The sensei clapped his hands loudly — “Yame!” (“Stop!”) — and the entire dojo went silent.
We all gathered and sat as our sensei strode to the front of the hall. He motioned to one of the larger brown belts in the room to assume a fighting stance, and then pointed to Laurie to stand opposite.
Were it not for everyone’s serious demeanor, I would have burst into laughter. Laurie could not have been more than 5 feet tall, a thin wisp of a girl. Seeing her assume a fighting stance opposite a tall, muscular brown belt seemed ludicrous. Barry was well over six feet and all muscle; he probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds and had been training for nearly five years, while Laurie had only joined the dojo six months earlier.
She had first walked into the dojo with some twenty other female students from Pitt University in response to an ad in the college newspaper. There had been a spate of rapes and attacks in and around the campus, targeting young female college students, and our sensei, who was Pitt’s head of security, felt a responsibility to do something about it. He developed a six-month course teaching young women with no previous experience to defend themselves, and he had asked for volunteers to help train them. Fascinated by the short timeline, I volunteered.
On the first day of the course, Laurie was asked to step to the front and defend herself against the same brown belt: Barry. She stood opposite him, a look of terror on her face as he thundered across the room full-force. To her credit, she tried to hit him, but the blows glanced off him, and he picked her up and tossed her effortlessly onto the mat.
“If this were an actual, attacker, it would have been over before it began, and you would be in the hospital or morgue,” our sensei said. “We are going to spend the next six months teaching you how to change that outcome fundamentally, so that your assailant ends up in the hospital, or better yet never attacks you at all.”
Six months later, I watched them standing opposite each other, and it seemed the scene was about to repeat itself. But this time, as Barry let out a roar and charged across the floor, I sensed the hint of a smile on Laurie’s face. Just as he reached her, she deftly stepped out of the way, throwing her foot out, and collapsed the back of his leg with her foot. He crashed to the ground and she pressed on the sciatic nerve inside his thigh, one of the most painful pressure points in the body. He slammed his hand down repeatedly on the mat, signifying his submission.
How does a 110-pound girl learn to overpower a third-degree brown belt in six months?
This week’s portion of Korach contains a valuable lesson in overcoming and resolving conflict.
Korach, at face value, is a disgruntled cousin of Moshe with a penchant for cynical politics. He mounts a rebellion that nearly results in the destruction of the entire Jewish people (Bamidbar 16:21). Moshe proposes an amicable solution: let all those who desire the priestly leadership offer incense in the morning, and allow G-d to make clear who is chosen.
But although this proposal seems a healthy way to resolve the conflict, something goes wrong. Korach, instead of acquiescing, spends the night recruiting people to his cause, subsequently gathering the entire congregation against Moshe and Aaron.
At this point Hashem intervenes. In fulfillment of Moshe’s prediction, the earth opens up and swallow Korach and those closest to him. Then the 250 followers who had offered up incense that morning were consumed by a heavenly fire.
With the rebels annihilated by the hand of G-d, the story should be over, right?
Yet the story does not end here. The next morning, the people, despite all they have seen, are still challenging Moshe and Aaron’s leadership! One might have expected Hashem to open up the earth again or bring down fire to destroy all those who dared to still doubt Hashem’s choice of leaders. Yet ultimately a different path is offered: Hashem tells Moshe to gather the leaders of the twelve tribes, all of whom will place their staffs before the tent of meeting. In the morning, a miracle occurred and the staff of Aaron flowered with almond blossoms, demonstrating that he was indeed chosen by G-d as the High Priest. The rebellion was finally quelled.
But why wasn’t an earthquake enough to make the point?
Perhaps the Torah is sharing with us a fundamental lesson about conflicts: they are never resolved by force alone. It is only with dialogue and inclusion that we move past our battles; force merely puts it off for another day.
This is not to say that force, even war, has no place. Sometimes it is necessary. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking we have resolved the issue by winning the day.
No modern peace treaty has ever been achieved before a war was won. Peace came to Vietnam when the Americans and South Vietnamese realized they had lost. Peace has largely reigned in Europe for the past 75 years because the Allies won World War II without challenge. But it was not winning the war that resolved the conflict; that needed mediation, inclusion and dialogue. In fact, World War I — also unequivocally won by Allied forces — did not resolve the conflict, because its treaty was not part of an inclusive dialogue but was forced upon the losing side. A mere twenty years later came World War II, the greatest tragedy in world history.
Here in the Middle East, Israel has fought a myriad of wars, but with few exceptions, the Arabs have not accepted that we won and for the most part are not ready to sit in dialogue. But make no mistake: even if they accept that the war is unwinnable for them, we will not resolve this conflict until we can find an inclusive solution based on compromises we can all live with.
In my opinion, Anwar Sadat finally realized Israel would not be beaten on the battlefield. So he brought Egypt to the table, and we have had peace for over forty years. King Hussein of Jordan came to the same conclusion. And while there is much room for improvement in both those peace treaties, there is much to be thankful for.
Yasser Arafat, however, never learned that lesson. Nor have his heirs, Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO and Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Until then, sad and painful as it may sound, there will be no point to dialogue.
This is not to say that conflict resolution is impossible without force. If both sides genuinely want to find peace (and stop teaching their children to hate), it is possible, but I can’t think of a modern conflict where that was accomplished without force prevailing first. Perhaps conviction and common ideals can substitute.
No conflict will ever be resolved, much less end healthily, by force alone. Beating up a bully never solves the issue, nor does kicking a child out of class, or imposing a solution without any dialogue. But force can get both parties to the table.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.