At the core of many high-conflict situations is the strong desire for one or both parties to be right. Getting to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may be a value in court, but if pursued too often in relationships, it will lead to continual strife.
When counseling clients through conflict, clarifying the end goal is essential. If our ultimate goal is justice, fairness, and truth, we will have to suffer the consequences that generally come when others disagree. If our ultimate goal is peace, harmony, and sustained relationships, we may have to swallow our desire to be right.
Commenting on the conflict of Korach, the Maharal argues that people get into disputes because they follow din – the strict letter of the law. They get sucked into a mindset of rigidity of purpose in their pursuit of justice and judgment. In the wake of the hunt, destruction and calamity tend to befall these justice seekers and those around them.
Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes that these kind of people suffer “from a kind of manic rationality.” In contrast, those who are willing to go lifnim mi’shurat hadin – beyond the letter of the law – avoid unnecessary disputes. They either realize that there are two sides to the story or they are willing to let things go, even if they “know” they are correct. They’d rather have peace than be right.
In order to prove to all that Aharon was chosen as the kohen gadol, Hashem told Moshe to take a staff from the head of each tribe and place them all in the Tent of Meeting. By the next day, Aharon’s staff had blossomed and sprouted forth almonds.
Rabbi Menachem Sacks, in his commentary Menachem Zion, finds a deep symbolism in the fact that the staff produced almonds, not another fruit. In the context of the laws of tithing, the Mishnah discusses two types of almonds: those that are bitter when they are small and sweet when they develop and those that are sweet when they are small and bitter when they grow bigger.
Fights and disagreements often feel sweet and right in the moment but lead to bitterness and regrets in the long run. Peace, on the other hand, is often difficult to maintain in the moment. It is difficult to bite our tongues and not respond when we think we are justified. But in the long run, it will lead to ultimate sweetness.
I don’t mean to suggest we should give up on communicating our deeply-held beliefs just because someone might disagree. The Mishnah (Avot 5:17) identifies the conflict of Korach and his followers as a “dispute not for the sake of Heaven” and pits it against the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, which were “for the sake of Heaven.” Obviously, there is a place for disputes, but they must be “for the sake of Heaven.”
The difficulty is knowing how to define “for the sake of Heaven,” especially when one can easily rationalize that one is pursuing truth and justice for ideal reasons.
Of course, each case is different, but suffice it to say that most of the arguments we have on a regular basis with our spouses, children, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, community members, and social media acquaintances are probably not what the Mishnah would consider to be “for the sake of Heaven.”
The question then becomes: What’s our goal? Do we want to be right or be happy? If we want happiness, let’s consider focusing less on truth, and more on peace.