Shelach: An Argument for the Sake of Heaven?

A commentary on the Rambam, called “Yad Ketanah”, brings a novel thought: arguments for the sake of heaven are forbidden! (Hilchot De'ot 10).  This is puzzling. After all, Pirkei Avot refers to the controversy between Hillel and Shammai as a controversy for the sake of heaven, singling it out for praise, and contrasting it with the controversy of Korach and his assembly, which was not for the sake of heaven!  The Yad Ketanah explains: everyone claims that their controversy is for the sake of heaven!  Have you ever seen a disputant say: “I've got to admit: this controversy is not for the sake of heaven”?  People always deceive themselves, and not just others, claiming that their controversy is for the sake of heaven.  They are not conscious of the self-interest that motivates them.

After all, we have to wonder how Korach, who was exceedingly wise, saintly and blessed with Divine intuition, immersed himself in such an ugly controversy with two holy individuals, Moshe and Aharon. Surely he was not the sort of person who pursues honor for himself.

The Yad HaKetanah explains that Korach deceived himself, speaking about the glory of G-d and the glory of Israel, and claiming: “All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d's congregation?” (Bemidbar 16:3). A minute element of passion was present in Korach.  It was so small and so concealed that he was not even conscious of it, but it nevertheless led him to become confused and to call evil good.

Moshe knew full-well what the problem was, and he answered Korach: “Listen to what I have to say: You sons of Levi, isn't it enough that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel?  He has brought you close to Him… Although He gave this privilege to you and all your fellow Levites, you are now also demanding the priesthood?!” (ibid. v 8-10).

Why would Moshe use this argument to answer Korach's claim about the Divine holiness that envelops the entire Nation of Israel?  What he was saying is this: If you are truly concerned about the specialness of Israel in the aggregate, and the idea that one should not set himself above them, then why didn't you say so when you were chosen with your tribe?  You must understand that you have personal motives veiled in a lofty ideology.”

Yet by then Korach's conscience had already been dulled, and he didn't listen. That is how he sank into perdition. We thus learn that when someone gets enthusiastically involved in a controversy, “for the sake of heaven” so to speak, he must examine himself many times over, wondering whether or not extraneous considerations are involved.

As a humorous aside, there was once a Knesset member who would stop at nothing to hold on to his seat, yet he claimed that he was acting for the sake of heaven.  People answered him, “Of course you are!  Surely Yeshayahu said (66:1): 'Heaven is My seat.'”

But if this is all so, the question still remains: How did our Sages say that Hillel and Shammai’s controversy was for the sake of heaven?  The Yad Ketanah answers very simply: They were intimate friends. We can therefore be certain that neither was interested in claiming victory over the other: they only wished to clarify the truth.  Similarly, Rabbi Yonatan Eibschutz in his book “Ye'arot Devash” explained that the gauge of a controversy being for the sake of heaven is whether or not the parties are friends.

In summary, differences of opinion are permissible, but divided hearts are forbidden. Every one of us must flee a thousand miles from what seems like controversy, and must run like a gazelle towards friendship and camaraderie.