Dedicated in memory of my late father, Larry Roth z”l, Chairman of Torah Mitzion.

The machloket (conflict) of Korach and his congregation, as we all know, is the archetype of a destructive conflict in rabbinic literature.  As the mishnah in Avot (5:22) says “which is the machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven? Korach and his congregation.” The commentaries on the Mishnah offer several different textual proofs as to how we know this. One of these may be found in the refusal of Dotan and Aviram to answer affirmatively to Moshe’s request to engage in dialogue. As it says in this weeks Parsha (Bamidbar, 16:12), “And Moses sent to call Dotan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav; and they said: ‘We will not come up!’   Rabbi Naftali Hertz Wessely, for example, mentions in his commentary on Avot (Yen Levanon, Avot 5:22), that Moses in this verse “attempted to speak to their hearts and offer constructive criticism, however they did not want to listen and this was (out of) great wickedness.”  This understanding that Moshe in this verse had attempted to reach out to Dotan and Aviram in a peaceful and constructive manner to discuss the matter may also be found in several commentaries on the Torah.  The Tanchuma (T. Buber, Korach 15),  states that Moshe attempted first to speak words of appeasement with Korach and then later with Dotan and Aviram. They, however, refused his invitation.  Rashi (Bamidbar, 12:16) comments on this verse “from here we may learn that one should not hold onto a machloket, for you see Moshe sought them out in order to conciliate them by peaceful words.”  Similarly, the Ramban here understands that Moshe wanted to speak with them in order to “appease them with good words.”  According to this interpretation of the pasuk, Dotan and Aviram indeed appear to be very wicked and merely pursuing a dispute not for the sake of Heaven since they are not even willing to accept Moshe’s invitation to discuss the matter in a constructive manner!

However, other commentaries on this pasuk understood Moshe’s invitation in quite a different way.  The Gemara in Moed Katan 16a learns from this pasuk the law regarding summoning of someone worthy of excommunication to court.  Similarly, the Rashbam comments here (Bamidbar 16:12) “And they said ‘we will not go up’ – to you for judgment, the language of ‘going up’ is often said in the context of going to judges (see Ruth 4:1).”  According to this opinion, they are not refusing an opportunity to enter into constructive and open dialogue about their conflict with Moshe’s leadership, but rather they are being summoned to court to be judged by the very person with whom they strongly believe is no longer fit to rule!  The Rashbam continues to explain (16:14) that Moshe, from their perspective, has indeed failed to deliver upon his promises to bring the people in to the land, especially now since they are all destined to die in the desert over the next forty years, and it is time for him to step down as leader.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Bamidbar 16:12) offers a combination of these two interpretations to our pasuk “And Moshe sent to call to Dotan and Aviram,” as he says:   

“In no way (does this verse) involve a dictatorial ‘order’ coming from a superior, but rather it is used to designate a friendly invitation (see for example Bamidbar 22:5, Shmot 2:20).  However, “going up” … is especially used for going to a court of law…. Moses in the most friendly way had asked them to come to him, but they took the invitation as a ‘summons’, and answered “We are not coming up to ‘my lord’, i.e. we do not take orders from him. It is a presumption on his part to order us about from above to come to him, “we do not ‘go up’ to him.” According to Rabbi Hirsch, Moshe may have indeed intended to invite them to a non threatening open and constructive dialogue; however they mistakenly interpreted it as a summoning to court.  We have here a classic case of complete lack of trust that impairs any ability of conflicting parties to interpret the intentions of the other side correctly before being able to engage in constructive dialogue.

However, what may have happened had Moshe consulted with a communication specialist, like a mediator?  What might he have done differently in his attempt to invite Dotan and Aviram to engage in dialogue?  The Public Conversations Project manual on ‘Fostering Dialogue Across Divides’ (p. 38) recommends that when inviting an opposing side to engage in dialogue it should be emphasized that the “goal should be to make sure that the participants accept the invitation only if they understand what it is they are being invited to (and what it is not), and accept the invitation freely, with no pressure.”  Such an invitation should also highlight that “the spirit and goal of the event is to promote thoughtful speaking, careful listening, and greater understanding.”  So, perhaps, we may conjecture that had Moshe consulted with such a specialist or mediator (like his brother Aaron Rodef Shalom), he may have handled the situation a little bit differently. For example: (1.) He may have been more explicit about what the purpose of his invitation was and what it was not; (2.) He may have sent a mutually trusted third party mediator to help ensure them that these are indeed his intentions.  (3.) He may have also considered offering to meet in a more neutral location for the dialogue.

I, personally, recall very vividly my time as a shaliach of Torah Mitzion as one of my first experiences being exposed directly to several different types of complex community (and even Kollel) machlokot.  Sometimes, these consisted of a strange yet typical combination of leshem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) and not so leshem shamayim.  However, trying to get the various sides just into a process of constructive communication was often the most difficult and frustrating step.  As we learn from this week’s parsha, having the intent to not hold onto machloket and speak words of peace, may not always be understood that way, especially when there is a breakdown of trust. However, there are lots of rich communication tools and specialists that can help us at times ensure that we keep our many natural machloket truly leshem shamayim!