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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Korach - The Principle of the Matter
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l related an incredible story about a genial and righteous fellow named Reb Reuven who was in charge of a gemach (free loan fund). Although most gemachs were closed for Shabbos by Thursday afternoon, Reb Reuven’s gemach was open until shortly before Shabbos.

One week a local resident approached Reb Reuven shortly before Shabbos and begged him for some money so that he could purchase food for Shabbos. Reb Reuven looked at the man dolefully, “My friend, you borrowed the maximum amount two days ago. The rules of the gemach unequivocally state that one cannot borrow more money until he has paid back what he borrowed previously. I am sorry but I cannot loan you more money.”

The man became incensed. “Are you saying that I don’t need the money?” Before Reb Reuven could respond, the man slapped him across the face. Reb Reuven’s gabbai immediately moved closer to defend Reb Reuven whose cheek was still stinging from the blow, but Reb Reuven held him back. He looked at the man and said, “Please wait here. Let me see what I can do.”

Reb Reuven ran to the homes of a few wealthy men and begged them to allocate to him some money for an emergency situation. It was very close to Shabbos but the men knew and trusted Reb Reuven and gave him the money. Reb Reuen ran back to his home and breathlessly handed the money to the man. The man thanked Reb Reuven and left.

The gabbai looked at Reb Reuven with disbelief. “After the man had the utter audacity to slap you, you went and did that for him?” Reb Reuven replied, “I know that man. He is a very kind person. If he was able to act so brazenly he must truly be desperate and at wits end. I knew I had to help him!”

Although Reb Reuven surely acted with uncanny patience and understanding, his assessment was very accurate. The man’s anger was a result of his intolerable stress and apprehension about his lack of funds for Shabbos. Often, when we encounter other people’s anger (not to mention our own) it is really masking a deeper fear or frustration. The greatness of Reb Reuven was that he was able to understand the man’s desperation and to keep his own emotions out of the situation.

The Mishna (Avos 5:20) contrasts a dispute which is “for the sake of heaven” (i.e. with pure motives) with one that is not for the sake of heaven (i.e. with ulterior motives). The former is epitomized by the disputes between the academies of Hillel and Shamai, whose divergent views in halacha are legendary. Yet the disciples had the greatest respect for each other. It is for that reason that we continue to study their disputes in depth today. The latter form of dispute is epitomized by Korach and his assembly, who sought to undermine the authority of Moshe and Aharon. They had an ignominious end, punished with eternal dishonor. Their mission was considered so heinous that there is a Torah prohibition to follow Korach’s example;[1] “That he not be like Korach and his assembly.”

The Chofetz Chaim explains that to a Jew, intellectual disagreement is part of life. As a spiritual, thinking people, we are always involved in lively discussion and exchanges of ideas. The peril of such interactions is that a philosophical debate can easily morph into a personal debate, which itself can easily spiral into bickering, animosity, jealousy, and competition.

Jews are passionate and ideological, and that can often cause deep rifts and contention. This is essentially what occurred with Korach. Korach countered that all Jews are holy and therefore, Moshe and Aharon had no right to ‘usurp’ the leadership.

The Sages teach us that Korach’s arguments were rooted in personal feelings of envy that he did not merit a position of leadership.

Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l[2] notes that perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Korach debacle is that Korach himself was convinced that he was acting with purely altruistic motives. If one would have asked Korach if he felt any envy towards Moshe and Aharon, he would have vehemently denied it.

This becomes exceedingly clear from the conversations Moshe had with Korach. When Moshe told Korach that he and his followers were to offer ketores (incense) on the Altar as a means of determining who was truly the chosen one of G-d Korach acceded. For a ‘stranger’ to offer the ketores was punishable by death. Yet so convinced was Korach of the veracity of his mission that he was ready to proceed.

The Chofetz Chaim warns that before one embarks on any ideological campaign he must carefully analyze and ponder his own motives. This is where Korach, a great man of stature and wisdom, went wrong!

The tragic story of Korach was not a one-time, historical error. We live the mistake of Korach on our own level constantly in our daily lives. The vital lesson that we must glean from Korach is that we must be painfully meticulous in determining our own true motives[3].

In his recently released album “Me’umka d’Lipa”, Lipa Schmeltzer sings a song (in Yiddish) which relates to this idea: A fellow arrives in shul as a guest one Friday night and is convinced that he will be asked to lead the services. When he is not asked to do so, he reasons that he will surely be asked to lead the morning services the following day. When that too doesn’t occur, he reassures himself that he will surely be called to the Torah for one of the seven aliyos, or at least be asked to lead the Mussaf prayer. By the time the congregation begins Mussaf, and he has not been given any recognition at all, he is very upset.

Just prior to the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei the miffed guest realizes that the gabbai forgot to announce that a certain prayer must be added. The guests wastes no time banging on the table and calling out repeatedly the ubiquitous, “Nu! Nu! Nu! Nu!”

The narrator wisely explains that upon further introspection he realized that his overt passion in sending the gabbai a reminder was not because he was afraid that the congregation would be remiss in their prayers. Rather, in his feelings of disgust and annoyance at the gabbai, he had found a way to make the gabbai feel bad as well, and so he jumped at the opportunity!

I once read that one would be wise to remember that, almost invariably, whenever someone says “It’s the principle of the matter”, it hardly ever is!

The field of Mental Health is renowned for its legendary question, “How did that make you feel?” and “Why did you feel that way?” The reason why those questions are so valid is that we are so often not in touch with our own feelings and motivations. If one wants to work on not speaking negatively about others, or if one wants to work on improving has character traits, the first step is to realize what drives him and why he does the things he does, and says the things he says. Is a negative comment about someone else really because I care about what he does, or is it because I feel inferior or jealous around him?

If the great Korach could have destroyed himself because he failed to realize his own motives, we must surely pay careful attention to learn the lesson from his tragic story.

“A dispute not for the sake of heaven”

“That he not be like Korach and his assembly”

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[1] Bamidbar 17:5

[2] Chiddushei Halev

[3] See Chiddushei Halev, Bereishis 46:1 where he explains that the only way one can be confident that his motives are pure is if he meticulously calculates all that he has to gain and lose from what he is about to do, and then honestly assesses how much those ulterior motives are effecting his decisions. Rabbi Leibowitz notes that no less a personage than Yaakov Avinu made such a reckoning before descending to Egypt to meet his long lost son. Yaakov wanted to ensure that he was descending because G-d commanded him to, and not merely because he wanted to see Yosef.

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