August 7, 2018

When words come to an end (Korach)

This Shabbat we read about two groups who challenged Moshe & Aharon in the wilderness. One was Korach and his followers who challenged the priestly prerogatives, and the second was Datan, Aviram and others who came to express their anger in response to their demotion in place of the Leviim. The former were punished with a divine fire, while the latter were swallowed up in the earth.

However, this was not what Moshe wanted. He pleaded those involved to back down. Moshe tried to speak with Korach, but the reply was silence. Then Moshe attempted with Datan and Aviram, but all he received was a cynical reply. Finally we read that ‘it came to pass, as [Moshe] finished speaking all these words, that the ground split beneath them. And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up’ (Bemidbar 16:31-32), and according to Dr. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg (in her essay titled ‘From Another Shore: Moses and Korah’ published in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), these verses teach us a deep lesson about the value of dialogue. As she explains:

‘as long as Moses speaks, the mouth of the earth remains closed. When it opens, it is not to speak but to consume. The terrible alternative to spoken words is the cataclysm of final and irrefutable revelations. Moses had, as it were, exhausted (kekhaloto … et kol hadevarim) all the resources of language, so that nothing remained but the brute apocalypse’, and ‘when words come to an end, the mouth consumes.’

I find this insight deeply meaningful because so often throughout history it is clear that conflict can be avoided through dialogue. Yet all too often people mistakenly believe that the cost of their words will be greater than the subsequent consequences.

Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – to whom Dr. Zornberg dedicated her essay – makes a very similar remark in his book The Home We Build Together when addressing the importance of maintaining a shared moral language in society. There he describes the danger of ‘boycotts, bans and excommunications’ that have emerged in universities and elsewhere ‘when contrary views are delegitimated and those who hold them excluded’. In such places where ‘the pursuit of truth mutates into the will to power’ it is clear that there can be no conversation, but sadly, ‘where conversation ends, violence begins’ (p. 47).  

Returning to Dr. Zornberg, she observes how Moshe was previously described as someone who struggled with his power of speech. Yet when confronted this national crisis he overcame his impediment and limiting belief and sought dialogue for the sake of peace. In fact, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) learns from Moshe’s desire to talk with the rebels that we should all do what we can to avoid machloket (dispute).

But unfortunately the world continues to struggle with machloket, and there are many who foolishly prefer to avoid dialogue and conversation with the hope that silence will lead to a better outcome. What we learn from Moshe is the true mark of a leader which is that as long as dialogue is possible, it should be pursued at all costs.

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