As my favorite cartoonist, Bill Watterson, wrote in a Calvin and Hobbes strip, “a good compromise leaves everybody mad.”
This week we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Korach represents the greatest challenge to Moses’ authority. He is approached by Korach, a Levite, Dathan, Aviram and 250 others who proclaimed, “All the community are holy … Why then do you raise yourselves above Eternal’s congregation?”
This incident occurred shortly after the time when the Israelites were told that this particular generation would not be allowed to enter into the land of Canaan because they lost faith in God.
Moses, in response to Korach’s challenge, fell on his face. He then challenged Korach to what in essence was a duel of sacrifices rather than pistols. Moses also condemned Korach’s followers for following Korach and not accepting the myriad of blessings bestowed upon them. Yet Moses’ pleas fell upon deaf ears. Ultimately Korach and his followers were either swallowed by the earth or consumed by fire.
The lingering question modern interpreters struggle with is: did Korach and his followers have to die? At no point was their complaint heard. The challenge was met with force rather than understanding.
The traditional commentary is that Korach was simply seeking to replace Moses and was seeking glory for himself. Therefore, there was not an option for redemption or reconciliation. This may very well be true. But we can still learn something from Moses’ response.
First he fell on his face. To fall on one’s face can be an act of submission. It can be an act of supplication. It can be an act of humility. It can also be a response to overwhelming emotions. Moses was not expecting this, and the anger displayed before him by Korach and his followers simply overwhelmed Moses. He needed time to collect his thoughts.
All too often we respond to anger with anger. This is especially easy to do in the world of email and social media. Yet, once we are angry, it makes us almost incapable of hearing what others have to say. Perhaps instead, we need to pause, like Moses, and when confronted by news or accusations we did not wish to hear, rather than formulate a response, instead listen to what is being said.
Moses heard Korach and realized there was no way to persuade him otherwise. However, this is not always the case. So even though we live in a time of heated rhetoric and argumentation, if we truly listen, we may find that there are pathways to conversation rather than accusation.
This means though we need to be able to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers and that the people we are engaging with feel they too are speaking from places of justice and righteousness even if we may not be able to see it.
Moses ultimately was not allowed to enter into the Holy Land because he lost his temper one too many times. May we, on this Shabbat, strive to see the best in each other, especially with those for whom we might disagree? Disagreement and argumentation may be a core part of the Jewish experience. But lest we forget, the most important commandment is Shema, listen O Israel.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff