Me: My Own Worst Enemy
This week’s Parsha discusses Korach’s rebellion. We can’t help but notice the many obvious lessons.
Korach was jealous of the prince status Moses granted to Elitzafone. According to Rashi, Korach’s corrupt assessment was this: since he (Korach) descended from an older sibling than Elitzafone, Korach felt more entitled to be prince: elders, he thought, have seniority. Korach accused Moses of nepotism. But in truth, Moses operated based on God’s direction, not on his own: this being Korach’s fatal mistake. Korach then lodges arguments basing his position on the premise that it was Moses’ decision to appoint Elitzafone, not God. Reading the verses, we learn much about how man can distort reality and destroy himself. Let us review Korach’s error, and then apply it to us today.
Korach sought to establish a “movement”, so he mustered up 250 men. People typically feel that with numbers, there is greater truth. Of course, numbers are meaningless, if the position of those numbers is wrong. But Korach new human psychology, and felt with numbers, he will increase support. His error however is that this was not subject to a vote: God appointed princes, not man. With two expressions – amassing “numbers” and referring to the “congregation” as being wronged – Korach displayed that he did not feel his “position alone” was correct. He sought support for his weak claim. (Note this lesson: Korach knew he was wrong, yet did not veer from his crooked path.) Korach also sought to negate Moses’ authority by attacking Moses personally, asking Moses trick questions, and then laughing at Moses’ response. (Rashi) This is a third action that continues to display Korach’s need for external momentum. Mocking Moses publicly – Korach felt – would increase Korach’s popularity. Again, Korach played by political rules, not God’s rules.
Korach then makes a bold move stating twice that “God is in their midst”, and that Moses violated “God’s congregation”. So as to say, Moses is now going against God. Korach’s new argument is to show that God is on his side. This would certainly have appeal for anyone left questioning Korach’s position.
The only response now, was that God would openly display whom He selected. Korach and his gang would have to present themselves with incense before God, and risk God’s rejection. Surprisingly, even though Korach new he was not selected by God, he went along with Moses command. Moses furthers this point, openly telling Korach that “you struggle with God, and not Aaron” (Numb. 16:11)…but they do not desist. Moses even gives Korach advanced warning of his certain, unnatural death…and still Korach is defiant. Amazing.
We know Korach’s fate, being swallowed by the Earth in an unparalleled display of Divine Providence, thereby defending Moses’ honor and position.
Take this to heart: Korach was not designed any differently than you or I. All humans share one design: we all possess complex psyches, including egos, as did Korach. We all possess the capacity to indulge our ego to the same quantity – even more – than displayed by Korach. We must now apply this lesson to ourselves. Torah is not archaic or outdated.
Korach operated from a subjective worldview: what he desired was not subject to self-criticism or compromise. His fate teaches the disastrous end one might find following his path. Even in the face of death when Moses told him he would die, he still remained obstinate, juts like another well known Torah figure…Pharaoh. One major lesson of Pharaoh is that man can sin so much, that he loses his opportunity to repent. Korach teaches another lesson: man can deny what he knows is true, and avoid damaging his ego, even at the cost of his life.
Each one of us is no different: we too can steep so such a level, since we share the same human design as Korach. The Sages attested to the risk we all suffer, as they requested from God to never lose sense of what is right. The Sages knew far better than any one of us how human beings operate. They knew the risks of losing our sense of truth, and of right and wrong. Have you lost your sense of what is right and wrong; of what is true and false? Can you determine 100% which is absolutely so? Is there something in your life you wish you could fix?
But there is a remedy: we must be brutally honest with ourselves, and we must always seek God’s help. But Korach was too self absorbed to do so.
But you may ask: “Doesn’t each person have his and her own unique personality…isn’t that what separates us? Isn’t that unchangeable?”
In chapter one of his Laws of Personalities (Hilchos Dayos) Maimonides teaches that one can alter his or her personality traits. By embodying a miserly attitude for a short time, one who is too much a spendthrift can loosen his spending behavior. If one is too shy, one can, with even less effort, change his or her trait to a more open personality by embodying expressiveness to a high degree, until he or she finds the balance equidistant from the two poles. And one, who is quick to anger, can become more patient by embodying a controlled and more humble lifestyle temporarily, until he too finds the middle ground. Personalities may have tendencies from birth, but they are malleable.
No one wishes to admit flaws about themselves…but that trait must be changed!
First and foremost, we must pay attention to ourselves. The art of reflection is a lost art, but vital for our happiness and our life’s objective. Our traits have much to do with our ability to learn about God:
“An embarrassed-type person cannot learn” (Ethics 2:6): precisely because he cannot task his questions, he remains ignorant. Such a person must force himself to risk ridicule, and learn by asking. With repeated behavior, he will change his personality, becoming less embarrassed, and more secure.
