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Parashat Korach 5774 — 06/18/2014

Parashat Korach 5774 — 06/18/2014

Why are you raising yourselves above the congregation of Hashem? (Bamidbar 16:3)

[Envy comes in two forms.] You can find a person who is envious of his neighbor simply because his neighbor has wealth or other possessions. Not that the envious one wants these things for himself. No, he simply wants to deny the good to others. It incenses him that others are fortunate. You can also find a person who is envious of his neighbor because he, too, wants to enjoy the same blessings that his neighbor enjoys.

   Korach and his followers exhibited envy of Moshe and Aharon envy of the first and more shameful type. The Torah publicizes this by quoting their complaint, “Why are you raising yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?” Rashi explains that the complaint was that Moshe and Aharon had usurped too much power.

   Envy (jealousy) is one of the worst character traits that a person can have, and it behooves us to distance ourselves from this trait to the greatest extent possible, as it is written, Envy [causes] rotting of the bones (Mishlei 14:30).  This is so even regarding the second type of envy, but the type of envy displayed by Korach and his followers is sevety times worse – as we can see by looking at their fate. (Chafetz Chaim)

There is even someone whose foolishness is so great that if he sees his fellow enjoying any good, he becomes distraught and worries and is pained, until he can’t even enjoy the good that he does possess… (Mesillat Yesharim, Ch. 11)

Thou shalt not covet (Ex 20:17, Deut 5:21)

The famous question on the 10th commandment is: It is understandable that Gd can prohibit us from performng certain actions.  We have control over our actions, and we can refrain from a specific action if we decide to obey Gd’s commands.  But we have much less control over our thoughts.  If I am poor and chronically hungry, and I pass by the window of a fine restaurant and see the fancy people eating and drinking delicious foods and fine wines, how am I to avoid feeling a pang of envy and wishing that I were on the inside of that restaurant rather than on the outside?

The famous answer given by Ibn Ezra (12th century CE) goes as follows.  First, nobody seriously desires that which it is impossible for anyone to have.  A peasant doesn’t desire to marry a princess; he knows she’s completely out of reach.  Second, and this is the major point of the argument, we have to understand that each of us is put on this earth by Gd for a specific purpose, unique to each individual, and is given the tools appropriate to completing that mission.  Since no two missions are identical (even for identical twins!), no two people get exactly the same set of tools.  The tools I was given will help me complete my mission, but will not help you complete yours, and vice versa.  Ibn Ezra tells us that we must train ourselves to see (and not just intellectually understand) other people’s property as something that it is impossible for us to have, or at least to get any kind of blessing from.  When that happens, point one will snuff out any desire we have for someone else’s “stuff'” before it even arises in our minds.

What comes out of this consideration is that envy is not just a bad character trait, it is a theological problem of major significance.  It is nothing less than a substitution of our own sense of what is right for Gd’s Knowledge, and that is a kind of arrogance that, looked at logically, is quite astounding!

Furthermore, as Mesillat Yesharim points out, it is an extremely poor life strategy.  Envy does not gain you anything, nor does it cost the object of your envy anything.  All it does is make you miserable, and generally makes everyone around you miserable too.  And, he points out, it actually prevents you from enjoying the blessings you already have.

I think the basic problem behind the scourge of envy is this: we normally view the world in terms of a zero-sum game.  Whatever he has, I don’t have.  Resources are limited, energy is limited, time and life are limited.  But if the universe comes from an infinite Gd, how can anything truly be limited?  Now we do speak of Gd’s having “contracted” Himself in order to “leave room” for finite things in a finite creation, but that is just a way of speaking, a metaphor for those of us who are stuck with a finite perspective on things.

Perhaps a better analogy is the relation of waves to the ocean.  The ocean is infinite and unbounded, while the waves are bounded in time and space.  Yet the waves are no different from the ocean in their essential nature – they are the ocean in motion, the water rising and falling, yet never being detached from its source.  In the same way, our minds, our bodies, our environment, all are nothing other than Gd, appearing to us in a dynamic mode.  But all of this that we see, and all of what we are inside as well, is nothing other than infinity.  Our forefather Ya’akov told his brother, Esau, “I have everything.”  How could Ya’akov have “everything”?  He had everything because he was everything!

I think this is the answer to envy.  If we recognize ourselves as essentially infinite in nature, then we are not dealing with a zero-sum game.  We, and everyone else we meet, are full, and from that fullness we are able to give maximum of ourselves.  When did Ya’akov say, “I have everrything”?  It was when he was giving Esau a lavish gift.

Our Sages say that there is one case where envy is a good thing: envy between scholars increases wisdom.  When we see someone who is wiser than we are, we want what he has.  Of course, we can get what he has without diminishing him in the slightest, the way a candle can light another candle without losing any of its own illuminating power.  Let’s find someone wise and good to envy, and then follow him!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 9: Peace and the Greater Land of Israel (9 April 1970)

This talk (from the language it appears more like the spoken word than the written word) was given a scant 3 years after Israel took Judea, Samaria, Gaza, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Sinai in the 6-Day War.  After that war, Israel almost immediately offered to return all the conquered territories in return for a solid peace agreement.  The Arab world, meeting in Khartoum, issued the famous “three no’s” – No peace, no recognition and no negotiation.  So far, the only territory that has been returned is the Sinai, when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel some 12 years after the 6-Day War.  Just this past week (I am writing in late March, 2014), Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the 9th year of his 4-year term, gave his own version of the “3 no’s” – No recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, no compromise on Jerusalem and no relinquishment of the “right of return” for some 4 or 5,000,000 descendents of Arabs who left their homes in what later became Israel, 3 generations ago.

R. Steinsaltz wrote:

The Arab world, on the other hand, does not accept our being here in principle.  It is in no way ready to have us live in this place, and has no intention of getting used to our being here – and I don’t think it is only the wicked rulers who think so.  The Arabs’ intention is to w ipe us out completely, Amalek-wise. … And let me add one more point: The world will not be sorry if we are lost …

Sadly, 47 years and several wars after June, 1967, very little has changed.  The sooner the current US administration wakes up to this fact, the better for everyone.  A foreign policy based on inaccurate evaluation of reality and on wishful thinking will never be successful.  And any policy that comes under the rubric “those who curse you I shall curse” is certainly bound to lead to disaster, and it has nothing to do with any putative “Jewish lobby.”  It’s just a built-in fact of life in Gd’s universe.