The Torah portion of Korach describes the most famous dispute in the Torah, in which Korach and his cohorts challenged the leadership of Moses. After Korach, Dassan and Aviram flagrantly initiated the dispute with Moses and Aaron, Moses attempted to make peace with them. He first tried to appease Korach, and when that failed, he turned to Dassan and Aviram.
"And Moses called for Dassan and Aviram the sons of Eliav..." (1) Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, tells us that Moshe was attempting to appease them with divrei Shalom (words of peace).(2) The Midrash derives from here that one should never persist in a dispute, rather he should try to make peace.(3)
It is noteworthy that the Torah taught this lesson in the context of the dispute between Korach's group and Moses. This was a dispute in which Korach's group were clearly guilty for initiating the dispute and had conducted themselves in a deplorable manner. Nonetheless, Moses did not hesitate in attempting to appease them. Moses' actions in this incident serve as a powerful lesson for all other disputes. In almost all disputes, each protagonist tends to place all the guilt on his adversary. Consequently, they both refuse to compromise, insisting that the other side must give in, or apologize. They must learn from Moses' conduct in his dispute - he tried to make peace even though he was genuinely free of blame.
The Chasam Sofer develops the idea that one must make every effort to make peace. He points out that it was very unlikely that Dassan and Aviram would be appeased by Moshe's words, given their history of constant antagonism towards him. There is a concept in Torah known as chazakah, whereby we presume that the past situation will continue in the same way as it has in the past. According to this principle, there was no need for Moses to try to appease Dassan and Aviram given the minute chance of success. Nonetheless, the Chasam Sofer writes that we learn from Moses' attempts at conciliation, that we do not follow the principle of chazakah with regard to disputes. This is because disputes are so damaging that we must make any effort we can to make peace, no matter how unlikely the chances of success.(4)
Dassan and Aviram's response to Moses' attempts at appeasement demonstrates exactly how one should not conduct himself in a dispute. "And they said we will not go up…even if you would put out the eyes of those men, we will not go up!" (5) The Chofetz Chaim writes that these words demonstrate the extent of the stubbornness of Dassan and Aviram in their refusal to even speak to Moses. He explains that when they told Moses that they would not speak to him "even if you put the eyes of those men," they were referring to their own eyes, and that they would rather have their eyes put out than make peace with Moshe.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches from here that some people can become so entrenched in a dispute that they prefer to endure great suffering over 'losing' the argument. In this vein, he tells of the story of a dispute which threatened to destroy one of the protagonist's lives and result in his family being imprisoned. When his desperate wife implored him to give up this destructive dispute, he replied that he was prepared for himself, his wife and his children to go to prison, as long as he would 'win'!
Why is it so difficult for protagonists of disputes to attempt reconciliation? One reason is that it is very difficult for a person to recognize that he should assume at least part of the blame for the development of the dispute. Human nature tends to push people to focus on the failings of others and their own strengths. Accordingly, when a person is in the midst of a bitter argument, it is extremely difficult for him to accept any level of culpability for its escalation. The words of the Malbim on this matter offer a penetrating insight into the erroneous nature of this attitude.
The Malbim once found himself in the midst of a bitter dispute. His beleaguered students asked him how such a terrible argument could take place, given the Torah's words with regard to the dispute between Korach and Moses. The Torah tells us: "There will never be like Korach and his assembly." (6) The students understood that this means that there will never be such a bitter quarrel again in history. Accordingly, they could not understand how the Malbim could be embroiled in such a bitter disagreement. He explained to them that the Torah's words that there will never again be such a dispute have a different meaning.
The Torah is telling us that the dispute of Korach against Moses was the only one in history in which one side was totally in the wrong and one side was completely in the right. Korach and his associates were totally wrong in their arguments and were fully guilty for the development of the disagreement. Moshe, in contrast, acted in a completely correct and justified manner. When the Torah says that there will never be such a dispute again, it is telling us that there will never be another case in which one side is totally justified and the other is completely guilty. The Malbim, in his humility, was thus acknowledging that he had to assume some guilt for the disagreement he was involved in.(7) The Malbim's explanation teaches us that anyone involved in a dispute is wrong to believe that he is totally in the right, because the Torah testifies that this cannot be the case.
Accordingly, it behooves everyone who finds themselves in a dispute to accept responsibility for his role in its escalation. When one does this, it will be easier for him to focus on his guilt in this regard, rather than that of his adversary. By doing this, he should recognize that he needs to rectify his mistakes, and ignore the failings of his 'enemy.' This attitude will help him emulate Moses' actions in appeasing Dassan and Aviram.
During the course of a person's life, it is inevitable that he will come into some form of conflict with other people. When this happens, the person has a vital choice to make: He can validate his own behavior and stubbornly refuse to admit any failing; or he can swallow his pride, be the 'bigger' person, and initiate reconciliation. By taking the second option, the person emulates Moses - he was willing to approach Dassan and Aviram despite the fact that they were totally at fault. All the more so this should be the case in all other disputes when both sides must assume responsibility for the dispute. Such conflicts are not limited to major arguments; they also include common 'disagreements' between spouses, and small spats amongst friends, colleagues, students etc. When a person refuses to budge in such incidents, he only succeeds in prolonging and increasing the bitterness. However, by emulating Moshe, a person will ensure that the Shalom will prevail.
1. Korach, 16:12.
2. This is literally translated as 'words of peace.'
3. Rashi, Korach, 16:12.
4. Tallelei Oros, Bamidbar, p.278.
5. Korach, 16:12-14.
6. Korach, 17:5.
7. Tallelei Oros, p.303.