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Korach 5781: Might Not Always Right

Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! One of life’s most challenging and ongoing struggles is trying to find the balance between one’s wants and needs. A person’s basic needs for survival are water, food, shelter, and clothing.

(I would like to pause here to point out that much of the world’s population – estimates range from about a billion to 2.5 billion – does not have regular access to safe drinking water. In addition, almost 25% of the world doesn’t have access to basic sanitation and 25% of people are plagued with moderate to severe food insecurity. So when we consider our daily personal issues, we should also be keenly aware of all our blessings.)

For those who aren’t struggling to obtain basic needs, there may be a challenge in recognizing the difference between a desired item and a necessity. An argument can certainly be made that a person NEEDS a car to work, shop, receive medical attention, etc. But does that person NEED to have a top of the line car like the McLaren 600 LT? Not so much.

(Many years ago I went to see a very wealthy individual in Canada and I was picked up from the airport in his brand new Rolls Royce Silver Shadow convertible. It was a chilly day so the top was up and for some reason my head kept rubbing against the top of the car and knocking off my Yarmulke. I spent most of the ride marveling how I was more comfortable in my Toyota Camry than in that $300,000 car.)

Still, even from a young age we all seem to be internally driven to desire expensive homes, cars, clothing, and jewelry. However, in truth, this impulse to want and have is not necessarily a bad thing.

This discussion reminds me of the joke about the man who had no desire to have or do anything so he went to seek treatment from a psychiatrist. The Freudian psychiatrist said to him, “Before I treat you I will need to see some id.”

In Judaism, this basic drive to fulfill one’s desires, whatever they may be, is characterized as the yetzer hora – the “evil inclination.” One may think from seeing the word “evil” that this “yetzer hora” is something that we ought to excise from our lives, but this is simply not so.

The Talmud makes an illuminating statement (Kiddushin 30b): “The Almighty said to the Nation of Israel, ‘I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as an antidote.’” This passage implies that first God created the yetzer hora and then He created the Torah to counteract it. That statement requires some explanation, however, it also reveals a deeper concept.

The word that the Talmud uses for “antidote” is tavlin; the word tavlin literally translates to “spice.” Thus, the Talmud’s statement is that the Torah is a really just a spice for the yetzer hora! This is quite an astonishing concept. But what does it really mean?

The basis of the entirety of creation is to give a person the ultimate benefit; the greatest good possible. Thus, at the core of our beings, we are hardwired to desire benefit. In order for man to feel good about this benefit (and not like we are receiving charity) the Almighty created a system by which we have the ability to earn His intended benefit for us. This is the system of Free Will – every person has the ability to choose to do right or wrong. Based on the choices we make we can earn (or lose) God’s intended benefit.

Thus, a person’s internal desire to receive benefit is the key to the entirety of creation. This is not always selfish; we often desire to do altruistic acts because we innately feel it is the right thing to do. But even altruistic acts can translate into personal benefit, as we have discussed in prior editions.

In another remarkable passage, the Talmud records (Yoma 69b) that the sages of 2500 years ago wanted to eliminate the evil inclination, who (personified) then countered with: “Realize that if you kill me the world is finished.” They actually succeeded to hold the yetzer hora captive for three days, and during that time not even a chicken laid an egg throughout the land. They quickly realized that all motivation to do or accomplish ANYTHING stems from the yetzer hora. So they let it go.

Hence, it’s rather clear that the yetzer hora is the key to creation, but as the Talmud states, the evil inclination on its own is rather meaningless. That doesn’t mean it isn’t substantive, as the Talmud expresses: it’s simply tasteless (think tofu). Without the proper “spice” (i.e. the Torah) the desires of the evil inclination would ultimately be very unsatisfying.

Consequently, the Torah is our “Owner’s Manual” for guiding us through the mazes and complex intricacies of our desires. The Torah tells us what to pursue and what to abandon. In this way, the Torah leads us to the most meaningful path that – should we follow it – would allow us to make the utmost of our lives.

Unfortunately, sometimes our desires – even those permitted by the Torah – confound us and obscure the proper path. I believe a good litmus test as to whether or not something is really a worthwhile desire is to begin by asking whether or not this impulse is being driven by ego.

For example, “Am I buying a Patek Philippe watch because I really appreciate the aesthetics and flawless timekeeping or because I want others to see that I have ‘arrived’?” A truly honest answer will help guide you in making the right decision. Obviously, there are many nuances and complexities understanding the ins and outs of desires, but I believe that identifying where our ego fits into the equation is a good place to start.

