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Never Stop Trying to Avoid Conflict

Moses' Super-Rational Attempt for Reconciliation

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • June 22, 2009
  • |
  • 30 Sivan 5769
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Class Summary:

Never Stop Trying to Avoid Conflict 

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein

The Mutiny

The narrative is dramatic, tragic, and unmistakably Jewish. Four individuals -- Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and On son of Peles -- lead a mass mutiny against Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, and his brother Aaron, the High Priest. 

"They gathered together against Moses and against Aaron," the portion of Korach records (1), "and said to them, 'It is too much for you! The entire community is holy, and G-d dwells among them, why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?"

Moses responds to Korach in brief and moving words. He attempts to persuade Korach, who happens to be his first cousin, that Aaron was appointed to his position by the instructions of G-d. Nepotism was not a factor.

"Then Moses sent word to summon Dathan and Abiram," the Torah records (1). "But they said, 'We won't come! Is it not enough that you [Moses] brought us out of [Egypt], a land flowing with milk and honey, just to kill us in the desert?! What right do you have to set yourselves above us? Even if you would gouge out our eyes, we shall not come!'"

These are bold and vicious words. Clearly, Dathan and Abiram won't surrender. They are determined, together with Korach, to overthrow Moses and Aaron.

As usual in the wilderness, G-d intervenes. He decides to wipe out the rebels who are attempting to invalidate Moses as the leader of the Jewish people and the communicator of G-d's law. G-d instructs Moses to announce to the entire community, "Withdraw from the pavilion of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram." A tragic fate awaits them.

But before Moses moves to execute G-d's instruction, the Torah inserts an unexpected scene in the narrative:

"Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram."

Why? Didn't G-d instruct him to ensure that everybody withdraws from their dwellings? What exactly did Moses do when he approached them? It seems as if Moses himself is disobeying what he was told to do!

The text leaves the answer to our imagination, but the message is clear. Moses was attempting, one last time, to persuade Dathan and Abiram to terminate their crusade. He made one last attempt to save their lives. It was to no avail. They would not be moved.

The Talmud, commenting on this scene, states (2): "From here we learn that one should never keep up a quarrel."

Yet here is the simple question: Must we derive this noble injunction from this incident? Hasn't the Torah already stated explicitly (3), "You shall not hate your brother in your heart... You shall love your fellow as yourself!" Does this straightforward commandment not teach us already that we ought never to maintain a quarrel or perpetuate a dispute, but must always attempt to eradicate strife? Why would the Talmudic sages feel compelled to derive this injunction from the particular ambiguous verse, "Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram"?
A Profile of Quarrelers
To understand this, we must examine the profiles of these two quarrelers, Dathan and Abiram. The Torah reports four incidents about these two men, sufficient material to capture the nature of their relationship with Moses.

Incident number one, at the beginning of Exodus, takes us back some 70 years, to Moses' youth (4).

"Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no person present; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, 'Why are you going to strike your friend?' And the man retorted, 'Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?' Moses became frightened and said, 'Indeed, the matter has become known!'"

Who were the two Hebrews quarreling with each other? The Talmud and the Midrash (5) deduce from the wording that they were Dathan and Abiram.

Incident number two occurs shortly after the Exodus when the heavenly Manna begins falling daily in the desert to nourish the wandering Jews (6):

"Moses said to them [the Jewish people], 'Let no one leave over any of it until morning.' But some men did not obey Moses and left over some of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid. Moses became angry with them."

Who were these men that betrayed Moses' instruction? The Midrash (7) deduces from the wording, yet again, that it was Dathan and Abiram.

Incident number three occurs one year later when the spies returned from the Holy Land and dissuaded their brethren from the motivation and willingness to conquer and settle the Land of Israel (8):

"The people wept that night. All the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the entire community said to them: 'If only we had died in the land of Egypt… Why is G-d bringing us to this Land to die by the sword?'"

"And one man said to his brother, 'Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"

Who exactly was this man who spoke these words to his brother? Here again, tradition teaches (9) that it was a conversation between Dathan and Abiram.

Finally, the fourth incident recorded above, tells the story of how Dathan and Abiram not only rejected Moses' plea that they come to see him but went so far as to call him a killer.

Professional Rabble-Rousers

These four incidents paint a fairly accurate picture of Dathan and Abiram's characters. They were not idealistic adversaries, disputing Moses for ideological reasons: the fact is that they quarreled between themselves too, independent of Moses. Nor were they driven by envy, seeking the power and prestige possessed by Moses: the fact is that they fought Moses long before he became a leader.

