William Hamilton
William Hamilton

How to make your case

The land flowing with milk and honey was Egypt?! Such a revolting claim was rifled at Moses in this week’s portion of Torah which specializes in combative accusations. As with most false claims, part of what makes a lie persuasive is the inclusion of something that’s technically true. “You haven’t brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of field or vineyard” (Num. 16:14). So far, this is true.

Combative responses ricochet back and forth. Yet even thumping victory does little to resolve things. The aggravated response to the earth’s swallowing the most rebellious is to accuse Moses and Aaron, “You killed God’s people!” (Num. 17:7). What then, if not divine punishment, is effective at quieting this brazen brawl? Soothing relief comes from Aaron’s blossoming staff, which gently sprouts and blooms with almonds (Num. 17:23). Herein lies a telling lesson about a vital difference between hunting and farming.

Nobody likes to lose an argument, particularly when we’re being scurrilously maligned. So we mount the best talking points and blast the target. When threats are lethal, we have little choice. But when we’re trying to make our case, the mindset of farming is quite different from the mindset of fishing or hunting. As Mathew Barzun says in his insightful new book, “If ten deer are standing under a tree and you fire at one, the best case is you get one and nine run away.” With farming, the math is quite different. After plowing, even though every seed doesn’t take root, those that do will bear fruit and more seeds.

Barzun urges us to learn from and use “nature’s playbook.” It reveals models of interdependence represented by a constellation where every star shines, rather than hierarchal pyramids with one on top and many at the bottom. The natural world also repeats fractal patterns, like microscopic snowflakes inside each larger snowflake. If you want to live in a caring and dignifying region, grow caring and dignifying neighborhoods. He asks, “Does the small pattern you just expressed or observed look like the big thing you would want if you repeated it and repeated it? Are we shouting for calm? Throwing rocks for peace? Fighting for healing?”

To be sure, hierarchies have their place. Command and control pyramids are essential when we’re under attack. And harmful aggression requires forceful deterrence.

But we don’t win friends and people. Rather we enable relationships to grow and deepen by fertilizing them with trust-building authenticity, as do those who model respectful coexist everyday in diverse neighborhoods. They have much to teach opinionated-others who don’t live in them. And so does Aaron’s blossoming staff.

May we grow from its lessons whenever and wherever we can.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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