Resolving Conflicts in the Family and Nation

Moses teaching the people of Israel.

In his comments on Matot this week at Aish, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlighted the conflict between Moses and the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to settle on the east side of the Jordan instead of on the west with the other tribes. Although the narrative in Numbers 32 is probably very condensed from the actual events, Rabbi Sacks points out how the story illustrates good conflict resolution strategy:

The negotiation between Moses and the two tribes in our parsha follows closely the principles arrived at by the Harvard Negotiation Project, set out by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their classic text, Getting to Yes.(2) Essentially they came to the conclusion that a successful negotiation must involve four processes:

  1. Separate the people from the problem. There are all sorts of personal tensions in any negotiation. It is essential that these be cleared away first so that the problem can be addressed objectively.
  2. Focus on interests, not positions….By focusing not on positions but on interests, the question becomes, “Is there a way of achieving what each of us wants?”
  3. Invent options for mutual gain….the two sides usually have different objectives, neither of which excludes the other.
  4. Insist on objective criteria. Make sure that both sides agree in advance to the use of objective, impartial criteria to judge whether what has been agreed has been achieved….

Moses does all four. First he separates the people from the problem by making it clear to the Reubenites and Gadites that the issue has nothing to do with who they are, and everything to do with the Israelites’ experience in the past… The problem is not about this tribe or that but about the nation as a whole.

Second, he focused on interests not positions. The two tribes had an interest in the fate of the nation as a whole. If they put their personal interests first, God would become angry and the entire people would be punished, the Reubenites and Gadites among them….

Third, the Reubenites and Gadites then invented an option for mutual gain. If you allow us to make temporary provisions for our cattle and children, they said, we will not only fight in the army. We will be its advance guard. We will benefit, knowing that our request has been granted. The nation will benefit by our willingness to take on the most demanding military task.

Fourth, there was an agreement on objective criteria. The Reubenites and Gadites would not return to the east bank of the Jordan until all the other tribes were safely settled in their territories. And so it happened, as narrated in the book of Joshua…

The history of Israel (and every other people, really) demonstrates that a nation is an extended family with a common history, language, religion, & culture. The makeup of a family, like that of a nation, can change over time, but the family only remains so long as those things which define it as a family remain. Without the cement of common ideals and a common mission, you can’t have a family.

Like a national leader, a father must spend a great deal of time and energy resolving conflicts in the family. If he is to be successful, he must decide what really matters and what doesn’t. Since each family is different, with its own quirks and challenges, I can’t tell you exactly how you should govern your family or what specific things you should prioritize. However, I can speak to some things that are common among all families.

A father must keep his family’s first principles in mind, those things which define them as a family: blood, faith, mission, etc.

Everyone in the family must be related by blood or covenant. If anyone is free to walk away when things aren’t going the way he prefers, then he can’t be considered real family.

Everyone in a family should subscribe to the same religion. There can be differences of opinion, of course, even of expression, but the basic tenets of faith must be essentially the same among all individuals, or the family will experience serious trouble in time.

Everyone in a family should be working toward a common goal. Remember that Jesus said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It’s true of churches, commercial enterprises, nations, and families. Each person must have their own personal missions and aspirations, but they cannot be at odds with each other. If a father’s mission is to teach responsible life skills to inner city children, his wife’s mission cannot be to keep those same people dependent on government handouts in order to use them as political pawns. Or, rather, those cannot be their missions if they desire to remain a family.

Conflicts in themselves are not bad. Like all of life’s challenges, they are the exercises we need to develop relational and spiritual strength. So long as each member of the family is willing to place the needs of the family above their own needs, almost any conflict can be worked out to a favorable resolution.

Conflict is part of God’s plan. Resolving conflicts in the family is an essential element of familial–and therefore national–maturity and cohesiveness.

Fathers, remember your family’s first principles. Remember your covenants. Remember your mission. Remember God.

Do you ever wonder why churches don't teach what the Bible actually says?

We call ourselves Christians, so why don't we live as Christ lived?

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