The Jewish laws concerning speech and conflict resolution are perhaps less known than our ritual laws but they are nevertheless very instructive. This week’s parsha, Korach, tells the story of a squabble among the leadership of the Israelite camp which resulted in death, disappointment and despair. Korach, who confronts Moses, is a Levite – that is to say – a member of a privileged class among the community. But Korach’s wisdom and motivation do not match his honored position. His “feedback” to Moses is a thinly veiled power grab which smacks of jealousy. Korach criticizes without sincere intentions and without a good plan. Strangely parallel to Korach’s episode is the story of a lone desert prophet, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro is also honored with a named torah portion, usually read around late January. Yitro too criticizes Moses, yet his feedback is received and incorporated into early Israelite social structure. In fact, implementation of Yitro’s advice precedes and facilitates the revelation at Sinai. What can we learn from the divergent stories of these two men?
As the parsha opens, Korach gets up in Moses face (the Hebrew is very close to this English vernacular!) together with 250 men of rank. He has no specific criticism to offer. His comment is: “You and Aaron are too much! The whole community is sacred and God is within them all. Why do you put yourselves higher than God’s people?” Notice that this is an accusation disguised as a question. Moses, the reluctant prophet, wishes to be above God’s people?! When Moses hears this startling and inaccurate accusation, he assumes the humble position which is a truer reflection of him: He falls on his face.
Contrast Yitro, who was reunited with Moses and the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt. Yitro stands in the long line of petitioners seeking Moses’ insight and when it’s his turn, he hands off a short note: “I, Yitro, your father-in-law, am here with your wife and sons.” He is quickly ushered into Moses’ tent for a joyful reunion. The next day, Moses sits again before an unending line of Israelite petitioners and Yitro asks a simple questions: Why do you work this way for hours on end? Moses offers a simple answer: The people need me.
Now that Yitro has an understanding of Moses’ perspective, he is able to offer advice which is both suitable and “fits into Moses’ ears.” He simply says: This isn’t good. You’ll wear yourself out and then what will become of the people you serve with such devotion? It is Yitro’s idea to empower reliable men to be circuit judges, to handle smaller, routine disputes. Only the thorny issues are to be brought to Moses. Yitro is actually successful at getting Moses to delegate authority and expand the wisdom and capacity of the Hebrew camp. This reorganizing of the flow of power in the camp immediately precedes the giving of the law. Seemingly, the network of shared authority is a well shaped community for receiving the divine message.
The end of Korach’s episode is depressingly dissimilar. A mass plague spread through the camp. The rebels were swallowed whole by a well-timed earthquake (“the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them and their households…”). A paralyzing depression ensued among the survivors. Dissent at the top of a social structure is indeed paralyzing!
Who is wise? She who learns from everyone! Learn from Korach that we don’t need to “have everyone on our side” to be right. In fact, when we go around trying to get people on our side – we may already be damaging our cause. Learn from Yitro that we can speak our perspective from a place of curiosity and concern. The power of his gentle, sincere question “Why are you doing it like this?” was all that was needed to open Moses’ eyes and ears to a good idea. Learn from these two stories that curiosity is more influential than accusations. Descriptive language (Why do you sit alone with the people pressing upon you?) is more powerful than hyperbole (The whole community is sacred and God is within them all. Why do you put yourselves higher than God’s people?). A private word, spoken heart to ear, is more powerful than a megaphone. And last but not least, bring your very best intention to every instance of conflict resolution. We are wiser together.
Rabbi Andrea Cohen Kiener serves Congregation P’nai Or of Central CT and Beth Israel, Winsted