Friday, May 24, 2024

Staying Grounded

Parshas Korach is one of the most examined and talked about parshiyos in the Torah. Jews over the centuries have tried to come to grips with the motivations of this once-great man born into one of the princely families of Klal Yisroel who seemed to have everything going for him, until he went up against Moshe Rabbeinu.

Rashi notes (16:1), “Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes,”this parsha lends itself to fine homiletic interpretations. It is also relevant to each subsequent generation, for its lessons impact us and our lives.

What possessed Korach? “Korach shepikeiach hayah, mah ra’ah leshtus zu?” This question still troubles us: Why did he do it? What was he thinking?

Oftentimes, we look at decisions made by others and wonder what they were thinking and how they could have chosen a particular course of action. How could they have failed to see what was plainly obvious to any objective observer?

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Situations change and people change along with them. People who succeed start believing that they are responsible for their own success and, as a result, their self-image changes.

Anyone who seeks self-improvement and studies mussar knows that the first rule of ethics is not to become haughty. The Rosh, in his sefer Orchos Chaim, composed of 155 rules of proper conduct, lists the following as number one: “Lehisracheik min hagaavah betachlis harichuk. Stay as far away as you can from haughtiness.”

The opening chapters of mussar sefer Orchos Tzaddikim pertain to the pitfalls of haughtiness and the importance of humility.

We have often seen it happen. Someone we know receives a new position, achieves success, and becomes influential. As he grows in the job and gets more comfortable, he becomes consumed with self-importance. He begins taking himself seriously. And with that comes a certain sense of him being holier than thou, better than everyone else. He begins looking down at people and looking at himself with exaggerated self-importance.

His arrogance leads him to lose touch with everyone around him, whom he views as small people. He becomes aloof and absorbed with his image, feeding his own sense of superiority. As time goes on, he distances himself from people he knew in his previous life, for they don’t appreciate his greatness.

That man is Korach. And that was his downfall. 

He was a child of a princely family. He had his work as an eved Hashem cut out for him. He achieved success and became consumed with self-importance. As he saw his cousins rising higher, he began to lose sight of his goal. He held public rallies, addressing his relatives and saying to them, “I also want to serve Hashem the way you do. I am just as qualified as you are.”

He insisted that his campaign wasn’t about him, although of course it was. He wasn’t content to be a “normal guy” anymore. Once he sniffed out nesius, kehunah, and positions of influence and prestige, he felt that they should be his.

He drifted further from reality, and as time passed, he grew increasingly distant from the people around him, becoming consumed by his aspirations.

We know this phenomenon well. We see it occur too often. Thus, parsha zu is yafeh nidreshes. It can be repeatedly explored and examined for its lessons of enduring significance.

Korach carried the aron and possessed ruach hakodesh. He was a holy person, highly qualified for many positions, but he began to believe in himself and failed to take heed of Hillel’s teaching in Pirkei Avos (2:4). The humble Hillel taught, “Al ta’amin b’atzmecha ad yom moscha – Don’t believe in yourself until your last day on this world.” Don’t think that you have conquered all. Don’t think that you are better than everyone. Remember that the yeitzer hora is ever-present, seeking to take advantage of your weaknesses to cause you to stumble, fail and sin.

The appetite for leadership positions is an outgrowth of insufficient humility coupled with a lack of belief in Hashem. One who is immersed in Torah and maasim tovim, and reinforces himself with mussar study, doesn’t crave attention and praise from the masses, for he knows that mortal praise and adulation are fleeting and usually self-serving. The eternal accolades are those that he aims for. Hashem has the ability to reward him for his actions and to properly respect him and his actions.

He is happy learning in his corner until Hashgocha declares that it is time for him to venture out of his daled amos and into communal leadership and responsibility. So many of our recent rabbinic leaders were people who shunned recognition and publicity.

The Chazon Ish studied alone in the Vilna shul, his greatness known only to a few individuals and people who had to know, such as Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. When he moved to Eretz Yisroel, where there was a dearth of talmidei chachomim and manhigim at the time, Rav Chaim Ozer declared that it was time to reveal the secret, and the Chazon Ish took a leading role in establishing the Israeli Torah community as we now know it.

Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach was known as a batlan whose life revolved around Torah, his shiurim and his talmidim. When the passing of numerous Torah leaders left a tremendous void, the man who knew only Torah stepped out of his zone of comfort and, in his older years, led the generation to unprecedented heights.

When Rav Shach felt his strength ebbing after he passed the century mark, he turned to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, another batlan whose life revolved strictly around his learning, and forced upon him the mantle of leadership.

Torah leaders belong to the people. They don’t look over their shoulders to ensure that they have the crowds. They love Hashem, His Torah, and His children. They are approachable and sensitive, because they really do care. They operate on a higher plane and answer to a higher authority.

In 1973, there were contentious elections for the positions of Israeli chief rabbi. After Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren made it clear that political calculations would take precedence over halacha, the Torah leadership decided to act. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Betzalel Zolty and others tapped Rav Ovadia Yosef to run for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi and thus save the rabbanut from a hostile takeover. At an emergency meeting in Rav Elyashiv’s sukkah, the relatively young Chacham Ovadiah was informed that he had been selected as a candidate. He was hesitant. With the government and authorities lined up behind the other candidate, there was virtually no chance that he could win. Only two weeks remained before the election, yet, in deference to Rav Elyashiv, Chacham Ovadiah agreed and announced his candidacy.

Rav Yosef continued his regular schedule of shiurim and writing teshuvos, refusing to hit the campaign trail. When askonim warned him that it appeared that he did have many votes from the members of the voting committee, he replied, “I only need one vote, that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”

Our leaders are not people who seek the top positions and feel comfortable there. Rather, they are giants who shun the limelight and closet themselves with Hashem and the Gemara for decades of almost reclusive growth.

For all outward appearances, our past leaders, like our present ones, were like everyone else. They didn’t carry themselves differently. They stood among the people in the bais medrash without airs, never demanding any special recognition.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet we ever had, the greatest leader our people has known, was “onov mikol adam, the humblest of men” (Bamidbor 12:3). He knew of his greatness and connection with the Creator, but he never forgot that he was a yelud adam, a mortal person.

We all have to learn to remain grounded, connected to our family and friends, never losing sight of our common frailty. We are all just people. We should be careful not to get carried away with ourselves.

A prominent gaon, one of the most brilliant Litvishe mechabrei seforim, suffered a life of hardship and oppression. In his later years, he revealed the reason for his troubles. He said that he was cursed by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor.

He related that as a young man, he found himself in Vilna at a large rabbinic levayah and was asked to speak. During his hesped, he involved himself in a local dispute. Later, he traveled to Kovno and went to see the gadol hador, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon. The senior rov of Lita told him that a young person such as himself should not have gotten involved in a local dispute.

Being young and somewhat brash, the brilliant talmid chochom answered the Kovno Rov, “I know Bavli as well as you do. I know Yerushalmi better than you. I am entitled to express my opinion.”

Rav Yitzchok Elchonon looked at him and said, “If that is the case, going on this path will mean that you will have no peace your entire life.”

Although the rov interpreted it as a curse, it may be that Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was simply giving him advice for life. If you want peace in life, if you want to be happy, then you must be able to grow without becoming haughty. Peace of mind comes about from being cognizant of your proper place and role in this world. Proficiency in Shas is not a license to act rashly and brashly. The risks presented by haughtiness are as dangerous for you as for a person not as blessed as you.

To ignore that is to risk losing touch with what makes life rich: friends, family and the peace of mind that comes to a person who isn’t occupied with self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Haughty people run the risk of missing out on the contentment of those who act properly, rise in their spheres, and, when successful, remain aware of where they came from and where they are headed.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was speaking to his talmidim and wanted to teach them a lesson in humility. He said that he was planning to stop accepting kibbudim at weddings. The rosh yeshiva smilingly described what went through his mind at wedding celebrations. “First, I spend a whole evening nervous about which brocha they’ll give me. Then, when they finally call my name, I am nervous about them getting my name and title correctly. Then, when all that is done and I am under the chupah about to recite the brocha, I notice two people outside shmoozing. They don’t even see that I’m getting a brocha, so the whole thing isn’t worth it.”

Tongue-in-cheek as it was, it was a powerful lesson from a rebbi to his talmidim, teaching them to maintain perspective.

You can’t live your life for fleeting honor or you will always be let down in the end. You can’t live your life based on how other people will react. You have to act properly and responsibly, bringing contentment to yourself and those around you.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky was seated at a wedding. The waiter circulated, asking the assembled guests whether they preferred a fish or meat main course. Some chose fish to demonstrate a higher fidelity to the laws of kashrus, but when the waiter came to Rav Yaakov, he smiled and asked for the meat plate. He joked that the choice was between ta’ava and kavod. Ta’ava won.

Greatness isn’t the absence of normalcy, but the ability to admit to being human.

Rav Yaakov’s son, Rav Shmuel, embodies this ability. The rosh yeshiva exudes a sense of being able to relate to everyone, understanding all sorts of problems and situations, and using humor and gentle self-awareness to lead.

Our ultimate leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was also the greatest onov, because there is no better way to understand and direct people than through true humility.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky once arrived early at an office for a meeting. The rosh yeshiva noticed that a Daf Yomi shiur wasbeinggiven by Professor R’ Michel Schiffenbauer, who was his talmid years ago at Yeshiva of Philadelphia. He pulled up a chair and joined the staffers, along with various professionals who work in the neighborhood. In doing so, he gave a shiur of his own about what it means to stay normal, relatable and humble.

Korach utilized propaganda and demagoguery to further a personal vendetta. He threw the entire nation into turmoil merely to realize a personal ambition. A great and blessed man, he wasn’t satisfied with his position in life. He was consumed by visions of his own self-importance. He was blinded by his jealousy of the two brothers who redeemed the people fromMitzrayimand led them through the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel.

This week’s parsha is as relevant today as ever before. Each generation has those who lead, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, with Torah leadership.

There have always been those who saw it as their mission to rise up against gedolei Torah, seeking to minimize their greatness in the eyes of the masses in order to promote a personal agenda. Leadership is a tenuous position, requiring the leader to be respected and revered by the community he leads so that they may follow him.

Modern politics is all about portraying an image of being relevant. Remaining in power means being able to reach the people and maintain their confidence. People are fed up with the status quo, having those in power dictating their futures and ruling without care of repercussions on the lives of their constituents.

People want leaders who will help them, listen to them, and really care about them. They want a positive, bright future for themselves and their children. They want opportunity, jobs, good schools, fairness and justice. They want bullies punished, molesters put away, victims healed, and every child, smart or not, given a chance to make something of themselves.

Korach may have been a pikeiach, but he didn’t have the temperament or inclination to heed those who said, “You’re acting like a fool.”

Perhaps this is why the parsha contrasts the fate of Korach with that of Oin ben Peles, whose wife saved him. By correctly diagnosing Korach’s motivation, she told her husband that he would be a back-bencher even were Korach to beat Moshe and Aharon. The wise woman told her husband, “You’re going to remain a nothing regardless, so why get involved?”

It probably hurt him to hear what she said, but he knew that she was the classic good wife. In fact, Chazal were referring to her when they taught, “Chochmas noshim bonsah beisah.” Chochmah is predicated upon being honest and straightforward.

If you have a spouse, sibling or good friend who tells it to you the way it is, cherish him or her. Listen, because they will keep you sane.

Reb Meir Simcha Chein, a wealthy chossid, built a nice house. At its center sat a massive, ornate dining room table, suitable for royalty.

Shortly after he moved in, fellow chassidim and friends went to the house for a fabrengen. One chossid took a knife and made a scratch on the new table.

“Why did you do that?” Reb Meir Simcha inquired.

“Because this way,” the chossid said, “the chassidim won’t be afraid to celebrate around it.”

Reb Meir Simcha, appreciating the depth of the answer, and the loyalty and friendship beneath the words, embraced his dear friend.

Let’s never forget who we are or where we come from. Never become distant and aloof.

Being “one of the boys” takes work, and no one is so important to be better than anyone else. Make sure your friends aren’t afraid to dance on your table.

Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Let’s probe it repeatedly, keeping ourselves far away from haughtiness and conceit.

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was asked to give a mussar talk to a gathering of moros, Bais Yaakov teachers.

“Me?” he reacted with surprise, “I should speak to them? I should give them mussar? These are women who are up late at night preparing their classes, then tending to their children early in the morning. When they finally dress and give their children breakfast and get them off to school, they hurry off to teach. Six hours later, after a long morning of teaching, answering, speaking and inspiring Yiddishe techter to Torah and yiras Shomayim, they rush home, where ‘di pitzkalech varten, the children wait for them eagerly. If they want to rest, the children don’t let. Yes, they deserve chizuk, but I certainly can’t give them mussar.”

Parsha zu yafeh nidreshes. Know your place and remain humble.

Every person has his own unique contribution to make. As Korach rightly said, “Kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim.” Every individual is holy. Yet, he attempted to go where he didn’t belong.

Each plant requires a certain amount of sunlight and water. Similarly, every Jew has an area in which he can flower, prosper and contribute to the betterment of mankind.

Klal Yisroel is like a luscious landscape, loaded with various plants and flowers. There are tall and mighty trees alongside willowy shrubbery. There are tall grasses and short ones, flowering bushes and evergreens, side by side. Each one is different, but together they form a remarkable garden.

Reprinted from July 8, 2016.



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