True story: a friend called me a few weeks ago to ask for advice. As a self-diagnosed “news junkie,” he found that he could not turn off the constant flow of information; he was finding it difficult to sleep and function, and was feeling extremely depressed. One thing he said still resonates: “how can each side look at the same exact facts, the same exact story, and see something totally different? How can they not see what the other side sees?”
I suggested that he turn off the news cycle once a week. (“Not to get all rabbi on you,” I said, “but you might think about turning it off from Friday night till Saturday night.” He said he would try it. The break of Shabbat is vital for our mental health.) But I didn’t really answer his question. How can two sides watch the same video or listen to the same statement and see or hear completely different things? And how can they not see what the other side sees?
Two of Korach’s allies in this week’s parasha were invited to parley with Moshe — and refused to go. Datan and Aviram said that “even if you had brought us to a land of milk and honey,” af lo el eretz zavat chalav u-devash he’viotanu, “would you gouge out those people’s eyes,” ha-eynei ha-anashim ha-hem tinaker? “We’re not coming,” they emphatically concluded. Lo na’aleh! The gory image of eye gouging has a few interpretations. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno explains that Datan and Aviram accused Moshe of trying to fool all the people, to “blind” them to his “tricks.” Chizkuni adds that they refused to come to talk because they had lost trust in Moshe as a leader after the debacle of the spies: he had promised a land of milk and honey, and had now decreed that an entire generation was going to die.
Rashi has an even darker explanation: Datan and Aviram meant that “even if you were to gouge out our eyes, we wouldn’t come to talk with you.” This stubborn divisiveness, this unwillingness to come to the table, this inability to see the other side, is what brought about the destruction of Datan, Aviram and their supporters. When one puts one’s own ego before one’s willingness to talk with the other side, nothing can be accomplished. The Chafetz Chaim reminds us that this is the stubbornness of evil people, who become rigidly stuck in their modes of thought and behavior.
I thought of this after voting this week in New York. As the various political races continue to heat up over the coming months, we need to think about which leaders demonstrate that ability to reach across the aisle and work with those with whom they disagree. We also need to recognize that quality in ourselves: are we able to talk to those whose agendas differ from ours, or are we going to say lo na’aleh, “we won’t go?”
Some of the most satisfying resolutions of arguments between students I have achieved came about when I succeeded in getting them to listen to one another. It’s hard work – it doesn’t always happen. And it’s even harder when it’s our own kids — and even harder still when it’s us.
But it’s absolutely vital. The rallying cry of Yehoshua and Kalev, we remember from last week’s Torah reading, was alo na’aleh, “we will go up!” Which kind of leaders do we want? And what kind of people do we want to be? Those who won’t come to the table? Or those who will?