Dathan and Abiram, it appears, were rabble-rousers who would not miss an opportunity to fight Moses, even if they stood to gain nothing. They were forever determined to undermine Moses and his authority. They even had the audacity of suggesting that Moses was a killer and that he would poke their eyes out, as though he were a sadist. Dathan and Abiram, it seems, despised Moses because he was their opposite: he stood for everything they loathed.

It is thus astonishing that after all of these incidents, after an animosity that persisted for close to 70 years, and even after G-d instructed Moses to ensure that everybody departs from their midst, "Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram" to try and assuage their ire against him. This makes little sense. One could imagine some Jews suggesting to Moses that his behavior was humiliating and futile. "You know, Moses, that these guys loathe you. For seven decades they haven't missed an opportunity to campaign against you. Even as you invited them to discuss peace, they responded with nasty words. Moses! For the sake of your dignity and G-d's dignity, it is below you to approach them.”

"Do not be kinder and wiser than G-d," they must have argued. "If G-d commanded you to stay away from them, just stay away.” (10)
Boundless Dedication
Yet here we are allowed a glimpse into what made Moses the human being he was. Here we encounter the gigantic heart of Moses. His dedication, loyalty, and love to every single member of his people knew no bounds. Even as his fiercest and lifelong enemies were engaged in an intense battle against him, he would not give up on the chance of seeking peace with them and saving their lives.

Ultimately, it is this verse -- "Moses stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram" -- that demonstrates to us why the mutiny against Moses was so profoundly wrong. It was Moses' uncompromising identification with his people, no matter to what depths they might have fallen, that made him qualified to have all the power he had. Only a human being so selfless and humble can be trusted with so much power. Moses' extraordinary dedication to his people turned him into the authentic and quintessential Jewish leader.

Only Peace

Now we can understand the Talmudic comment that "From here we that learn that one should never keep up a quarrel."

The biblical instruction "You shall not hate your brother in your heart... You shall love your fellow as yourself" merely suggests that one should not foster animosity in one's heart; one must expose and deal with his or her grudges, and ultimately learn to love his fellow human being, since, on a deeper soul- level, we are children of one G-d (11).

But how about when you feel that somebody really has issues with you and is addicted to the hate? What about when you can justly assume that no matter what you will do, this person will never change? Why not just write him off and accept the quarrel as an immutable fact of life? Why not make peace with the state of war?

This is what Moses taught us at the moment when he "stood up and went over to Dathan and Abiram." "Never keep up a quarrel." Despite the fact that he could have rightly assumed that his adversaries would not change their position, he did not allow any assumptions based on past experiences to stop him from his peace efforts. Moses knew that fighting and animosity among Jews was a malignant disease, and he would not give up the slightest opportunity to stop it!

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi states (12): "Each and every soul of the house of Israel contains within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses." This means that we, too, are empowered to emulate Moses' example at least in some small fashion. To become comfortable with disunity and fragmentation is a tragedy. We must never cease to confront our arrogance or insecurity and strive for peace even with people we can easily write off.
To be sure, if someone is endangering someone's life, or causing damage, you have to create the proper boundaries and stop the abuse and evil behavior at all costs. Never allow your idealism to allow innocent people to suffer. But whatever we can do to help people repent, and whatever we can do to generate peace and love, even if it requires extreme humility and sacrifice, it is well worth it. 

(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe -- whose yartzeit is this Shabbos, 3 Tamuz -- Shabbas Parshas Korach 5740, June 14, 1980 (13)).

1) Numbers Chapter 16.
2) Talmud Sanhedrin p. 110a.
3) Leviticus 19:17-18.
4) Exodus 2: 11-14.
5) Talmud Nedarim 64b; Targum Yonasan and Rashi to Exodus ibid.
6) Exodus 16:19-20.
7) Midrash Rabah Shemos 1:29; 25:10 and Rashi to Exodus ibid.
8) Numbers 14: 1-4.
9) Rabanu Bechayei to Exodus 2:13.
10) Moses Himself would ultimately call them "wicked" (Numbers 16:26.)
11) See Tanya chapter 32.
12) Chapter 42.
13) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 28 pp. 98-103.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin for his editorial assistance.

Please leave your comment below!

  • S

    Shaindel -3 years ago

    Rabbi YY

    You always seem to say exactly what needs to be heard so beautifully and eloquently - straight to the heart!

    Thank you!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Korach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • June 22, 2009
  • |
  • 30 Sivan 5769
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein

Class Summary:

Never Stop Trying to Avoid Conflict 

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