Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
How to Win an Argument - Torah Style
When I was a child, I had the honour of being one of the main
subjects in a book. I doubt, though, that my name (as yet) appears
in the "Who's Who of North American Jewry," nor will I any time soon
be the subject of a bestseller biography, nor was I a child prodigy.
What's the story? A friend of the family was writing a book: How to
Win an Argument. The book was made up of numerous fabricated
arguments, with the authors commentary on whose arguments were
more effective, and why. The premise of the book was that
argumentative skills could be taught, and that through honing your
skills, you too could learn how to win an argument. Of course, the
fictitious argumentators needed fictitious names, and the author
chose use the names of myself and my brothers, among others.
This week's sidrah, Shemini, contains an argument that had the
potential of erupting into a very serious conflict, yet was ultimately
resolved (and "won") peacefully, due to some high-scale
argumentative adeptness, not to mention communication skills. Like
the book (le'havdil), this argument also involved two brothers: Moshe
and Aaron. The conflict centered around the interpretation of a ritual
It was the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan
(Tabernacle). On that day, Aaron lost his two sons, Nadav and Avihu,
as a result of their offering a foreign fire upon the Altar, something
they had not been told to do. In a display of superhuman strength,
Aaron, as per Moshe's instructions, went on with his priestly duties as
if nothing happened. Offerings were brought, fats were burned, and
portions were given out just as they should have been.
With the exception of one offering: the he-goat sin offering, which
should normally have been eaten by Aaron and his (remaining) sons,
was burned instead. Aaron felt that the special dispensation to "go on
with the service" despite his mourning only applied to the
inauguration offerings, and not to standard sacrifices not related to
the inauguration. The he-goat sin offering, which was brought every
Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month - it was Rosh Chodesh Nissan
at the time), was by this criteria not permitted to be offered by
Moshe saw things differently. Perhaps he thought that Aaron had
acted on impulse; that due to the emotional stress of losing two sons,
he had succumbed to melancholy and had refused to go on with the
services, completely burning the final offering. Moshe was incensed.
"Why did you not eat the sin-offering in a holy place - for it is most
holy! [Hashem] gave it to you to grant forgiveness for the sin of the
congregation, and to atone for them before Hashem. Its blood was
not brought into the inner-sanctuary; you should have eaten it in a
holy place, as I commanded you!" Aaron responded: "Now that such
a terrible tragedy occurred to me - were I to eat this day's sin-offering,
would Hashem approve?" When Moshe heard this, he approved.
When we examine Rashi's commentary, we find that Moshe's diatribe
went on for quite some time. He explored all the possible reasons the
sin-offering might have been burned, and proceeded to eliminate
them one by one. The question is obvious: If Aaron knew all along
that he had done correctly - that there was halachic precedent to
differentiate between the sin-offering and the other offerings - why did
he let Moshe go on for so long? Why didn't he interrupt him, and "win
the argument" instantly?
Another question: How was it possible that Aaron was privy to this
law, while Moshe, teacher of Israel and transmitter of the Torah, was
not? The Midrash explains that Moshe also knew this law. His anger
blurred his reasoning, and he was not able to view the situation
objectively, causing him to err. What was it in Aaron's short speech
that calmed him down? Perhaps it was not Aaron's words at all that
calmed Moshe, but rather the silence preceding his words. Earlier on
in the parsha, the Torah praises Aaron for his silence (10:4). Knowing
how to speak is a skill; knowing how to keep still is mastery. Aaron
allowed Moshe to express his anger. Instead of jumping in and
indignantly proving that he was right (as he indeed was), he heard
his brother out, and gave him the opportunity to say whatever he had
to say. Once Moshe had been heard, he was willing to listen as Aaron
calmly (but forcefully - Rashi) presented his argument, to which
Moshe immediately conceded. The lesson implied is simple: If you
want to be heard, learn to listen to what others have to say. [Rabbi N.
It is interesting that even when Aaron rebutted Moshe's argument, he
does so in a very roundabout way. Instead of coming straight out and
trumping Moshe with his indisputable comeback, he asks Moshe
simply, "Now that such a terrible tragedy occurred to me - were I to
eat this day's sin-offering, would Hashem approve?" It seems that
these words, uttered after Aaron listened intently to Moshe's
discourse, were enough to remind Moshe of the halacha that had
escaped him until now. Perhaps another fine point in the art of
argumentation can be gleaned here: If at all possible, let the other
side recognize their mistake on their own. Don't ram it down their
throats - even if you're right, you'll leave them with a sore throat and
a bitter taste in their mouths. When you guide them to understand
things on their own, they're much more likely to accept what you
have to say.
One last point that applies to the etiquette of arguing: When you see
you're the one who's wrong, back down and admit it. "And Moshe
heard, and it was good in his eyes." He didn't dig his heals in the
ground and prepare for a fight to the end; he was immediately ready
to admit he was wrong. That's mentschlichkeit.
"Two Jews - three opinions," the old clichþ goes. Doesn't it seem like
you've always got a point to make? I don't have the book How to Win
an Argument in front of me, but perhaps by studying the Torah we
have come up with our own version. Keep these three things in mind,
and you might find people are more likely to listen up:
1) Learn to
listen - and others will listen to you.
2) Make your point gently, and allow the sheer brilliance of your logic to make its own impression.
3) When you're wrong, say so.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication was sponsored by Mr. Mel
Merkur, in memory of Hersh ben Baruch alav ha-
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.