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What is Worse than an Angry Reply?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, ‘We will not go up. Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us? You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up.’ Moshe was exceedingly distressed, and he said to the Lord, ‘Do not accept their offering. I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them, and I have not harmed a single one of them.’” (Bamidbar 16,12-15)

Moshe, our teacher, dealt with various complaints and endured challenges while the Israelites traveled in the desert. The rebellion of Korach and his followers (Datan and Aviram et al.) is the only instance in the Torah whereby Moshe is described as “exceedingly distressed.” Why did this challenge, specifically, cause Moshe to be exceedingly distressed? Additionally, Moshe, who typically defended the Jewish people and prayed for them to be accepted again by God, departed from this approach and prayed that God would not accept their offerings. Why the change?

The Midrashim (Midrash Rabba and Yalkut Shimoni) explain Moshe’s great distress in this situation as follows: “…to what can this matter be compared? To a person who is debating and arguing with his friend. If his friend answers him there is relief. If his friend does not answer him, it is greatly distressing (painful).” Moshe reached out to Datan and Aviram and asked them to engage in a dialogue with him to resolve their differences. In fact, our sages learn from this that even if one knows that one is correct, one should reach out to the other side and attempt to restore peace. When someone is willing to communicate, express their honest opinion and hear the other opinion objectively (even if there is no resolution to the conflict), both sides feel better and are then able to move on. However, when one party is not willing to engage in an honest dialogue, the party willing to take part in the dialogue is left feeling tremendous anguish.

In this context, no reply was much worse than an angry reply. This is what left Moshe feeling tremendous distress. Since there was no hope of any change or resolution, Moshe responded differently this time, understanding that drastic measures were, unfortunately, required in this situation. There are eternal messages here for all of us. We should follow Moshe’s lead and not hold on to conflict. We must reach out to the other side even when they are clearly wrong. Let us notice when we ourselves are unwilling to engage others in dialogue. We need to ask ourselves if our reluctance is a fear that we may indeed be wrong. Finally, we should realize that in many situations dialogue with disagreements is far better than no dialogue at all.