June 24, 2009
Turn Enemies Into Friends
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
We are once again at Korach, the story of the great rebellion, one of the most dramatic moments in the life of Moses and the people of Israel in the desert. From the Golden Calf, to countless cries of complaints and desires to return to Egypt, to the spies losing faith last week, Moses has not had an easy time as leader. Yet, it is this story, with its fateful ending of the earth swallowing up Korach and his followers, that has provided the most drama, and in my estimation the most insight, into how we are to go about dealing with disputes and matters of tension in our community.
Much has been made regarding Korach’s challenge to Moses, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why do you then raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach and his followers are clearly frustrated, upset and on the precipice of losing total control of themselves, if they haven’t already. And yet, while the majority of commentators decry Korach, call him a demagogue bent on advancing his own agenda without regard for the community, and God swallows him up, his legacy is not completely lost, as his sons survive (according to Numbers 26:11), and later on his descendants have words included in the Book of Psalms. In fact, Midrash Tanhuma teaches us that the sons of Korach are models of teshuvah, for they must have repented, refusing to follow their father in his revolt. I am no apologist for Korach, but I do see that our tradition recognizes and appreciates the need for healthy rebellion, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein taught us in these pages last year on this parasha.
There is one episode, however, that illustrates for me the great mistake of Korach and his followers, namely Dathan and Abiram. Leadership requires patience and the willingness to reach out to our adversaries in times of challenge, not with weapons of war, but with words. Political leaders call this diplomacy; the rest of us call it active listening, compassionate dialogue, civil discourse.
For me, the moment when the game ends in this parasha is when Moses calls out to Dathan and Abiram, asking them to come and see him to discuss the matter. Moses calls them even after they have, according to many midrashim, embarrassed him in public and sought to undermine his authority. Yet, Moses wants to talk to them, to try and work out this dispute. But, sounding like stubborn children, they say, “We will not come!” (Numbers 16:12) Why won’t they come and talk? Why won’t they accept the offer to present their case to Moses, not in hysterics as the text reports, but one-on-one, person-to-person, in an environment that might allow for some resolution?
Dathan and Abiram show themselves to be unfit for leadership in this moment. As Nehama Leibowitz rightly says in her commentary on this verse, “There is no greater annoyance than when one party to a dispute refuses to sit down and talk things out with the other side. In such a situation lies little hope of a peaceful settlement.”
This applies to situations great and small, whether between individuals, nations, religions or cultures; a refusal to talk with those with whom we disagree is not a sign of strength or moral high ground, but rather the opposite. The great dictum of Avot d’Rebbe Natan says, “Who is the greatest of all heroes? One who turns an enemy into a friend.” (23:1) Commenting on this idea, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins teaches, “Someone who can achieve an enormous act of strength without lifting a finger, but rather by exercising clear judgment, engaging in compassionate and empathic listening, and using finely tuned skills in negotiation and conflict resolution — such a person is the most powerful person in the world.” (Wisdom of the Talmud, Page 33-34)
Moses tried to use these skills with Dathan and Abiram, thereby avoiding the tragic fate that comes in the next scene. By refusing to talk, these two, and Korach with them, ultimately lost. As we read this Torah portion, let us all find ways to emulate Moses, seeking dialogue over force, not being afraid to talk with those whom we disagree or are angry with, thereby answering the great challenge to turn enemies into friends.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.