In Moshe Rabeinu’s handling of the conflict with Korach, we see many of his greatest talents on display. Many of the P’sukim cry out for explanation and understanding of what our greatest teacher was thinking at that precise moment. Why does he respond to some challenges and not to others, why does he become angry at some provocations yet remain stoic in the face of a seemingly greater insult? When one closely examines the words and context of the P’sukim, it becomes very clear that Moshe Rabeinu was not only Ish Hashem and our greatest Navi, but a skilled therapist, advocate and psychologist as well.
The initial challenge comes with Korach’s accusation that “You have taken to much for your self, the entire nation is holy…why have you placed yourself over the nation” (Korach 16:3) To this attack, the pasuk says that Moshe “fell on his face”. (16:4) Moshe apparently made no attempt to respond to Korach’s words verbally. A few Psukim later Dasan and Aviram refuse to heed Moshe’s summons and respond by saying “He has brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to die in the desert”. They continue saying “He has also not brought us to the land of milk and honey”. (16:13,14) To this charge, Moshe responds quite sharply – the Pasuk says Moshe became very angry and said to Hashem “Don’t accept their offering, I have not taken a single donkey from them nor done anything wrong to any of them” (16:15)
This exchange raises several questions. First, why does Moshe get very angry with Dasan and Aviram’s Chutzpah but lets Korach’s initial criticism go unchecked? Many Mepharshim answer this with the very logical observation that while Korach’s complaint was lodged against Moshe, Dasan and Aviram’s audacity was directed towards Hashem. Moshe was willing to be Mochel on his Kavod, but he was not going to allow an insult to Hashem to go without a response. This answer has obvious appeal but is inconsistent with Moshe’s actual words. The Pasuk clearly says that Moshe said to Hashem “I have not taken even a donkey from them”. What kind of a response is that to a complaint about leaving the “beauty” of Mitzrayim to “die in the desert”? Indeed, that retort would have been much more appropriate to say back to Korach for his initial criticism that Moshe had “taken too much”.
Here we begin to see some of the brilliance of Moshe Rabeinu in how he dealt with Klal Yisroel. Let’s step back for a moment and think about why Moshe did not use this answer when initially confronted by Korach. Korach is coming with a large group of disgruntled Leviyim. They have already decided in their minds that they have not gotten their “due”. If Moshe would have retorted to their complaint of him taking too much, they may very well have escalated the confrontation. One could readily see these people, in this mindset, countering Moshe’s words of “not having taken anything” with something even more rebellious. Perhaps they would have pointed out that Moshe had “taxed” them with Machtzis Hashekel, or that he had used their gold and silver to build the Mishkan where Ahron eventually was placed in charge. It is not hard to see how this exchange could have very quickly gotten out of hand. Instead, Moshe understood that sometimes, when people are in a certain frame of mind, the best response is to say nothing at all.
This explanation still leaves us with Moshe’s seemingly misplaced reaction to Dasan and Avirams’s verbal assault on Hashem. Why does Moshe turn to Hashem and say, “I never took anything from them – not even a donkey”. How is that an appropriate response to Dasan and Aviarm’s rebellious words? Here, once again, the ability of Moshe Rabeinu to put the entire situation in perspective is graphically evident. What does Moshe do in practically every instance where Bnei Yisroel rebelled? He intercedes and davens on their behalf. That is exactly what he is doing after Dasan and Aviram’s incredulous statement. Moshe, hearing the words that Hashem “has taken us out of a land that flows with milk and honey”- the ultimate ingratitude for being freed from the shibud Mitzrayim, can only contemplate Hashem’s wrath to such an attack. So, he turns to Hashem and says “I never took anything from them” yet they are accusing me of taking too much. Hashem, they are not rebelling against you, they are just rebelling – against me, against anyone. It is their current frame of mind, not a conscientious attack on Hashem.
Indeed, Moshe’s actions are a powerful musar. He had an appropriate response to Korach but chose not to say the words because it would not have helped the situation. Then when they turned their rebellion towards Hashem, he used his own self-discipline to appease Hashem in the face of Dasan and Aviram’s outrageous comments. The power of words cannot be overstated. We see from Moshe how to use the Koach of Dibbur. Before we speak, we need to see if our words are going to yield a positive result. Sometimes, truthful words at the wrong time can be just as damaging as incorrect words. Similarly, when we listen to what people are saying, we need to keep their remarks in context even if they appear to be negative. May Hashem grant us a small portion of Moshe Rabeinu’s insight into the proper usage of words and the understanding of when silence truly is golden.