When I was nine years old I played ice hockey for a local team called the Vaughan Rangers. For most of the players on the team, including myself, it was our first season of select level hockey. We were a competitive group. Our focus was on having fun, but also on winning—and when we lost, we sometimes took it harder than we should have. There to help us maintain perspective in those difficult moments was our coach, Nicholas Marchese (or, as we called him, Coach Nick). Officially, Coach Nick was responsible for running drills during practice and managing the bench during a match. Yet as he helped us navigate through the highs and lows of that season, both as individuals and collectively, Coach Nick quickly became more than a coach to us: he was a mentor who was teaching us not just about hockey, but about life, too.
Of the many lessons that I took away from the rink that year, the one that stuck with me most was Coach Nick’s “twenty-four hour rule.” This rule stated that nobody was allowed to approach the coaches right after a game in order to complain about something that had bothered him that night. Players who felt that they deserved more ice time or who were unhappy about the position that they’d been assigned had to wait twenty-four hours before expressing their frustration. Once this cooling-off period had passed, anyone who still wanted to talk was welcome to phone Coach Nick and to discuss what was on his mind, calmly and respectfully.
Coach Nick’s “twenty-four hour rule” served us well beyond our hockey careers. It encouraged us to take a step back when we were upset so that we’d avoid saying something in the heat of the moment that we’d later come to regret. I owe a lot of gratitude to Coach Nick for teaching us how to control our emotions at such a young age. And I’m thankful to Coach Nick on another level, too: had it not been for his insight over a decade ago, I wouldn’t have noticed one of the most interesting facets of this week’s Torah portion.
This Shabbat we read the story of Korah, Moshe’s cousin. Korah gathers a group of two hundred and fifty men and accosts Moshe with a simple charge: “You have gone too far! The whole community are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3). Moshe is absolutely taken aback with this accusation. He “falls on his face” (16:4) and “grows exceedingly angry” (16:6). Nevertheless, he elects not to respond on the spot:
- Moshe spoke to Korah and all his company saying, “In the morning the Lord will make known who is His…” (16:5)
- “Place fire into your pans and put incense upon them before the Lord tomorrow…” (16:7)
- And Moses said to Korah, “You and your entire congregation should be before the Lord—you, they and Aaron—tomorrow” (16:16)
Korah undermines Moshe’s authority yet Moshe resists the urge to add fuel to the fire. Instead, he defuses the situation by instructing his challengers to bring back their own “fire” tomorrow. The chronological detail appears three times in the span of twelve verses because it’s significant—it’s deliberate. Moshe implements a sort of “twenty-four hour rule.” He agrees to arrange the confrontation that Korah’s looking for but he gives his cousin a chance to sleep on it. By morning, he hopes, the rebels will see the issue in a new light and cooler heads will prevail.
In this case, however, that’s not what happens. Until this point in the narrative, Korah is backed only by עדתו—his assembly. But when he appears before Moshe the next morning, he is joined by כל העדה—the entire assembly of Israel (Num. 16:19). How did his subversive movement gain such popular support overnight? Rashi cites a Midrash which connects the dots:
“Korah gathered the entire assembly”—with words of mockery. All that night, he went to the tribes and enticed them, saying, “Do you think I care only for myself? I care for all of you. These people come and take all the high positions: the kingship for Moshe and the priesthood for his brother.” Eventually, they were all enticed (Num. Rabba 10).
Moshe tries to avoid fighting fire with fire. In the end, that plan backfires. It would be easy to conclude from the way this episode plays out that Moshe’s approach was wrong—that he waited too long, perhaps that he was naïve. But while the Torah presents the negative consequences of Moshe’s decision in full detail, it never criticizes him for that decision. Patience didn’t help in the case of Korah. In many other cases it might have. There are no hard-and-fast solutions; for patience to work, we need to give it a chance.
And yet the window of opportunity cannot remain open forever. In last week’s Torah portion, Moshe taught us about the “paradox of power:” the notion that real power means curbing our rage and finding a way to forgive those who have hurt us. This week, Moshe learns about the “paradox of patience:” the notion that patience, too, must know of limits. When people treat us with hostility we should attempt to make peace with them. If necessary, we should plead with them. We should pray for them to overcome their anger and we should pardon them when they do. But we shouldn’t pretend that significant problems don’t exist or push off real issues in hopes that they’ll take care of themselves. “When Moshe heard the accusations against him, he fell on his face (Num. 16”4)”—he believed he was demonstrating flexible leadership; his opponents believed that he was burying his head in the sand. They were emboldened as a result.
Shortly afterwards, Dathan and Abiram, Korah’s right-hand men, proclaimed openly that “we refuse to speak with Moshe” (16:12). They turned history on its head by claiming that Moshe “took us out of a land of milk and honey [i.e. Egypt] to kill us in the desert” (16:13). Then they taunted: “Even if you gouge out the eyes of our men we will not come meet with you” (16:14). Moshe’s initial restraint was a sign of power; unfortunately, Dathan and Abiram chose to interpret it as a sign of weakness. They took advantage of him because they thought that they could.
That is the danger of patience: when we exercise it where it isn’t appreciated then, like Moshe, we’re playing with fire—and we may end up getting burned. But we cannot allow ourselves to become jaded as a result. While we must “dissociate ourselves” (Num. 16:21) from those who abuse our goodwill—and certainly, our leaders must bring such people to justice where necessary—we must also remember “not to reject everybody just because one man sinned” (cf. Num. 17:21). Korah wasn’t wrong to insist that “the entire community is holy.” All people have the potential for compassion, sensitivity, kindness and empathy. The Torah doesn’t ask us to pretend that everybody will exhibit those qualities; our job is simply to find them in as many people as we can.