By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Conflict resolution is one of the most important tasks in human relations. And, one of the most interesting strategies can be found in an ancient endeavor known by the generic term of “martial arts.”
I once watched a brief film on the subject of martial arts in which the participant in the battle was instructed not to fight his opponent head on, not to counter aggression with aggression. Rather, he was instructed to yield to the attack, to move paradoxically backwards as if to surrender, and not to move forward in the attack mode. In a sense, he was directed to surprise his opponent by reacting unpredictably. This strategy can be applied to many situations in life in which there is strife and discord.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, we read of such discord. We study the story of the rebellion led by Korach and his cohorts against Moses. Among this band are Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, who have long been thorns in Moses’ side. They challenge his authority and threaten outright revolt against his leadership. A civil war looms.
Interestingly, Moses’ initial response is not one of anger. He tries verbal persuasion, he calls for Divine intervention, and only then does he eventually indignantly express his anger. But before he reaches that point, he tries something which goes almost unnoticed by most commentators.
He sends for them. He adopts a conciliatory attitude, and invites them into dialogue. “And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram…” (Numbers 16:12).
Moses does not “come out fighting,” at least not until his invitation to discussion and perhaps even compromise is rebuffed: “…And they said, ‘We will not come up…Do you need to make yourself a prince over us?…Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!’”
Only after his attempt at conflict resolution does Moses become angry and does he appeal for Divine intervention. But first he signals his readiness to talk things over.
I have been reading a biography of a great Hasidic leader in early 20th century Poland. His name was Rabbi Israel Danziger, known today by the title of his book of inspirational homilies, Yismach Yisrael. He was the heir to the leadership of the second largest Hasidic sect in pre-World War II Europe, which was known by the name of the town near Lodz where he and his father before him held court. His father’s name was Rabbi Yechiel Danziger, and the name of the town was Alexandrow.
The biography contains documentation of several talks Rabbi Israel gave describing many of the lessons he learned from his sainted father. In one of those talks, he tells of the time that he was sent along with several of his father’s emissaries to visit the court of another Hasidic rebbe. He describes the delegation was made to wait on a long line and, when they finally got into the rebbe’s reception room, were treated perfunctorily, if not coldly. The request they were instructed to make of this rebbe was callously rejected by him and they returned to Alexandrow feeling chastised. Rabbi Israel reported back to his father every detail of this disappointing experience.
About a year later, the other Hasidic rebbe needed a great favor of Rabbi Yechiel. He sent a delegation to Alexandrow, headed by his own son. The delegation arrived, and much to Rabbi Israel’s surprise, his father issued orders that they be welcomed warmly and be shown gracious hospitality. The delegation was not asked to wait in line and Rabbi Yechiel himself waited at his door for them, ushered them in to his private chambers, seated them comfortably, and personally served them refreshments. He then generously granted the favor asked him and bid them farewell only after escorting them part of the way along their route home.
Amazed by his father’s conduct, Rabbi Israel asked him, “Why did you treat them so well? Did you not recall how that Rebbe and his followers treated us not so long ago?”
Rabbi Yechiel’s response: “Better that they learn from me how to be gute yidden and menschen, than I learn from them how to be boors and brutes!”
When I related the story to an audience of chassidim a short while ago, an elderly man in the audience approached me and said, “I am a descendant of that other rebbe. And our family tradition has it that when his delegation returned with news of their special treatment and of the granted favor, the Rebbe burst into tears and cried, ‘He is a better Jew than I am. We must learn a musar haskel (a lesson in ethics) from him.’”
And so, this is a lesson we can all benefit from as we attempt to resolve the conflicts we face, and as we strive to increase the numbers of gute yidden in our ranks and create more menschen in the world.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.