Thursday, May 16, 2024

Let’s Be Better


It was, in a sense, the first gathering of the Bnei Yisroel, the twelve pillars of our nation surrounding the bedside of their father. Yaakov Avinu looked at each of his sons in turn, focusing on their gifts and challenges, studying their destiny, before bestowing the brachos and tefillos that would accompany them and their progeny for eternity.

When he looked at Levi, Yaakov foresaw a road with some bumps, but one that led to the loftiest of callings, the right to serve in Hashem’s earthly home, standing guard over the Bais Hamikdosh and its sacred keilim.

But he also saw something else, the dark and turbulent events of this week’s parsha, the uprising of Korach and his people against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.

“Bekehalam al teichad kevodi. I want no part in it,” Yaakov Avinu pleaded. Therefore, Rashi tells us, Korach’s lineage is traced back to Levi, but not to Yaakov Avinu.

It’s puzzling. If Yaakov foresaw the incident, why did he not ask that there be no machlokes altogether? Why not daven that Hashem’s trusted messenger be untarnished by this rebellion? Why didn’t he daven that Klal Yisroel not rise up against Moshe?

When his grandfather, Avrohom Avinu, sensed that Sedom was on the verge of destruction, he immediately began to daven, as improbable as the chances were of there being many tzaddikim in Sedom. Yet, his concern for all of mankind led him to daven in a valiant attempt to prevent the judgment from being carried out. Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to use tefillah to try to prevent the ugly story from happening?

Perhaps the explanation is that at the root of the machlokes was jealousy. Korach was jealous of Moshe and Aharon, and he was upset that he wasn’t recognized for his greatness and given a position of leadership that he felt he deserved. Yaakov wanted it to be clear that this middah ra’ah was not traced back to him.

Jealousy is part of the teva with which Hashem created the world.

Back at the very onset of creation, the great luminaries, the sun and the moon, fell prey to jealousy. “Who will rule? Who will be bigger?” they questioned.

The upper waters and the lower waters got locked in an epic and enduring battle, each pining for Divine closeness at the expense of the other.

Jealousy is built into creation. It is part of nature.

Kayin encountered Hevel and revealed the most basic human emotion.

Man ventured forth into the world, interacting with other humans, engaging in commerce and conversation, and there were always undertones of jealousy, competition and rivalry.

Perhaps we can say that Yaakov didn’t feel worthy of davening for Hashem to change the teva ha’adam. It is a well-known rule that we are not mispallel to change teva (see Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amarim 10 and 33). Additionally, Yaakov was the av who declared, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.” The Gemara (Shabbos 32a) and Medrash Hagadol Toldos relate that Rabi Yanai said that a person should not stand in a dangerous place and say that a miracle will occur for him. Firstly, perhaps he won’t merit the miracle, and even if he does, it will diminish his zechuyos. Rabi Chonon adds that this is derived from Yaakov Avinu, who said, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.”

Yaakov felt that it would be fruitless for him to daven for Hashem to change the teva ha’adam. He felt that he could only daven that he shouldn’t be included in the rebellion that would ensue years later on account of jealousy, praying that the machlokes not be traced back to him.

Human nature is not always what we want it to be. Ki yeitzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. It requires much effort for man to break his inclinations and middos ra’os and make a mentch of himself.

It is the goal of the human experience to work to cultivate the G-dly and subjugate the animalistic instincts that combine to make us what we are. The word adam, says the Shela Hakadosh, hints at the potential, adameh le’elyon, and also the risks, adamah, the depths to which man can sink, like dirt.

There is one antidote, one tool, with which we can work, and that is the Torah. One who dedicates his life to the precepts of Torah can tame his human inclinations, such as the trait of jealousy and the propensity for machlokes. Torah has the ability to cure man of his pettiness and help him rise above societal ills.

Yaakov was an ish tom yosheiv ohalim. He was purified and cleansed by Torah and its mussar. Having devoted his energy and strength to rising above human frailties, he felt that the machlokes had no connection to him. He wanted to demonstrate that although teva dictates that human interactions lead people to be consumed by jealousy, the condition is not terminal, as one who is a yosheiv ohalim and works on himself to be subservient to the precepts of Torah until he becomes an ish tom can win these battles.

