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Envy and Foolishness

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )


When one reads the account of Korach's rebellion (Numbers 16:1-35), one is astounded by the incident. Not only was Moses the one who led the Jews from Egypt, but all the Israelites were eyewitnesses to the many miracles that were wrought through him. They saw him wave his staff over the Reed Sea, causing the waters to divide. There could be no doubt that he was commissioned by God to be the leader. How could anyone question the authenticity of Moses' leadership? It simply defies all logic.

Rashi quotes the Midrash which raises this question: How could Korach, a wise and learned person, act so foolishly? The Midrash answers that Moses had appointed another Levite to be leader of the tribe of Levi, and Korach was envious of this.

Yet, this does not fully answer the question. Can envy so deprive a person of logical thinking that one would deny the evidence of one's own eyes?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar 5731:21) helps us understand this. He cites the Talmudic statement, “Envy, lust and pursuit of acclaim remove a person from the world” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28). The expression “remove a person from the world” is rather strange. Rabbi Shmulevitz explains that the usual deviation from proper behavior is a very gradual one. The Talmud says that the tactic of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, is to seduce a person to commit a very minor infraction, then lead him on to progressively more serious transgressions (Shabbos 108b). That is the nature and order of the world. The yetzer hara will not entice a person into doing something patently absurd.

However, if a person is overtaken by envy, one escapes the natural order of the world. One is no longer bound by logic. The passion of envy can be so great that it can overwhelm all rational thought, and leave one vulnerable to the yetzer hara's seduction to behave in the most irrational manner. Envy indeed removes a person from the natural order of the world.

That is what happened with Korach. Moses understood this, and delayed the trial until the next day (see Rashi to Numbers 16:5).

The Korach episode conveys a most important teaching. We are all vulnerable to envy, and envy is not a difficult emotion to identify. If you feel yourself being envious, do nothing for a while. Envy can suspend all logical thinking and make one do things that one will regret.

If you feel envious, ventilate your feelings to a friend or write them down. Read one of the ethical works about envy. This will help you realize that envy is a futile and destructive feeling. Before doing anything foolish that may be a reaction to your envy, seek the counsel of a friend or mentor. You may avoid making serious mistakes.

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