This past Shabbat, Shabbat Parashat Korach, I had the opportunity to deliver a d’var Torah at Beth Israel. The story, from the book of Numbers, focuses on the rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram, On and 250 others against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
The story is fascinating in and of itself but there is one aspect of the story which continues to attract my attention. When Korach and his band approach Moses with their complaints, Moses says that the matter will be settled the next morning. The commentaries consider why Moses and God didn’t respond on the spot.
There are many answers that are given, some more fanciful than others. But, the answer that has always resonated most clearly with me is the idea that Moses wanted to give the rebels an opportunity to take back their words. He wanted to give them a chance to do teshuva, to repent.
If, in fact, that was the goal, it was partially successful. The man named On is never mentioned in the rest of the story and the rabbis imagine that either he himself decided to stay away or, as we read in a great aggada, his wife prevented him from joining the rebellion the next day by filling him with food and drink during the night so that he slept through the entire affair the next day.
I examined this story in more depth during my d’var Torah and related it to a sad chapter in American history which I had been reading about the past few weeks.
I love reading biographies of presidents and I have just finished the biography of Ulysses Grant by Ron Chernow. It’s a fascinating book about a very complex man who, by the end of his second term, had a reputation of concern and respect for all people, including blacks and Jews. He had brought more Jews into his administration than any previous president and had publicly stood up against Russia and Romania where Jews were being persecuted.
What was particularly surprising about his relations with the Jewish community is that in 1862, while he was in charge of the “department” of Tennessee, then General Grant had issued the most blatantly anti-Semitic order in American history: General Order no. 11 which called for the eviction of Jews from the entire area. Grant was furious about war profiteering and smuggling that had been taking place and, swayed by general anti-Semitic attitudes in the nation, issued the order that Jews “as a class” were required to leave immediately. The order was quickly revoked by President Lincoln and Grant rescinded his order shortly after. But, the fear that the order raised among Jews was not easily calmed and the chilling words resonated for many years.
You can read more about the order in Chernow’s book or in a great book called: “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” by Jonathan Sarna. There is so much more to say about this entire affair and it is fascinating to consider how Jewish leaders responded and, particularly how and why many Jews decided to support Grant in his bid for the presidency despite the order. Part of that decision might be attributable to Grant’s explanation of his act. Whether it was because of political expediency or spoken from the heart, Grant later said these words which resonate today: “It would never have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned and without any reflection.”
Think for a moment about those words.
And now, think about today.
If, in 1862, Grant was a victim of speaking without thinking twice, how much more is that a danger for us today?
In this era of instant communications, we constantly are telegraphing our thoughts without reflection in the perceived need to have our opinions or feelings “out there” before any others. And, it is more difficult than it was in Grant’s day to have any repentance we might feel accepted by our listeners or readers because those words, once written, are constantly brought up again and again thanks to the Internet. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing can be cancelled out. And, it also seems that no apology is enough even if it is backed up, as it was in Grant’s case, by action.
When Moses gave Korach time to “think it over”, it was an encouragement to realize that in his situation perhaps the words could be taken back. Somehow, in 1862, Grant’s statement of regret was enough.
Today, it is even easier to fall into the trap of speaking or writing without taking a moment or two to reflect. And it is certainly more difficult to take back our words when we do.