In the Torah section of Korach, we learn of a fierce attack that erupts. The attack is against none other than Moses, the selfless leader of the people of Israel who led them out of Egypt and intervened on their behalf with G-d. The attacker is Moses’ own cousin Korach – jealous of Moses’ leadership position. Korach, with the aid of 250 other men of stature, launches an insulting diatribe against the greatest leader in our history.
Despite the insulting nature of it all, Moses does not lash back against his attackers. He tries to calm the waters, attempting several times to reason with Korach and his henchmen – to no avail. Moses finds that there is no reasoning with them and, in the end, appeals to G-d to settle the issue, which He does definitively, huddling them together and then miraculously having the earth cave in underneath them, swallowing up every single member of this group of rabble rousers.
Moses’ behavior serves as an example to all, and, indeed, later leaders of our people have followed in his footsteps when addressing those who approach them even when it was not so easy. One example comes to mind in the life of R. Shmuel Salant (1816 – 1909) as individuals of all walks of life addressed him with questions of all sorts while he served as spiritual leader of Jerusalem (Paysach Krohn, In the Footsteps of the Maggid, pp. 244-245).
One day a simple woman, disturbed by her careless act, approached R. Salant with a question: “I had some meat that was not yet ritually salted [and therefore not yet kosher] out on my counter, and, before I could remove it, my cat came and ate the non-koshered meat…what is the status of my cat?”
R. Salant’s students, who were present at the time, could barely control themselves from laughing at the ludicrous question. After all, a cat is non-kosher regardless of what it eats as a cow is kosher no matter what it eats! However, in respect for their teacher, they controlled themselves and waited to see what R. Salant would answer.
As the woman waited anxiously, R. Salant began to leaf through one of the books on his desk and then said to the woman: “You must remember never to do this again. What you did could at some time in the future lead to a serious problem. If you leave meat like that on the counter, a Jew could eat that meat in error! But for now, you can keep your cat. Its status remains as it was before. You are free from any worry and concern.”
After the woman thanked him profusely and left, R. Salant turned to his students who were now giggling. He explained that one day one of them may be in the position to answer religious questions and, therefore, “It is imperative for you to remember that, whenever a person comes to ask a question, you must always treat the question and the questioner with dignity and respect. For if you laugh at or scorn the question, even though such a reaction may be well deserved, the person will refrain from coming back in the future, when the question may really be a serious one. Your answer today will affect the bringing of questions tomorrow.
R. Salant like Moses before him was teaching others that what comes to mind need not come to mouth. One may be addressed in a ludicrous manner or even in an insulting manner, and what comes to mind is scorn, but, before exercising one’s mouth, one should decide whether saying what is on one’s mind will achieve the proper goal. May we all exercise the proper restraint in our dealings with others for the sake of the greater good, the good of all our people and the world at large.