I had a debate the other day with a friend about a particular political issue. What became clear to me was that I was not going to convince her of my opinion and she was not going to convince me of hers.
At one point, after some voice-raising, she said to me, “What’s the point of speaking to each other about issues that matter if we can’t convince each other that we are right? I’m not sure I could be friends with someone who doesn’t agree with me.”
I admit I was speechless. I wasn’t sure what to say in that moment. This young woman, who is successful and charming and friendly just unfriended me in person. Usually that just happens quietly online. It never happened before over coffee.
On some level she hit me with a reality that many people I know are experiencing. This is the idea that says unless we win an argument there is no reason to argue. And deeper still, if we can’t win the argument, then there is nothing to say to each other.
Everytime I look for news articles to read (I don’t watch cable news as a rule) I see headlines like this: “So-and-so OWNS leftist protester.” or “So-and-so DESTROYS climate change denier.” (As another rule I try not to read these articles either) I’m sure we’ve all seen articles or videos like that. They are designed to grab our attention, get likes or clicks and bolster our sense of righteousness. Articles like these point us in a very bad direction. They show us a world where arguing with each other is just not enough. We have to shape our entire reality around those arguments by owning and destroying anything outside our worldview. This is with only mirrors and no windows. Everything looks like us, talks like us and believes what we believe. Anything on the other side just doesn’t exist.
We can’t be friends.
Judaism, though, has always valued disagreement. The thousands of sacred texts we cherish are the recorded box scores of arguments over millennia. The collective purpose is to create an ever-evolving dynamic that pushes us to grow spiritually (Hagiga 3b2-5) It can even change the world. (Shabbat 54b) We love to argue – it’s one of the greatest Jewish things there is.
But that is only the case where our arguments are what the rabbis call, “for the sake of Heaven.” (Avot 5) This means that when we argue, even fiercely, it should be because we are trying to make each other better, not worse. Good arguments are like iron against iron, it creates sparks, shakes us from or complicity, and makes us sharper, (Taanit 7a:8) In Jewish life, arguing with another never seeks to destroy people but to create them. It is the mark of true friendship.
Arguments for the sake of heaven put us in the friendzone.
As a spiritual person, I see much of the division in our world as a reflection of our own divided souls. All of us carry pain and fear. All of us carry joy and love. These emotions we carry are exactly what makes us alive. They are symptoms of our souls.
When your heart is hurt and confused you need to put that emotion somewhere, so it is easy to take your pain and fear and project them onto yourself and it’s even easier to place them upon someone else. A heart at war with itself is going to make war against others. A heart that feels owned will try to own others. A heart that feels destroyed will try to destroy others.
This is exactly the kind of dynamic that is found in our weekly reading, Korach. Korach is from the same tribe as Moses and Aaron- they are cousins. Aaron’s family became priests who perform sacrifices while the family of Moses and Korach became Levites who take care of the Tabernacle.
Korach incites a rebellion against Moses saying that “Everyone in the community is holy, all of them and the LORD is among them, why then do you raise yourselves about the LORD’s congregation? (Num. 16:3).
At first glance Korach appears to ask what all of us might ask, “Why are you more holy than I?” This seems like a perfectly natural question. Afterall, are we not all created in God’s image? Korach’s question is more insidious than that. He chose his words carefully. He knew what he was doing.
In his challenge, he paraphrases the language of both Leviticus and Exodus, where God says to the people, “Be holy, because I the LORD am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) and “If you build for me a holy place, I will dwell among you.” (Ex. 25:8). By twisting the Torah’s own words against Moses means that there is something deeper going on inside of Korach’s heart. He pushes the challenge beyond mere argument. His tone is personal. Korach sees Moses and Aaron’s leadership as his personal loss. By attacking Moses this way, he lies about his own beliefs. His motive is not about truth but victory. He’s not just trying to convince Moses to share prestige with him, but to take it away. What’s worse is that he does this in God’s name. While Korach might say that everyone is holy, what he really feels is that there is not enough of God to go around. Korach uses religion to tear down the religion. He is trying to own the room. He is trying to destroy Moses.
In other words, they can’t be friends.
Moses responds by falling on his face and saying, “Hear me, it is not enough for you that God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to the Divine by performing the duties of the Tabernacle…You seek the priesthood too?” (Num.16:8-11)
Moses sees through Korach’s rebellion and right into his heart. He points out that Korach is already close to God – closer in fact than most of the community. Korach’s mistake is that he was not in a search for compromise or friendship, but for total victory.
As Moses and Korach spiral toward disaster, Moses gives him an offramp by proposing a spiritual test. Korach could have averted catastrophe if he relented at that moment and choose not to go through with it. The refusal never comes. He has gone over the edge. The earth opens. The rebels slip into the maw and vanish. (Num. 16:32-33)
The secret of this story is that when arguments become all or nothing, it’s the nothing that has already won.
Later on that night I picked up the phone (some of us still do that) and called her back. When we spoke again and I said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said to me earlier when we were having coffee, and I’m hurt that you don’t want to be friends. I get where you are coming from even though I don’t agree with you. You make me think and I would like to think that I do the same. Winning arguments does not make one a friend, but expressing yourself does. I love your passion. I’d rather live in a world with too much passion than one with not enough.”
We apologized to each other again and decided that we can mend the breach over another cup of coffee, by doing what we do best – we argue!
In the end, Korach’s mistake is our mistake too. When we try to own everything we end up owning nothing. By trying to destroy another person with our words we end up destroying ourselves.
Disagreements should never be for self-righteousness but for actual righteousness. Never so that you can feel like the center of the universe, but for the actual Center of the universe. Not for victory, but for community.
Not for the endzone, but the friendzone.