When Yaakov Avinu beheld Levi, he saw the unfortunate results of jealousy and rivalry, but he also saw something else: the lofty destiny of the shevet and the koach they possess to rise above it all. The fruition of this vision is found later in this week’s parsha.

The pesukim in perek 18 following the tragedy of Korach relate that Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells Aharon what to do to ensure that there won’t be another catastrophe such as the one that took place with Korach and his eidah. Hashem tells Aharon that he, the kohanim and shevet Levi, should be “shomer mishmeres” and then there will be no more “ketzef” on the Bnei Yisroel.

The posuk explains that Hashem separated the kohanim and Levi’im from the Bnei Yisroel. They will not engage in everyday commerce with the rest of the Jews. They will perform their work in the Temple of Hashem. They will do the avodah in the Ohel Moed and will receive no nachalah, portion, in Eretz Yisroel. Hashem will be their cheilek and nachalah.

To understand the correlation, we examine the famous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmittah V’Yovel (13:12-13). He explains that Levi did not receive any nachalah, because he was chosen to serve Hashem in the Mishkon to teach His righteous ways and laws to the rest of the people. Therefore, says the Rambam, they were separated – “huvdolu midarkei ha’olam.”

In other words, in order to ensure that there would never be another ketzef such as that which took place in the time of Korach, shevet Levi was separated and removed midarkei ha’olam, from the ways of the world. They refrained from engaging in regular daily business and interactions, because to do so would lead them to become jealous and argumentative. To prevent them from falling back into the teva of man which leads to jealousy and rivalry, allowing human failings to manifest themselves and cause ketzef, they would no longer engage in the type of human interaction that exposes mortal weaknesses.

From that point forward, the shevet Levi would be dedicated fully to Hashem’s work and would not be subject to the pressures which they were not able to overcome. A person can overcome issues that lead to machlokes and bitterness by dedicating himself to the avodah of Hashem and rising above mundane pursuits. By dedicating oneself to observing the precepts and teachings of the Torah in every field of human endeavor, man can rise above the subliminal earthiness that seeks his downfall.

Thus, the Rambam states in the following halacha that this mode of life is not only reserved for kohanim and Levi’im, but can be followed by anyone who sees the light and wishes to earn for himself a life of blessing and peace, walking a straight path and cleansing himself of human trivialities and foibles.

Korach was blinded and hindered by his negios. His desire for personal advancement grew out of his jealousy of Moshe and Aharon. He couldn’t rise above the teva. It seems strange to us, but he was able to convince all the great men of Klal Yisroel to join him in his rebellion. For it wasn’t only Korach who was subsumed by jealousy, but others as well. They all wanted the “big job.” Their vision was hampered as well, and they were unable to perceive Moshe’s greatness. Jealousy so clouded their vision, perception and understanding that they were unable to appreciate the significance of what happened to the meraglim, who had doubted Moshe. They weren’t able to rise above the teva of anoshim and thus brought ketzef upon themselves and others.

As we study the parsha, we have the benefit of hindsight, the clarity of Rashi’s lens, and the Rambam’s lucid perspective. We delve into the explanations of the tale and think about how such smart and righteous people could sin so terribly and err so badly. We learn the pesukim, the Rashis and the Rambam, and we resolve to become better bnei Torah, baalei mussar and anshei tom in order to rise above the middos ra’os that bring down lesser men.

All around us, we see people in positions of power and influence acting foolishly and blindly as they seek to advance their careers and their self-serving agendas.

In this country, there is currently an ongoing propaganda battle concerning a Supreme Court decision. Half of the country sees the decision as righting a wrong that was perpetrated half-a-century ago, when the court created a right where none existed to protect an action favored by progressives.

