In Parashat Korach, Datan and Aviram charge Moshe with usurping power. In his response, Moshe claims, “Lo Chamor Echad Meihem Nasati,” “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs” (BeMidbar 16:15). Why did Moshe feel compelled to deny having taken even a single donkey? Would anyone accuse Moshe of breaking into somebody’s stable to steal a donkey?! Rashi explains that Moshe sought to make it perfectly clear that his personal benefit was not part of his agenda. When Hashem told him to return to Egypt to save the Jews, he did not take anyone’s donkey nor did he expect to be compensated for his expenses. Moshe was never interested in personal gain.
Rav Moshe Feinstein offers a fascinating perspective. He wonders why Moshe was fearful of taking anything from anyone. As king of Bnei Yisrael (see Ibn Ezra to Devarim 33:5), he was entitled to impose taxes on the people or even make use of their property! The answer lies in a fundamental difference between Moshe and other Jewish kings. When one’s rule is the result of having been appointed king, he may feel free to seize the people’s property at will. However, Moshe’s rule was based on his Torah knowledge and Hashem’s will; he was never appointed. Torah may never be exploited for one’s personal benefit. Therefore, Moshe refused to take anything from anyone.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir sees in Moshe’s reaction an important lesson in introspection and self-critique. Datan and Aviram accused Moshe of seizing power for himself. Although their criticism was rooted in falsities, Moshe felt compelled to examine whether their words contained even the slightest bit of truth. He could have brushed the whole ordeal off as nothing more than a vicious invective, a baseless attack on his character. Yet he gave thought as to whether he had ever abused his position for any sort of personal gain. His careful examination yielded that he had not. According to Rav Yisrael Salanter, this readiness to engage in self-assessment based upon the criticism of one’s enemies is reflected in the words of King David, “When those who would harm me rise up against me, my ears have heard” (Psalms 92:12). People are often unable or unwilling to accept criticism. We create all types of self-defense mechanisms. When others offer even constructive criticism, we rationalize that the person doesn’t understand our situation and is mistaken in his assessment of us. Worse yet, we attribute their comments to jealousy or resentment. This even occurs when the critic is a close friend. When he is an enemy, his remarks are totally discredited since his motives are “undoubtedly” biased.
It takes a great man to differentiate between the critic and the criticism. Although the critic may be an enemy, a great man will not negate his criticism. We would do well to listen, even when our enemies speak, since they might be saying something that is worth hearing.