We all know that true communication means listening as well as speaking. Yet in Parshat Korach – even while there is a whole lot of speaking – one is hard pressed to find many examples of listening.
Korach and his group launch the first salvo, asking what appears to be a rhetorical question: “Why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” Although Moshe responds, he does not answer the question. Immediately afterward, however, he turns to Korach with his own rhetorical questions: “Is it a small thing to you that God separated you… [as Levites], that you should also request the priesthood?” and “Who is Aharon that you should complain about him?” Before we even notice that these questions are left hanging in the air, we encounter new unanswered rhetorical questions. This time they come from Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, who ask Moshe, “Is it a small thing that you have taken us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert?” and “Will you gouge out [our] eyes?”
Things continue to fall apart until Moshe feels forced to appeal to God for retribution against the rebels. But then something curious – yet by now expected – happens. God threatens to destroy the entire Jewish people, most of whom have now fallen in behind Korach. Moshe takes his usual stance of defending the children of Israel and asking God to kill only those guilty of true rebellion and not those who are just undecided (following the approach of Ramban). However, he does this by means of yet another rhetorical question: “Will one man sin and You get upset at the whole congregation?” Here too, no answer is given.
The communication gap here is really two-sided. It certainly starts with Korach and his group, but it subsequently infects Moshe as well. In fact, Moshe seems so disturbed by the tenor of the discussion (or non-discussion) that he cannot break out of it, even when speaking to God.
When the rabbis critique the “disagreement of Korach and his group,” they are referring to the breakdown of communication that we have just traced. In Pirkei Avot 5:17 we read that such a disagreement will not have positive results, whereas disagreements such as the ones between
Hillel and Shammai will. The difference, say the rabbis, is that the latter was “for the sake of
heaven,” whereas the former was not. No doubt that is what is ultimately behind good communication, but the practical difference is that Hillel and Shammai were not asking rhetorical questions and walking away from each other. They argued back and forth to express their perspectives and to hear what the other had to say.
The Torah shows the verbal sparring between Korach and his opponents as the exact opposite of the debates between Hillel and Shammai, thereby emphasizing the lack of purposefulness in the various discussions that take place among the former. When Moshe sidesteps Korach’s initial question he does so because Korach doesn’t want to hear an answer, and one can only give an answer to someone looking for it. And when Moshe throws rhetorical questions back at Korach, it is likely a way to hold a mirror up to him: “Listen to your tone and your lack of true communication,” Moshe seems to be saying. “If you want me to listen to you then be prepared to listen yourself, and if you don’t intend to listen then don’t expect me to, either!”
Yet the power of negativity is such that even those interested in communication can get swept up in it. The correct answer to those who are not interested in communication is to turn around and walk away. Not only is non-communicative talk not constructive, it is actually detrimental. By the end of our story we see Moshe taking up this non-communicative stance as well; even before God.
And if someone as great as Moshe may have succumbed to the negative-communication trap, it should serve as a warning to us all. It is hard to let an opponent have the last word. But if they will not listen to our response, anything we might say is actually superfluous. In fact, it is more than superfluous – it creates frustration, and from that frustration to losing control is too easy a path for us to take.