Democrats, in a desperate campaign to maintain control of the Congress and Senate, have seized upon the court decision, twisted the ruling, and presented it as “the realization of extreme ideology,” in the words of President Biden. They seek to convince the country that the ruling is an assault on people’s rights, though the majority opinion clearly states that it should not be viewed as jeopardizing recognized rights.

The Democrats think that if they can whip up people into a frenzy over the court’s ruling, that could overcome the administration’s debacle in Afghanistan, wasteful distribution of trillions of taxpayer dollars, raging inflation, an economic recession, increasing crime, an open border, doubts concerning the president’s mental acuity, and his sagging poll numbers.

Their negia for power causes them to perceive everything in a twisted fashion and seek to convince more than half of the country that their thinking is correct. The same politicians who are bashing the court and calling for mass protests are trying President Trump in a show trial for not properly respecting all branches of the government and complying with their rulings, as well as leading an insurrection against Congress. Their negios prevents them from seeing the incongruity.

Korach, motivated by his desire for honor, prestige and power, was able to mislead his many followers by peddling empty, disingenuous arguments. His follower, Ohn ben Peles, was famously saved from the fate of Adas Korach by his wife. When he came home enthralled by Korach’s arguments against Moshe, she did not engage in a debate with him. She didn’t try to refute what Korach had alleged. She didn’t bother with any of that. She had a much simpler way to steer her husband clear of the morass.

She said to him, “What will you gain by getting involved in this machlokes and following Korach? You won’t gain anything! You’ll be the same simple person with the same job and low position in life whether Moshe wins or Korach wins. Why are you jeopardizing your life and everything else for Korach?” She won the day and saved her husband’s life.

Now, if the dispute was over the issues that Korach had presented, of what use was her argument? Ohn should have responded to his wife and admonished her for her words. “How could you tell me to drop out of the campaign for Korach? Moshe is corrupt. He did this wrong and that wrong. The laws he presents don’t make any sense. This is a battle over ideology. First defend Moshe and then tell me to ditch Korach.”

But Ohn’s wife was a wise woman. She knew that at the root of Korach’s insurgency lay not halacha, and not hashkafah. Nor was it about fairness and integrity. It was about his negia, about jealousy. Everyone in Korach’s eidah, including her husband, was motivated by their negia, by jealousy over other people’s attainments. Therefore, she addressed his negia and not his intellectual arguments.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach would explain that the power of daas Torah is that those who possess it are free of negios. They have no personal investment in what they are called to rule upon. Their only negia is to the truth. They study Torah and are suffused by it, as the Torah overtakes them and transforms them. All their decisions and actions are guided by Torah. They are possessed by a love of Torah and Am Yisroel.

At the end of last week’s parsha, the pesukim (Bamidbar 15:31-41) discuss the mitzvah of tzitzis. We repeat them daily in davening, but perhaps we don’t always pay attention to what we are reciting. We say, “And you shall put tzitzis on the corners of your garments…and you will see them and remember all Hashem’s mitzvos and you will perform them and you will not be misled by your hearts and eyes which lead you to stray. [And you shall wear them] so that you will remember and perform Hashem’s mitzvos and you will be holy.”

Our hearts and eyes lead us to stray from the correct and moral path. It’s just a fact of life. That’s how we were created. The way to prevent ourselves from being misled by our hearts, which includes bad middos, among them jealousy as discussed prior, and our eyes, which cause us to sin when we allow them to view improper things, is by performing mitzvos and bringing kedusha into our lives.

This is not my interpretation; this is the simple meaning of the words. The antidote to chet, sin, is kedusha. To merit Hashem’s brachos, we need to seek to bring more kedusha into our lives and stay away from things that detract from kedusha. People rationalize and think they have good reasons for engaging in behavior that is antithetical to kedusha, but they are just excuses brought on by a negia to have a good time. We don’t need Ohn’s wife to teach us that. We should figure it out by ourselves and always seek to engage in actions that increase our kedusha and make us better people.



The Holy Count

    This week, in Parshas Emor, we encounter the mitzvah of counting seven weeks between when the Korban Omer is brought on the second

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated