D’var Torah: Keeping attuned to tone

Rabbi Suzanne Brody

By Rabbi Suzanne Brody

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

As a parent, there are moments when I find myself suddenly furious. It seems as if my children have made just one demand too many. All of the whining and insistence that I drop whatever I am doing to attend to their needs “right now, Ima” leaves me feeling frazzled and ready to snap. Yet, it’s not really the requests themselves that leave me feeling so out of sorts. It’s the tone of voice. Though I, as the parent, retain the right to refuse any unreasonable or untenable demands of my children, often, I find that after I’ve asked (sometimes with steel in my voice) that my child “please say that again in a nice voice,” the entreaty itself suddenly sounds and even becomes reasonable, my mood lightens  and I am more than happy to comply and assist as needed.

Similarly, Korach’s rebellion against Moses could be seen as one of those unreasonable or untenable demands with no real chance of coming to fruition. After all, the Tanakh is full of examples that show us that no one can “win” a fight against G-d’s chosen leader (or group). But, sometimes, challenges against G-d bring about laughter (as in the case of the oven of Achnai, b. Talmud Bava Metzia 59b), or a re-consideration of the situation (as in the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, Genesis 18-19). Such situations, however, only occur when all of the parties involved are speaking politely to one another.

One might have thought that the story of Korach could be one of those stories where G-d (and His servant Moses) are beaten by the clear logic of the humble upstart. After all, Korach’s main contention () “the whole entire community is holy” (Numbers 16:3) echoes G-d’s own instruction to the Israelites () “you all shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2). One might wonder how the entire nation can be holy and yet certain people seem to be singled out as somehow holier than others. It would seem then, if looked at in this light, that Korach has a valid claim against his perception that Moses is hogging all of the holiness. So, why is Korach’s challenge to Moses’ leadership viewed in such a negative light? Why does Korach’s rebellion end with him and his followers being swallowed alive and a plague sweeping through the Israelite community?

It is not these particular words of Korach that get him in trouble. It is not even his questioning G-d’s handling of the situation. Rather, it is the manner in which Korach approaches the conversation that is so problematic. Instead of “using his nice voice” to discuss the situation with Moses, Korach deliberately and publicly sets out to confront Moses using harsh language that evokes a deep, emotional response from Moses. The gathering of people to witness the confrontation, and intended humiliation of Moses, and the rest of the words Korach uses, clearly convey a tone of disrespect and challenge.

Perhaps, had he asked differently, the story would have had a more favorable ending for Korach and his followers. After all, we are all made into better versions of ourselves when we are surrounded by those capable of giving us constructive criticism and gentle guidance when necessary. And we are all more likely to give others what they want and need when they ask nicely.

The story of Korach serves as a vivid reminder that sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that really matters. Stand-offs, punishments, and tears are much more likely to result from unpleasant tones of voices, and compromises are more often reached when the tone remains civil throughout. So, let’s all try to use our nice voices when we speak to one another today.