Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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Korach is not just a parasha about those who rebel. This parasha also affords us into different models of leadership. It is both Moshe and Aharon who are attacked. Nevertheless, Aharon remains markedly silent during this confrontation, and it is Moshe who defends both his position and that of Aharon.  Aharon’s response, as we will see, comes later and in a different form.

The common theme that runs throughout Moshe’s response it that it is all about proving who is right and who is wrong.  He speaks to, or more accurately, speaks at, Korach, but not with him. He summons Datan and Aviram, but he does not go to them. We see no attempt to hear and listen to those opposing him, to genuinely try to engage them and understand their complaints, and understand what is motivating them. He points out Korach’s hypocrisy – noting that it is not equality for the people that he is after, but leadership for himself. He may be completely correct in this point, but calling him out on it will not necessarily win him – or even the people – over. 

Moshe may be rightfully hurt that the people are shifting their failures and their current predicament unto him, but by calling out to God and focusing on the wrongness of that claim, rather than on how the people are experiencing their current reality, does not get him anywhere. In the end, he demands a showdown with one ultimate winner and one ultimate loser. And the consequences were drastic and deadly – truth won out, but at the expense of completely destroying the other side.

This is one way of approaching conflict, but it is not the only way, and it is not necessarily the way that will lead to the best results. Such an approach focuses on a narrow, abstract, truth, but not on the deeper truth of human beings, of human emotions and motivations, of societal realities and of inter-personal relationships. Such an approach can at times even be quite counter-productive.  

What is the aftermath of all of these proofs? Are the people satisfied now that they know that Moshe was right and Korach was wrong? Quite the contrary:

But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, You have killed the people of the Lord. (16:41)

The people do not see the justice in what Moshe did. His response was too violent, even if he was right. And maybe the people aren’t even so sure in the end that Korach was wrong. They still refer to Korach and his followers as “the people of the Lord.” It is hard not to hear the echo of Korach’s claim that “All the people are holy and the Lord is in their midst” (16:3). The people were taken with Korach’s vision, and they remain sympathetic to it. Moshe might believe that he has proven once and for all who is right, but the people – who exist on an emotional and psychological plane as well – still may be feeling that Korach was innocent, maybe even right in some ways, and he has been killed unjustly.

Here is where Aharon comes in. Aharon – on Moshe’s direction - runs into the middle of the people and puts incense on the fire censer, and stays the plague that was decimating the people. Rashi notes that here the incense was doing the opposite of what it had done earlier, bringing life rather than death.

The point here is larger than that of the incense. For the incense represents closeness to God. Closeness to God, if done wrongly, can lead to death – that was the story earlier of Nadav and Avihu and their wrongly offered incense and the story here of the 250 men. But closeness to God can also bring life. “Seek me out and live” (Amos 5:4), says God. Whether this closeness brings life or death has to do not only with how we approach God, but also how God approaches us.

The Rabbis speak of two aspects of the Divine, the side of Judgment and the side of Compassion. When God interacts with us in the mode of Judgment, every misstep is noted and punished accordingly. This, we may say, to use a gendered stereotype, is the mode of the stern father. But there is also the mode of the forgiving, understanding mother, the mode of compassion. God, operating in this mode, looks to find ways to connect, to nurture and give life, not to focus on an exact sense of right and wrong, of missteps and failures.

These two modes are paralleled in two types of leadership – the leadership of Moshe and the leadership of Aharon.  Moshe’s leadership was one of judgment, of right and wrong. Aharon’s leadership was one of peace, of forgiveness and understanding. This is vividly illustrated in the next event in the parasha. God responds to the people’s outcry by telling Moshe to take 12 staves, one for each tribe, including Aharon’s staff for the tribe of Levi and to place them by the ark. Moshe does so and the next day Aharon’s staff had blossomed forth and brought forth almonds. This, the Torah tells us, demonstrated that Aharon and his tribe had been chosen.

But how did this miracle accomplish anything more than the previous miracles? On an intellectual plane, it added nothing. But on an emotional level, it made its point through beauty and life, not through destruction and death. It showed that leadership – as symbolized by the staff – could be, should be, one that is nurturing and life-giving. The same stick that can be staff or rod used to smite, can also, if attached to its original source of life, be a living branch and the source of growth and flourishing.

The miracle of the staff demonstrated to the people, and to Moshe, that a different type of leadership was possible. Let us not forget that Moshe’s sin at the end of the forty years was that he continued to use the staff as a rod, smiting the rock rather than talking to it.

This is not to say that the approach of Aharon can exist by itself. The staff must be both a rod and a branch.  In the end we need both a father’s sternness and a mother’s compassion. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (6b) addresses this in its discussion of whether a judge should strive for justice (din) or compromise (peshara). It associates the former with Moshe, and the latter with Aharon:

Such was Moses's motto: Let the law cut through the mountain. Aharon, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, “The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.” (Malakhi 2:6).

Now truth and peace are not always compatible. The famous midrash tells how Aharon would pursue peace.  When two people were fighting, Aharon would approach each one individually, saying “Your friend wants to make up with you, but he is too embarrassed to come and apologize.” This would evoke their sympathetic feelings, and the next time they met, they would embrace and make up.  This is the way of peace. But it is not exactly the way of truth: white lies were necessary to achieve this end.  

The world needs both judgment and compromise, both truth and peace.  Often we may have to choose between these two.  But it is not necessarily an either/or. Maharsha already notes that the verse regarding Aharon and peace also states that “the law of truth was in his lips.”  Peace can be integrated with truth.  In halakhic literature this is referred to as peshara krova li’din, a compromise which approximates the just resolution. This integration could be in terms of proportions – elements of the decision were based on the letter of the law, and elements on compromise. Or it can be in terms of a larger perspective.  Truth does not have to be only in terms of abstract realities and the letter of the law; it can also incorporate equity, fairness, and the truth of human relationship and societal well-being. When Aharon said “You friend wants to make up with you,” he was not lying.  He was communicating a deeper, human truth.

Peace by itself, if it fully sacrifices truth, is also a perversion. Remember that it was Aharon’s desire to find peace that led to his giving into the people at the sin of the Golden Calf. We must strive for a peace that approximates truth, which integrates a truth. But it is a striving that has peace as its ultimate goal.
As it is with leadership, so it is with our inter-personal relationships. How many couples waste needless hours and expend undue emotional angst, and at times even fracture and rupture, over pointless arguments regarding who is right and who is wrong? What larger truth is achieved by demonstrating that one is right about a trivial detail? On the other hand, to never stand for anything and to just give in all the time, leads to resentment and a compromise of one’s sense of self. The goal is to seek out the larger truth – one that incorporates not just abstract questions of fact, but the truths of human emotions and of human relationships.  “Kindness and Truth have met up’ (Psalms 85):  This is Moshe and Aharon” (Shemot Rabbah 5:10).

Shabbat Shalom!