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Learning by example

Learning by example

Korach — Numbers 16:1-18:32

June 26: 8:14 p.m.

Conflict resolution is one of the most important tasks in human relations. What are some of the strategies available to foster it?

One of them can be found in the ancient endeavor known as martial arts. I once watched a film on the subject in which the participant in the battle was instructed not to fight his opponent head on, but to yield to the attack, to move paradoxically backwards as if to surrender. In a sense, he was directed to surprise his opponent by reacting unpredictably. This strategy can be applied to many situations in life in which there is strife and discord.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we read of such discord — the story of the rebellion led by Korach and his cohorts against Moses. Among this band are Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, who have long been thorns in Moses’ side. They challenge his authority and threaten outright revolt against his leadership.

Interestingly, Moses’ initial response is not one of anger. He tries verbal persuasion, calls for divine intervention, and only then does he eventually indignantly express his anger. But before he reaches that point, he tries something which goes almost unnoticed by most commentators.

He sends for them. He adopts a conciliatory attitude, and invites them into dialogue. “And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram…” (Numbers 16:12)

Moses does not “come out fighting,” at least not until his invitation to discussion and perhaps even compromise is rebuffed. “… And they said, ‘We will not come up … Do you need to make yourself a prince over us? … Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!’”

Only after his attempt at conflict resolution does Moses become angry and appeal for divine intervention. But first he signals his readiness to talk things over.

I have been reading a biography of a great chasidic leader in early-20th-century Poland, Rabbi Israel Danziger. He was the heir to the leadership of the second-largest chasidic sect in pre-World War II Europe. He and his father before him, Rabbi Yechiel Danziger, held court in Alexandrow.

The biography contains documentation of several talks the rabbi gave describing many of the lessons he learned from his father. He tells of the time that he was sent along with several of his father’s emissaries to visit the court of another chasidic rebbe, whose personal secretary made the delegation wait their turn on a long line. He describes how when they finally got into the rebbe’s reception room, they were treated perfunctorily, if not coldly; and the request that they were instructed to make of this rebbe was callously rejected by him. Rabbi Israel told his father every detail of his disappointing experience.

About a year later, the other chasidic rebbe needed a great favor of Rabbi Yechiel. He sent a delegation to Alexandrow, headed by his own son. Much to Rabbi Israel’s surprise, his father issued orders that they be welcomed warmly and shown gracious hospitality. Rabbi Yechiel himself waited at his door for them, ushered them in to his private chambers, listened to their request for a favor of him, and granted it generously.

In his narrative, as recorded in this biography, Rabbi Israel describes how he approached his father and asked him why he had treated them so well. “Did you have to give them such an effusive welcome after they embarrassed us so much?”

I found Rabbi Yechiel’s response, in Yiddish, so impressive. He said, “Better that they learn from me how to be ‘gute yidden’ and ‘menschen,’ than I learn from them how to be boors and brutes!”

When I related this story to an audience of chasidim a short while ago, an elderly man in the audience approached me and said, “I am a descendant of that other rebbe. And our family tradition has it that when his delegation returned with news of their special treatment and of the granted favor, the rebbe burst into tears and cried, ‘He is a better Jew than I am. We must learn a ‘musar haskel’ (a lesson in ethics) from him.’”

This is a lesson we can all benefit from as we attempt to resolve the conflicts we face, and as we strive to increase the numbers of “gute yidden” in our ranks and create more mensches in the world.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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