“The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge; wisdom and moral discipline are despised by fools” (Proverbs 1:7): for if we feel we know it all, we won’t seek knowledge or self-improvement. But if we work on our egos, and embody humility, over time, we can attain increased humility, which in turn will enable us to hear the opinions of others, whereas now, we outright justify our position and reject all others. Ego can be quite damaging.
None of us are born perfect, and all of us have flaws. Some flaws are more damaging to our happiness, health and success than are others. Maimonides teaches that we can correct our traits. But first, we must engage in regular reflection.
Maimonides also teaches that if one cannot overcome certain emotions – or worse, cannot even detect how he or she harms himself or herself – that individual should then seek counsel from the wise men that understand psychology, i.e., psychologists. It would be self-destructive to remain in a lifestyle that does not progress. But perhaps even “self-destructiveness” is what the person wishes for. This is a sad but true reality. But even that self-punishing or self-pitying need can be exposed, and removed.
If one sees his or her life is not improving even after reflection, then the issues may be unconscious, or unknown to our waking state of mind. Freud pioneered this uncharted territory of human nature, the unconscious, and unveiled remarkable truths about ho we operate. We may quickly reject Maimonides and Freud simply because – you got it – our egos are at stake. So I repeat: forget about self-image, since your life is more important.
Work, relationships, and our personal decisions are fraught with doubt, tensions, and discomforts. We are not stuck with who we are: we can change to comply with what our minds tell us will improve our lives. Hmmm…our “minds”. Let’s stop here.
Up until now, we are discussing how we operate based on “emotions”. We have our own unique set. But recall the lesson noted earlier: Korach knew he was wrong, yet did not veer from his crooked path. He “knew” he was wrong. That is why he lodged so many arguments, including attacking Moses’ personally: he knew his position was wrong, so he resorted to other tactics.
On the other hand, our minds see a totally different picture than what our emotions desire and falsely project onto reality…yet both are working side by side. The question is which one do we follow: intelligence or ego? For example, while we can see “intellectually” that apologizing to our spouse can create harmony, our egos won’t give in. We end up sustaining discord, all for our ego. But honestly, what does your ego give you other than an imagined stature? So why give in to your ego merely for an “imagined” status, while your “real” life is in turmoil?! The fact is that no one else knows that you deny reality to favor ego, except you and God. So the ego is purely your own, with no risk of public embarrassment if you admit you are wrong. An even more salient point is this: we must eventually answer to God. So why delay the inevitable? “Now” is when we can fix our lives. And now, is when we can remove the need to answer to God later. Additionally, the time we have to spend swallowing our pride are mere moments; compared to the rest of our lives that we can be happy. And even if we have to admit to others that we were wrong…that too passes. Soon, we find we can live a great life, because we were wise enough to suffer temporal humility, so as to achieve enduring happiness and success.
This lesson of Korach applies to each and every area of our lives. People lose jobs because they can’t say, “I’m wrong” They lose loved ones. They lose their health. And Korach lost his life.
The first step that we all must immediately take is to stop and recognize this: we are operating at all times on two tracks, “Me vs. Me”, intellect vs. emotion. We must constantly be on guard to detect whether our actions are emotional reactions, or intelligent calculations. Most of the time – like Korach – we simply wish to push forth our emotional agendas, “For the inclination of man is sinful from his youth”. (Gen. 8:21) If we do so, if we deny the reality our minds desperately try to show us, we will doom ourselves. We become our own worst enemy. This other path of being honest with ourselves, facing ourselves, swallowing our pride, and braving the search for what we might find…is vital to our happiness, and what God created us to do. And why should we live to gain the applause of others anyway? This must be of no value, for we have only one life, and only we can live for ourselves. So don’t waste it seeking accolades from man, but instead, seek God’s approval.
Follow your intelligence, or seek wise people who can help you do so. God constructed each of us to be happiest only when following a discerning, Torah lifestyle, not when we cater to emotional and infantile impulses.
Like Korach, we too can find many arguments that “sound” good, so as to defend any change we might have to face. But only honesty can reveal truth, so don’t lose your real life to your imaginary ego gratification. Learn the timeless lesson of the Torah in this week’s Parshas Korach. Follow those brilliant minds light-years ahead of us, like King Solomon, Freud, Maimonides and Moses. If they addressed this issue, we are completely foolish and self-destructive to ignore them. Most of all…follow God’s lesson of Korach. He did not place it in the Torah for history’s sake.