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How to Really Win an Argument

How to Really Win an Argument

This week’s Torah portion, Korach is named after the man who led a rebellion against Moshe about perceived notions of nepotism because Moshe’s brother, Aaron held the number 2 position as High Priest. Korach utilizes the tried and true populist rant that everyone is equal and no one person should be considered greater to lord over another. Funny how those proponents of equality and parity who supposedly speak for the little guy always seem to end up living way better and exercising power over the people they supposedly represent. But that is another discussion.

Korach’s challenge comes at a particularly low point for Moshe. It happens on the heels of last week’s debacle of the spies, where the people were told that they wouldn’t enter the land of Israel for another 40 years. Moshe’s approval ratings were clearly in the dumps so it was a good a time as any to stir up the pot.

Moshe has a few different responses to this crisis, starting with downright resignation. The Torah narrates that he collapsed and fell on his face from fatigue. All the complaints and arguments were starting to take their toll on him. But like a true fighter, he gets up and tries to talk and reason with Korach and his allies – all to no avail. They are not interested in dialogue.

Finally Moshe pulls out all stops and threatens a dramatic event that will prove that Aaron was appointed by God and that it was not an in-house family favour. He declares that, to prove Aaron’s legitimacy, the earth will open up under the feet of Korach and his cronies, and swallow them alive. Yikes! And sure enough, as soon as Moshe says it, it happens!

Well, you would think that would have settled matters. But we are dealing with Jews here, so not so fast. And indeed the very next day they complain bitterly to Moshe and claim, “You have killed God’s people!” The nation was still very unhappy and upset at the outcome.

At this point God steps in and takes matters into His own hands. He tells Moshe that the leader from each of the twelve tribes is to take a stick, inscribe his name on it and leave it by Tent of Meeting – the holy spot where God would communicate with the Israelites. Included was Aaron’s name representing his tribe, Levi’s staff. God instructs that whoever’s staff blossoms is the one appointed by God to be the High Priest. The next morning they check out the sticks and lo and behold, Aaron’s has blossoms, buds and flowers on his. The others do not, thereby confirming the issue once and for all and ending the issue raised by Korach.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l used to ask the question: How is it that the much more dramatic episode of the earth swallowing Korach was not as effective as the relatively benign event of the budding staffs? You would think that if anything would have proven the point, it would have been the insta-justice that consumed Korach et al. That was a powerful and spectacular display to express the truth of the matter. A flowering staff might be pretty, but in no way compares to a mini earthquake to prove the point.

But that is precisely the lesson. When you have an argument with someone, and you are right and you know you are right, there is a tendency to want to smash the other side to smithereens. But this is not only not effective but actually counterproductive.

When people are subjected to an onslaught, even if it consists of objective facts, the natural reaction is to get your back up, dig in your heels and not listen. To prove a point in a harsh and dramatic fashion merely puts the other on the defensive and clouds their ability to see the matter for what it is. Ego kicks in and the exchange devolves into a test of wills and not a pursuit of common good.

This is the reason that the much more subtle, less threatening sign of a pretty flower got the job done of proving Aaron’s legitimacy. People really do want to follow what is true and good but not when you bang them over the head with it. If it is presented in a gentle and calm way it will be much more effective. A quiet, gentle suggestion is always more helpful than all the yelling, screaming and carrying on.

Moshe’s method of harsh judgment worked… for about 24 hours. And then the hurt set in and the complaints began anew. Showing another to be wrong is painful enough. Using a harsh medium to get it across merely adds salt to the wound and creates so much pain that the receiving party can no longer focus on the issue at hand but only the hurt from the delivery. And that is why the quiet, painless even beautiful method of the budding flower was so much more effective.

We will always have differences. That is endemic to the human condition. How we resolve them is the key. Even though we differ, we can still act civil, kind, benevolent and even smile to the other during the argument. Doing so we will not only avoid tension but even produce something more lovely and beautiful than a blossoming flower. And that is Peace and Harmony.

Think of what you’re saying

You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright

Think of what I’m saying

We can work it out and get it straight, or say good night

We can work it out

We can work it out

Life is very short and there’s no time

For fussing and fighting my friend

-The Beatles

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