Every argument that is for the sake of heaven – for example that of Hillel and Shammai will endure; and every one which isn’t – for example that of Korach and his company – won’t endure (Avot 5:20).
Must History Repeat Itself?
Our sages famously proclaim ma’aseh avot siman le-banim that the deeds of, or events surrounding, our ancestors are a signpost for their descendants. In other words, we should expect similar occurrences as those experienced by our illustrious forebears to manifest repeatedly.
Does that mean that history is inevitably and irrevocably destined to repeat itself?
Here perhaps we should distinguish between the broad, panoramic sweep of Jewish history regarding which G-D has His masterplan and human free choice (bekhira) on an individual level.
As individuals (save in exceptional circumstances), human beings are granted free moral choice. We can choose to learn from our ancestors’ trailblazing achievements or not as the case may be.
Fascinatingly, the first citing of the saying ma’aseh avot siman le-banim by Ramban (1194-1270) who is one of the most ubiquitous expositors of the motto, is found in connection with Abraham’s descent from Canaan (where he had recently arrived) to Egypt due to a famine. Under the banner of this phrase, Ramban sharply criticises Abraham both for leaving Erets Yisrael at the first sign of misfortune and for compromising Sarah by passing her off as his sister which led to her abduction by the pharaoh.(Other commentators disagree and defend Abraham on both counts.) Undoubtedly Ramban is not advocating a repeat of what he sees as reprehensible conduct on Abraham’s part by future generations, but rather that we learn from the past to do differently in the future. As Sir Winston Churchill famously put it, only “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat.it!”
Korach and his Company
To recap some details of the Biblical incident together with its Midrashic glosses: Korach had, thanks to Moses petitioning his step-grandfather Pharaoh to free the Levites from slavery (Shemot Raba 5:16), applied for and been appointed to the post of “finance advisor” in Pharaoh’s palace (Bemidbar Raba 18:15) as a result of which he emerged with great wealth. Datan was, according to Rabbinic literature, the Israelite whom Moses saved from a fatal beating at the hands of an Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11; Me’am Lo’ez, loc.cit.). Aviram was the man whom Moses saved from a fatal beating by Datan (2:13). The 250 supporters of the revolt were “leaders of the community, men of renown” (Num 16:2) whom Moses had appointed to his consultative “cabinet”.(Bemidbar Raba) as well as first-born males saved from the plague in Egypt under Moses’ watch (Abarbanel).. It is a well-known psychological principle (Rabbi Professor Abraham Twersky zl cites it) that beneficiaries of greater-than-average kindness often turn against their benefactors, being unable to cope with the debt of gratitude owed. It would seem that all these individuals and groups were ‘victims’ of this psychological malaise.
While Moses was riding the wave of popularity during the honeymoon year at Sinai following the giving of the Torah, these men did not dare to raise their voices against their leader. However, following the disastrous mission of the spies and the resultant forty-year detention in the desert, Korach and his cohort take their opportunity. Filled with avarice and hate, they initiate a campaign to discredit Moses, accusing him of nepotism and corruption. They do it under the guise of democratic principle – All the people are holy … why do you laud it over the assembly? (Num 16:3) – painting Moses as a power-hungry autocrat. They gather around them the dissident first-borns who had had their privileges stripped from them (by G-D, not Moses) and given to the Levites. They succeeded to a level that convinced many of the nation’s elite that they had a point and that it was time for change at all costs!
Korach-Datan-Avriam-250 and Hillel-Shammai
In the iconic quote from Pirkei Avot with which I commenced this essay, its anonymous author contrasts the worthy intellectual disagreements in Torah interpretation between Hillel and Shammai, who respected each other greatly, with the acrimonious and very personally-directed insurrection of Korah, Datan, Aviram and the 250 other rebels against Moses and Aaron.
If we accord the quote more than a cursory glance, we shall see that there is something majorly interesting in the comparison.
Hillel and Shammai were on different sides. To be sure, their arguments were “for the sake of Heaven”. There was no personal antagonism. Hillel used to teach Shammai’s viewpoint as well as his own! The disciples of Hillel intermarried with the disciples of Shammai But in the Bet Midrash no doubt (just like in a modern yeshiva setting with a pair of chavrusohs) their arguments were so fierce it would have appeared as though they were ready to come to blows! Ideologically Hillel was here and Shammai was there.
Likewise, Korach & Co. were opposing Moses. In order to parallel the “opposing” pair “Hillel and Shammai” why does Pirkei Avot not speak about “the argument of Korach (aided by Datan, Aviram and the elders) and Moses? Why “Korach and his company”?
The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) provides us with a clear answer. There is indeed a parallel. Just as Hillel and Shammai were on different sides, Korach and his company were all antagonists of one another. Each faction’s agenda was different. Korach was a fellow Levite and ostensibly Moses’ equal – or even superior, as he was, in his own eyes, more ‘democratic’. Datan and Aviram were Reuvenites and Reuven was the first-born son of Jacob whose pre-eminence had been removed. They claimed the ‘right’ to have their tribe’s primacy reinstated – as did the 250 mainly firstborn elders from their perspective. The only cement that bound them together was hatred and envy of Moshe Rabenu. Their election slogan might well have been: Just Not Moses!
However the parallel between Hillel and Shammai and Korach and his company ends right there. Hillel and Shammai were disputing for the sake of G-D and Torah.. Deep down they were on the same side. They were both passionate about uncovering Torah truth and would concede in a moment (as they sometimes did) if they felt their opponent’s argument was after all correct. Korach and his cohorts were the polar opposite. Superficially appearing to be comrades, they had nothing in common other than their desperate desire to unseat Moses.
A Contemporary Korah Re-Run? The Current State of Revolt in Israel
I do not believe I need to spell out the parallels to the Korach revolt in what is happening politically in Israel at present.
Suffice it to say that political parties with nothing in common – politically and religiously right-wing Yamina (the name purports to proclaim it), liberal-secular Yesh Atid, left-wing arch-secular Meretz and its older sibling Labor – have forged an alliance with the sole aim of not only unseating but also destroying the reputation of a longest-serving prime minister who, while not a complete tsadik, has been, along with Menachem Begin, the strongest and bravest leader modern Israel has ever had.
Also clutching the alliance’s apron-strings are parties led by grudge-bearing men who have betrayed the trust of a prime minister whom they used to call friend and mentor. They all accuse him of putting himself before the country, yet that is exactly what they are doing. The difference is that this prime minister is a proven leader who has been consistently good for Israel while these men are unproven. Indeed they are unsafe. They are already squabbling over ministries and posts. But, much worse, they are even prepared to ally with a party representing Arab-Israelis some of whom took to the streets in violent revolt against Israel just a couple of weeks ago. And all this just to unseat a leader who has done so much for them and their country.. With their agenda being what it is, they will not succeed for long.
I do not need to be a prophet to say these words. Pirkei Avot says it for me. A cause not for the sake of heaven will not endure. The country may be about to swear in a prime minister representing a party voted for by just six per cent of the Israeli electorate, 76 per cent of whom do not approve the proposed coalition. Can anyone call that democracy? In the words of the satirical Yiddish song, it is nit vus der publik vil.
Ma’aseh avot siman le-banim. The hotchpotch of disparate, desperate political wannabee protagonists in Israel in 2021 could have learnt from Korach and his motley cohorts if they wanted to. They still could! But only if they choose to. And it is sadly more likely that Sir Winston Churchill will be proven right yet again.