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Parshat Korach

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

1. Eliminating Jealousy
2. A Place For Jealousy
3. Defusing Disputes

Eliminating Jealousy

I recently met a man of ninety-five who looked much younger than his age. I was so impressed by his physical and emotional energy that I could not resist asking him to reveal the secret of his longevity. Happy to oblige, the vigorous nonagenarian jumped out of his chair and excitedly started telling me his life principles. One of them had to do with jealousy and envy – highly appropriate for the story of Korach in this week’s parashah. The man declared that he would never look enviously at those who had more than him, but kept focused on those who had less. He explained that this kept him in good shape.

It turns out that the old man’s approach is hardly new. King Solomon wrote רקב עצמות קנאה – Envy causes rotting of the bones (Mishlei 14:30). The Talmud explains: If one has jealousy or competitiveness in his heart, his bones will “disintegrate”; that is, he will die before his time. This does not refer only to physical death but to nervous breakdowns and heart conditions as well.

There is another way of looking at the term עצמות which can offer us additional help in dealing with jealousy. עצמות also hints at עצמיות – independent and original character. When we are jealous, we are investing our emotional and intellectual energy in thoughts of what the other person has that we are lacking. By doing so, however, we lose out on improving our own original and independent character. As long as we are busy trying to write our own unique life story of success, thoughts of jealousy will not have room to dance in our brain. But if we see ourselves as merely part of a group, without a unique identity, we will start measuring our success against that of others. Indeed, the Mishnah in Avot (4:21) says:הקנאה התאווה והכבוד מוציאין את האדם מן העולם – jealousy, materialistic desires, and the pursuit of honor all take a person out of the world. A common understanding of this Mishna is that these negative traits can cause one to lose one’s footing in the “social world” that he is in. The Alter of Kelm here explains this quite differently. He says that this mishna is referring to a person’s own unique world and identity. By being busy with what others have or by constantly pursuing honor and pleasure, a person loses out on his own successes and ignores the goals and ambitions that are important to him.

There is yet another source of jealousy, which we can deal with more effectively once we are aware of it. As one insightful rabbi put it: Jealousy often stems from a feeling that something belonging to me was taken away. Hence the word קנאה (jealousy) is very similar to the word קנין (ownership). This feeling is common among siblings. Sibling jealousy can be unusually strong also because siblings perceive themselves as having started off in more or less the same situation or circumstances. Jealousy is much stronger when someone who started off in a similar situation as us gets “ahead of the game” or receives things easily that took us great effort to achieve. As long as we feel that we are in the same boat as the object of our jealousy, we will not be able to free ourselves from jealousy.

There is another mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:5) that can help us defuse feelings of jealousy. There we learn that in the Beit Hamikdash:עומדים צפופים ומשתחוים רווחים – When the people stood, they were squashed together. But when they bowed down on their hands and knees, they all had plenty of room. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains that if one believes that his attainments result from his own power and strength – depicted here as standing – he will feel that he should be getting much more for his actions and efforts. This haughtiness prevents him from fully recognizing anyone else’s rights to the world in which he lives. Ultimately, this causes him to feel squashed by the other person, whom he perceives as interfering in his world. Furthermore, he comes to feel that what he lacks, but sees in the possession of others, has somehow been taken from him . But when he bows down in the Beit Hamikdash and acknowledges that what he gets is ultimately from G-d, he does not feel that the world is his, but rather that there is room for everyone and their successes – and that no-one is taking anything away from him.

Still another method for defusing jealousy is to meditate on the special way in which the Torah prohibits it in the Ten Commandments .
(שמות כ:יד)
לא תחמוד בית רעיך וכו’ אשת רעך ועבדו ואמתו ושורו וחמרו וכל אשר לרעך
You shall not covet your friend’s house ,wife, servant, maidservant, ox, donkey and all that your friend has.” If the Torah already spelled out a whole list of things belonging to others that we are not to covet, why then does it need to add a seemingly unnecessary repetition: all that your friend has?

The all includes their hardships and problems as well. If everyone were to put their lot in one corner of the room, including all the good things they have in life as well as all their hardships and problems – everyone would pick their own pekel (lot). No-one has it all good. If you are jealous of the good things someone else has in life, keep in mind that you are overlooking the difficulties that go along with them. Indeed, we are sometimes jealous of the other person’s spiritual or monetary wealth, and ask ourselves why we do not also have their success. But we fail to take into account all the hours of work ,tension, risks, sacrifices etc. that the one jealous of went through.

As the jocular saying goes: Jealousy is all the fun you think the other guy is having. In fact, a happy and jealousy-free life is up to each and every one of us. It does not have to do with how much we have or don’t have, but rather how appreciative we really are for what we do have.

The story is told of a group of philanthropists being given a tour of a certain mental hospital. Trying to get support for his important institution, the owner first took them to a room in which the poor patient was banging his head on the padded wall, moaning “Sally! Sally! Sally!” One philanthropist asked for background. The hospital owner sighed and related the following: In his youth, this man had been hoping to marry a beautiful girl by the name of Sally. To his utter shock and dismay, his best friend beat him to it. Ever since, the man has had no rest, feeling that his world was robbed from him.” The wealthy man also sighed as they closed the door and move on to the next room. Upon opening the next door on the corridor, they heard a man inside banging a plate on his head. Strangely, this patient was also groaning “Sally! Sally! Sally!” The philanthropist asked the owner “did this man also want to marry Sally before someone beat him to it?” The owner responded: “No, much worse. This man married Sally, but she died several months after the wedding.”