In this week’s Torah reading, we have a perfect illustration of someone whose ego and jealously led him (and many others) down a path of destruction. This week’s Torah portion is named Korach after Moses’ cousin who, according to our sages, was annoyed at being passed over for the position of high priest.

Korach, it must be noted, was sage of the highest caliber; a person who was highly regarded for both his wisdom and erudition. He was also fabulously wealthy and had communal status. Nevertheless, he couldn’t simply say, “I am angry that I was passed over for a prestigious position” or “I am jealous;” instead he decided to lead a mutiny against Moses for the perceived impropriety of nepotism – for Moses had appointed his brother Aaron the position of kohen gadol, the high priest.

Korach’s contention was that Moses had appointed his brother Aaron on his own and that he hadn’t been told by God to appoint him. He actually succeeded in convincing a few hundred people that Aaron should not be the only one to serve as the high priest. Moses was greatly distressed by this claim of inappropriate bias and the subsequent mutiny. He devised a test as only the worthy could bring an incense offering. Long story short: good guys won, bad guys lost (i.e. Korach and his mutinous cronies die a gruesome death and Aaron retained the title).

Rashi (Numbers 16:7) rather bluntly asks a very pointed question: What caused Korach, who was a very clever person, to engage in such stupidity? Meaning, Korach knew the veracity of Moses’ claim that Aaron had been appointed by Hashem. He knew that he was wrong and that he was putting his life at risk by challenging Moses. How could Korach, who was actually a very wise man, engage in such folly?

Rashi answers that Korach saw prophetically that the prophet Samuel would be one of his descendants. According the Talmud (Ta’anis 5b) Samuel was, in some sense, equal in greatness to both Moses and Aaron. In addition, he saw that he would have descendants who would serve in the future Temple. Therefore, when Moses said that only one of the people who brought the incense would survive, Korach automatically assumed that it would be him.  Alas, he was mistaken; he didn’t realize that his children would repent and actually live – and it was from them that these great people later emerged.

But Rashi ends his comment with a curious remark; “but Moses did see properly.” That is to say, even though Moses also saw the greatness that would eventually descend from Korach, he knew that it would come from Korach’s children. What could Rashi possibly mean? After all Moses knew that he was in the right because the Almighty had asked him to appoint Aaron and therefore he wasn’t guilty of nepotism. What difference does it make that “Moses did see properly”?

Rashi is telling us that even though Moses knew that Korach was in the wrong and that he deserved to die for his terrible insubordination and challenge to Moses’ authority, the only reason Moses felt comfortable in pursuing this course of action was because he knew that Korach’s future descendants would be unaffected by Korach’s untimely death.

This teaches us an incredible lesson regarding conflict and its consequences: Even when you know you’re right and you have the power to enforce your vision of what you deem to be right, you have to take a long and hard look at the consequences of your actions. Being in the right doesn’t give one carte blanche to impose that position. Every possible eventuality must be considered before implementing one’s agenda; even when it’s a righteous one.

Whether one is a hard line conservative or a far left liberal, no agenda should ever be implemented until all the consequences of one’s actions are fully considered. As we see, Moses wouldn’t execute someone who absolutely deserved to die unless he saw that the future would remain unchanged.

Torah Portion of the Week

Korach, Numbers 16:1 - 18:32

There are two rebellions this week. First, Korach, a Levite, is passed over for the leadership of his tribe and challenges Moses over the position of high priest. No good rebellion can be “sold” as a means for personal gain, so Korach convinces 250 men of renown that they must stand up for a matter of principle – that each and every one of them has the right to the office of high priest (which Moses had announced that God had already designated his brother, Aaron, to serve).

Fascinatingly, all 250 followers of Korach accept Moses’ challenge to bring an offering of incense to see who God will choose to fill the one position. This meant that every man figured he would be the one out of 250 to not only be chosen, but to survive the ordeal. Moses announces that if the earth splits and swallows up the rebels it is a sign that he (Moses) is acting on God's authority. And thus it happened!

The next day, the entire Israelite community rises in a second rebellion and complains to Moses, “You have killed God's people!” The Almighty brings a plague that kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aaron offers an incense offering.

To settle the question once and for all, Moses has the head of each tribe bring a staff with his name on it. The next morning only Aaron's staff had blossomed and brought forth almonds. The people were shown this sign. Aaron's staff was placed in front of the curtain of the ark as testimony for all time.

Candle Lighting Times

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
 Abraham Lincoln
Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Edward Grodsky



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