What Happens When You Argue for Truth NOT Victory

Parashat Korach

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on June 15, 2018


The youngest among us often have the most to teach us. They are seekers of truth as they question the world around them. Why is the sky blue? Where do babies come from? Are we there yet? They enter these conversations with an open mind. They have no preconceived arguments or rebuttals, they simply want to come to understand the truths of our world, to know what causes the sky to be blue, to know where babies come from, and to know when we will actually arrive to our desired location after this really long road trip. 

It’s only in their later years that they begin to engage in debate with their questions for the sake of victory: Why do I have to be home at 11:00? I’m 16 now, can’t I stay out later? How can I clean my room, I have so much homework to do, can’t you see, don’t you want me to get good grades? It’s not all lost at this age, they’re also seeking deeper truths: What is my purpose? Is there a God? Who am I? 

Our Sages of Pirkei Avot teach us: Every argument that is for the sake of truth will be of value, but arguments that are not for the sake of truth, they aren’t of value. What is an argument for the sake of truth? — one like the debates between Hillel and Shammai (heads of our early schools of rabbinic thought). [1] What is an argument that is not for the sake of truth? — one like the debates from Korach and his followers. 

First, the argument for the sake of truth: When Hillel and Shammai would debate, one would present a decision, and the other would argue against the decision as they tried to discover the truth. That’s what they wanted to reach, the best truth that they knew. They did NOT debate out of a desire to win, to “defeat” the other. This is why we know and study the debates of Hillel and Shammai to this day. Though most of the time Hillel’s rulings became our truth, Shammai’s arguments remain a part of our sacred text.

Meanwhile, our villain from this week’s Torah portion, the portion’s namesake, Korach, holds the slot for an example of someone arguing NOT for the sake of truth, because Korach and his followers argue for the purpose of undermining Moses, from a place of envy, and with a desire for victory.

In this framework, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, a Medieval rabbi of the 13th century, draws the distinctions of an argument for the sake of truth and an argument for the sake of victory. Korach and his followers argue that Moses and Aaron set themselves above the rest of the Israelites in their leadership, despite God’s declaration that all the people were holy. However, actions speak louder than words, and though Korach and his crew begin their argument from this point, throughout the portion it becomes clear that their goal is not to argue in order to come to a truth about the leadership structure of the Israelites, but rather they argue for the sake of replacing Moses as the leader. They argue for political gain and victory. 

Through this form of debate and argumentation, all of the Israelites suffered. This argument became a lose-lose situation: Korach did not achieve the power he desired, and God opened up the ground and caused the earth to consume God’s beloved Israelites because of the political uprising. Korach and his people were killed for their actions. Our Sages use Korach as an example of how NOT to behave because his story shows how no one wins when one party enters an argument, a debate, a conversation, for the pure purpose of personal victory.

In our own lives, with the advent of social media and the general discourse of this country, we are constantly faced with the opportunity to consider whether we are going to make an argument for the sake of truth, or an argument for the sake of victory.

When we come to engage in a debate, if we are not willing, before the conversation even begins, to say, “Oh, I was wrong,” or “Oh, I’d never thought about it that way,”  then the conversation we engage in will never be for truth -- it will never be an argument for the sake of truth. Let that sink in for a moment. In order to engage in a debate in a meaningful way, we MUST begin that debate with a willingness that at some point we might say, “I was wrong; I’d never thought of it that way.” All of this means that the point of our debate, our conversations, and even our arguments is to come to some understanding of truth in this world.

Let’s be clear: The ability to do that behind a computer screen is nearly impossible. It’s not a place for civil discourse. You completely lose the most valuable human aspect of conversation when you can’t see the other person’s face. You can’t feel the energy someone is giving you in the conversation through a computer screen, and you are certainly tempted to say things behind that screen that you would never say if you were looking into the other person’s eyes.

Unfortunately, many of us are far too busy engaging in the debates of Korach, both in person and online, and we are speaking in an argument for the point of being victorious. Such arguments lack the willingness to compromise or bend in any way. Argument for the sake of victory has debilitated much of our government work, as policies get passed for political gain rather than the people's’ best interests. An unwillingness to come to a debate for the sake of truth has led to the end of many friendships in these last few years. An unwillingness to come to a debate for the sake of truth has led to family discord and an end to holiday dinner conversations. 

As we strive to uphold the words of our Sages, to engage in arguments and debates for the sake of truth, may we turn over a new leaf toward humility. May we truly see the humanity of the other person with which we converse and recognize that within them there is a spark of the Divine that may also be seeking truth. Let us preface our debates with a statement that we are willing to be open to new ideas, and actually mean it! Let us challenge our counterpart, when they have clearly begun the conversation for the sake of victory, and find ways to move the conversation to one that seeks truth.

Yes, it can be frightening, but we must not back away from these debates. Healthy and lively disagreement is the fabric of our free and open society. Our key to progress on the issues that divide us is to have more honest and vulnerable discussions for the sake of truth, for the sake of bettering our world.

May we all be like Hillel and Shammai, striving toward truth and the betterment of our world. May God give us the courage and bolster our energy to support leaders who seek out truth and not personal gain. In doing so, may God give us the patience to engage in this holy work. May we be reminded of the Divine spark in each individual, so that we live out our days with the deepest respect for God’s creation.

כן יהי רצון

May this be God’s will

[1] Interpretation of Pirkei Avot 5:17