A Place For Jealousy

There is a common question that serious yeshiva students ponder. Concerning Torah learning, the Sages actually praise “jealousy.” They tell us that jealousy of other scholars’ knowledge will aid us in gaining wisdom:קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה (Bava B. 21a). Unfortunately, though, some students misuse this motivational tool. When they see others more successful than themselves in learning, it gives them feelings of failure and negative jealousy. How can a student know that his jealousy is proper, and that he is growing from it? Must he learn with this motivation until he discovers if his jealousy is indeed the positive קנאת סופרים recommended by the Sages? And how can any jealousy even קנאת סופרים be so positive to the degree that it is a recommended motivation technique?

The answer here is twofold. The prohibition against jealously and coveting something belonging to another person applies only if you want the item itself – as opposed to wanting something similar. It is therefore prohibited, for example, to want another person’s house, but not a house like his.
(See רבינו אברהם בן הרמב”ם עה”ת – יתרו)The student who is jealous of his friend’s wisdom is only acting properly if he wants wisdom that is attainable. If, however, he is jealous of his friend’s stature, which he attained through his knowledge – this is forbidden. Another condition of forbidden jealousy that is absent in קנאת סופרים is that in the forbidden jealousy the jealous one is pained by the possession of the one he is jealous from. By proper and effective קנאת סופרים the student that is jealous of his fellow scholar is not less than happy that his fellow has knowledge than he is wanting to gain the knowledge that he wills to attain.

Ultimately, there is a clear litmus test: The “jealousy of the scholars” imbues me not only with a desire to have what the other person has, but also with happiness that he has already achieved what I still lack.

Defusing Disputes

After their very first disagreement, many newlyweds wonder if they really were meant for each other. For some couples, this disagreement can take place on their first Shabbat alone. Sooner or later, of course, it happens in every marriage. A newlywed who has had proper guidance from a competent mentor will be able to avoid grave mistakes when that first (or subsequent) disagreement happens, and keep things from getting out of hand.

Busy schedules often prevent couples from discussing their differences of opinion until late in the evening. This is a mistake. Because the mind is tired by then, and not functioning with clarity, this is a perfect recipe for a blowout. As a rule of thumb, it is best not to speak about issues in dispute after ten o’clock at night. Doing so can also risk going to sleep angry which will start the next day on the wrong side of the bed. No harm will be done by putting off the discussion until tomorrow. With a mind fresh and clear, one of the parties often realizes that the issue was trivial, or that the other spouse’s point of view is legitimate.

Of course, having differences of opinion with a spouse is not necessarily a bad thing. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, for example, would have long discussions – even disagreements – with his beloved wife about life values and principles. Through them, he benefited by sharpening and clarifying his own views. After her passing he mourned her greatly.

If disagreements and disputes can have a positive role to play in Jewish life, how are we to know which ones are productive, and which ones to stay away from? Indeed, how can we turn our differences of opinion and opposite points of views into something that is actually positive and productive? The secret of serenity is to be found in Pirkei Avot:

Any disagreement that isלשם שמים (for the sake of Heaven) will endure – but if it is not לשם שמים , it will not. What is a disagreement that is לשם שמים ? – one like that of Hillel and Shamai. What is a disagreement that is not לשם שמים ? – one like that of Korach and all his followers. (5:17)

As the Bartenurah explains, the disagreement between Hillel and Shamai was for the purpose of gaining knowledge of the truth – which they ultimately achieved. In contrast, Korach’s dispute with Moshe was an attempt to attain honor and power. In the end, it backfired, causing the opposite effect. Awareness of these two very different motives can help us when we analyze any dispute, as we shall soon see.

Korach approached Moshe with the following two questions:
* How can it be that an all blue (tchelet), four cornered garment still needs to have tzitzit (tchelet strings) and the whole garment being tchelet alone without strings does not yet suffice?
* How can a room filled with Torah scrolls need a mezuzah on the door if the Torah scrolls themselves contain the parshiot of the mezuzah?

Korach tried to use the power of these two questions to undermine Moshe’s credibility in the eyes of the nation. Let us try to appreciate why Moshe did not feel that he should answer these questions. Moshe understood that they were not really intended as questions, but rather as a re-statement of Korach’s basic argument: ” ‘כל העם כולם קדושים ולמה תתנשאו על קהל ה ” – all of G-d’s Nation are holy, so why are you (Moshe and Aharon) behaving self-importantly over G-d’s Nation? The questions about the tzizit and the mezuzah stem from the same perspective: Does a nation where everyone is so high and close to G-d on a personal level need a representative of G-d?

As noted above, there are two types of disagreements. One type of disagreement is where the two parties are arguing to clarify a subject, all the while showing mutual respect and not allowing self-pride to get in the way. This type of disagreement has great value because it helps us clarify things that are important to us. The more important the subject, the more synergy is created. This is how Shamai and Hillel, who loved each other very much, would argue heatedly over Torah subjects that they valued more than anything on earth. Today, yeshiva study partners attempt to re-enact these disagreements while in the Beit Medrash – without mixing in any self-pride or personal element. But if the ego is unleashed by one chevruta, the other one may quickly become defensive – and sometimes even offensive.

Korach’s questions were more about the validity of Moshe than about the matters Korach was ostensibly addressing. Moshe felt the ulterior motives behind the questions, and realized that if he answered them, other questions would quickly surface in their place. When ego is at stake in a disagreement, the matter being discussed does not endure because clarification can not be achieved.

Instead of arguing back, Moshe fell on his face. He did not want to be part of this disagreement. Hence, the mishnah we are discussing does not even mention Moshe, but speaks rather about the disagreement (לא לשם שמים) of Korach and his followers. Moshe responded to Korach only from a perspective that was”לשם שמים” .

Whenever we feel affronted or slighted, we can learn from Moshe’s shining example not to unleash our ego and respond. Rather, we should ask ourselves: “How does G-d want me to respond?”

Shabbat Shalom
yosefarhi@gmail.com

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

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