenazic Jewry worldwide, rule that based on this verse, we are not allowed to engage in machlokes, in quarreling or fighting. It appears that avoiding fights is not just a piece of good advice—it seems like it is brought as an actual Torah Prohibition. While it is true that there exists the concept of a machlokes l’sheim Shomayim, arguments for the sake of Heaven, like the arguments that Hillel and Shammai had where their motives were simply to seek the truth in clarifying the Torah’s laws, arguments for other purposes, not for the sake of achieving truth, are forbidden.
While it is true that sometimes we have every right to maintain a dispute with someone when we are doing it for the sake of Heaven, the reality is that when we are involved in any type of argument, we are playing with fire. Rabbi Chaim Morgenstern quotes the Chofetz Chaim who writes that a person involved in a quarrel is at risk of violating a plethora of Torah commandments: The prohibitions against slanderous speech, baseless hatred, anger, hurting the feelings of others, revenge, bearing a grudge, and, G-d forbid, desecrating G-d’s name. When faced with the scary consequences of what can come out of maintaining a dispute, one comes to an undeniable conclusion: It’s just not worth it.
The Chofetz Chaim comments further that just as Jews often spend large amounts of money on ritual items such as mezuzahs, lulav and esrogs for Sukkos, homemade shmura matzahs, so too we should be willing to spend money for the sake of peace. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches us to, “Be like students of Aaron: Love peace, pursue peace, love mankind and draw them close to Torah.” Peace is something to be pursued, even at a financial cost. The Chofetz Chaim suggests putting money aside into a “Shalom/peace Fund” every year, to be used to compensate for monetary loss, or to spend to avoid fights and to maintain peace among family and community members. A few weeks ago my oldest child was running down the stairs at Coors Field to try to catch a baseball (Baruch Hashem, a successful endeavor). The problem was, in the process he knocked over another dude's beer. Needless to say, the poor guy was not so happy. Understanding the necessity to avoid conflict, my father on the spot diffused the situation, by simply buying the guy a new beer, and they became fast friends. On another occasion, I once observed on a long bus ride in Israel, a poor American tourist get on the bus at an isolated bus stop in the middle of the Jordan Valley without his transfer slip. He told the impatient bus driver that his previous driver whom he paid 50 shekels, told him on these buses, transfer slips were unnecessary; you just pay the first bus you are going on. The bus driver was unmoved, demanded payment, and a passionate argument ensued. Sitting toward the front of the bus was a young man who understood that avoiding fights is worth spending money on, and he offered to pay the tourist’s fare. Touched by the gesture, the bus driver refused the payment, was cheered up, and continued on his merry way.
This week begins the month of Tammuz, during which we commence the Three Weeks, leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis famously teach us that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. They also teach that every year it is not rebuilt, it is as if that generation destroyed it. Let us take heed from the lesson of Korach, and avoid machlokes, literally at any cost.