Numbers “The Girl Who Said No”
I run from confrontation. The very thought of disagreeing with someone makes me breathless. Yet, as a rabbi, I have to accept that people will not always agree with me.
Several months ago, I gave a sermon on a topic that I anticipated might be controversial. I went back and forth, debating whether or not I should talk about it, but decided that if I didn’t speak about this particular issue, I wouldn’t be authentic as a rabbi and as a Jew.
The Shabbat of my sermon rolled around, and as we neared that moment in the service, I felt my anxiety level rising. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this. What if it’s too much for the community? What if people disagree? And yet, didn’t I stand behind everything I wrote? And hadn’t I spent hours carefully (over-)analyzing every word, in order to present the material in a diplomatic and thoughtful manner?
I gave my sermon. And, sure enough, the congregation was divided. While many were grateful that I’d spoken about this particular topic, several people found it inappropriate and distasteful. What was Torah to me was not Torah for them. Though they were respectful in their disagreement, I was wracked with guilt and anxiety. Had I made a mistake?
All that Shabbat, I was consumed by the conversations I’d had during kiddush and the emails that I knew awaited me. In an attempt to distract myself, I turned to the novel I was reading, Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, for relief. Backman’s book focuses on the relationship between 7-year-old Elsa and her grandmother, who would tell her fanciful stories of faraway kingdoms. That Shabbat, my stomach a ball of knots, Elsa’s grandmother told me the story of the “The Girl Who Said No,” one of Elsa’s favorite stories from the Land-of-Almost-Awake.
According to Elsa’s grandma, there was once a queen who was courageous and fair-minded. However, when she grew up, she became fearful of disagreement. In order to rid the kingdom of conflict, she forbade the word “no” so that everyone would get along. But, soon it was not enough to outlaw just the word “no,” but also other words that might lead to conflict, like “not” and “maybe” and “well”. Eventually, it became necessary to outlaw additional words like “possibly” and “if” and “wait and see,” until finally no one dared say anything at all for fear of ending up in the Naysayers’ Prison.
After years of silence, one day a little girl begins singing, which was of course expressly forbidden as some might like a particular song while others might not. All of the queen’s forces attempted to silence the girl but failed to put an end to her song, forcing the queen herself to come out and to silence her. But the little girl turned to the queen and simply said, “No.” With that no, the walls of the kingdom began crumbling until everyone, even the queen’s army of yea-sayers, began chanting “No!” in the streets.
I felt a tremendous sense of relief when I read this story. It was okay for me to speak about things that I knew others might disagree with, and it was equally okay for them to tell me that they disagreed. Conflict is not only necessary but healthy. Fear of confrontation creates an environment that excludes and silences, rather than including and giving voice.
This week’s parsha focuses on the story of Korach, the one in Jewish tradition who famously says “No.” Korach rises up against Moshe and challenges his authority. He says, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach disagrees with the way the community is being run and demands an egalitarian approach. For this, Korach goes down in Jewish history as the ultimate troublemaker. As punishment, Korach and his gang are swallowed up by the earth, “vanished from the midst of the congregation” (16:33).
The rabbis find many reasons to criticize Korach. They say that he was only looking out for his own ego, and that he was not only challenging Moshe but challenging God. In Pirkei Avot, “The Sayings of the Fathers,” the rabbis hold up the complaint lodged by Korach as the ultimate example of a dispute that is not “for the sake of heaven”, for honorable and holy purposes.
Yet I’ve always felt for Korach. On the surface, his claim seems to be one that is the epitome of a dispute for the sake of heaven; he is arguing that all Israelites are holy, and that everyone should have equal access to God. But, more than that, even if he is wrong to challenge Moshe, is this really the price for disagreeing? Does challenging authority merit being swallowed up by the earth?
When in the middle of a confrontation, it can be difficult to identify whether or not the dispute is for the sake of heaven. There are times we say “no” for ulterior motives, but more often than not, the voice of disagreement has a legitimate and important place. It matters greatly how we say something controversial, where we say it, and what we say. As challenging as it may be to handle, conflict is both inevitable and necessary. May we each be empowered to find both our voices and the courage to disagree, for the sake of heaven and for the sake of building stronger, more inclusive communities.
Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Director of Congregational Learning at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota and the creator of the Daf Yomi haiku blog. She was ordained in 2015 at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.