Hungry, thirsty, dusty and hot, the Israelites are living in the desert, free from the bonds of slavery. After several years of wandering, they are frustrated. They crave stability and rootedness. Moses has been a decent leader but also loses his temper easily and often. Korach, one of Moses’ first cousins, calls for a rebellion against Moses. He enlists Dathan, Abiram and On in his mutiny. After a dramatic showdown, Korach, Dathan, Abiram, On and their followers die by an act of God, and the conflict is violently resolved.
While Korach is the most famous of these challengers to Moses’ leadership, Dathan and Abiram seem to have a unique role here. Some even believe that they led their own insurrection, separate from Korach. Looking at Dathan and Abiram can teach us about disagreement and healthy conflict.
Moses knows that Dathan and Abiram are displeased and chooses to approach them. He asks to speak to them. Their response is translated by JPS as, “We will not come!” However, several commentators correctly point out that the actual words in Hebrew are, “We will not go up.” Dathan and Abiram refuse to enter into a dialogue with Moses. They lead the people in an uprising but rebuff Moses’ attempt to come together and clarify their complaints to him. They are enthusiastic in rising against Moses, but reject rising up to see Moses. They want to keep their interactions confrontational.
This is further demonstrated by what they say next. Rather than describing their problems, they manipulate the narrative by calling Egypt (the land which enslaved them), the “land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase comes originally from Exodus 3:7-8, where God tells Moses at the Burning Bush that God will take the Jewish people from the land of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the ‘“land flowing with milk and honey.” For Dathan and Abiram to use that exact wording to describe the land of their oppressors, Egypt, is a calculated lie. It is a debasement of their grievance — meant to inflame the rebels rather than encourage peaceful resolution. And they underline that when they end their speech by repeating, “We will not go up.”
An important part of J Street’s vision involves bringing discussion and debate within the American Jewish community around policy issues related to Israel. As leaders and supporters of J Street, we should keep this story of Dathan and Abiram at the forefront of our minds when reflecting on this mission. In J Street’s past, we were sometimes excluded from communal discussions. We should be proud that we are included much more now than we were a decade ago. However, we need to consistently challenge ourselves to reach out to others who do not share our political views on Israel. And we need to analyze the ways in which we reach out. Do we attempt to elevate the conversation by seeing the merit and worth in at least some of what our compatriots say? Are we disciplined in researching facts and seeking truth as completely as we can, even when the facts may support another viewpoint? Or do we toss out phrases deliberately meant to agitate our audience?
When Moses hears of the rebels, his initial reaction is to “fall on his face.” The commentators take this as a sign of his humility. He then tells the rebels that God will decide who is right. He debates the issues they bring forward and asks to speak further with them.
Moses was bold in hearing from constituents who were deeply unhappy and approaching them with a presumably open mind and heart. We too should show humility; trust in the Divine; and listen, debate and engage with those with whom we disagree. When we remember not to emulate Dathan and Abiram in our quest for justice in Israel, then will we take our place alongside Moses, as people who argue “for the sake of heaven.”
Rabbi Beth Janus is the chair of the Philadelphia Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street.
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