Negotiation:  What NOT to do (Chukkat-Balak)

 In Contemporary Life, Relationship, Temple Chai

Negotiation:  What NOT to do (Chukkat-Balak)

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Listen to a little kid who wants to stay up to watch one more tv show.  Or eat one more cookie.  These children are experts at negotiation.  They know how to get their way and they won’t stop until you relent.  Children, my teacher Reb Zalman used to say, broadcast on a priority frequency.

On the other hand, in this week’s Torah portions, there are two, lessons in how NOT to negotiate.  Conflict resolution is a critical skill, both for us as individuals as well as for all of us in community.  Let’s look at two moments that clearly could have been handled better.

In Numbers Chapter Twenty, following the death of Miriam, the people are complaining bitterly about the lack of water.  Another one of my wise teachers wrly suggested that the book of Numbers is so named because of the number of complaints!  Imagine if Moses had offered an empathetic response-  “Yes, I know this has been a hard journey.  You had to leave everything that was familiar and leave behind most of the things that are precious to you.  You took a big risk, traveling to an unknown place, and meeting your basic physical needs has been a challenge.  Let me consult with the Holy One and see what we can do.”

God, does, in fact, instruct Moses to speak to a rock in order to procure water.  But, by this point, Moses is so overwhelmed with anger that he hits the rock, twice, and then, to add insult to injury, he denounces the people as rebels.  In order not to embarrass Moses, God causes water to spill forth from the rock, but after the event, privately, God informs him that Moses’ inability to remain calm and patient and to listen to the Israelites’ concerns with kindness, these factors indicate that he, and his brother Aaron are no longer capable of being effective leaders.  Empathy is a vital component of leadership.  In fact, Aaron dies before the end of the chapter.

Leadership requires nuanced skill in conflict resolution, being able to facilitate a compromise. Conflict resolution requires that we, first of all-

  1. Respect different perspectives.
  2. Listen actively to the other person and try to understand the logic of their position.
  3. Never use force- physical or psychological. The only legitimate weapons are logic, argument, tradition, and persuasion. We’ll see the violation of this principle in our second example, in addition to Moses striking the rock when he was told to speak to it.
  4. We need to be open to whatever the outcome might be. We may be right, but we also must be prepared to be proved wrong.
  5. We have to learn to see disagreement not just as conflict but as collaborative activity in pursuit of honesty and truth.
  6. And accept it as a legitimate, even holy, part of life.

As the parsha concludes, the Israelites are about to pass through the territory of Sihon, the king of the Amorites.  They respectfully request the right to move through the territory, and offer that they will pick no produce, drink no water, and will stay on the main road.

Once again, the opportunity for dialogue is missed. Not only do the Amorites not engage in conversation, they actually attack the Israelites.  There is zero negotiation., just an immediate, violent reaction.

The Army War College taught me the concept of interest-based bargaining, where the focus is on understanding what are everyone’s needs and concerns. Deep listening and communication are the foundation of this approach.  The goal is to preserve the relationship and explore options for mutual gain.

In our personal relationships, in our Temple family, and in the world, in fact, we would all do well to learn from this week’s parshiot what NOT to do.  There is a reason that humility is the very first middah, the first character or soul trait we explore in Mussar.  Humility is an antidote to anger.  Instead of responding to conflict with anger, humility leads us to look within and take a step back, looking for ways to facilitate and preserve harmony.

As we enter into the new week ahead, let’s imagine that when we feel anger and want to lash out, we instead look within and seek peaceful ways to negotiate a mutually satisfactory resolution.  I believe this would move us towards deeper love and trust in our relationships, in our community, and in the world.







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