Egocentricity or Envy?

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Korach, a leader in the tribe of Levi, gathered to him Dothan Aviram and another 250 men and challenged Moshe’s authority as Hashem’s representative in appointing Aharon to be the High Priest. When Moshe sees he can make no headway with Korach, Moshe sends for Dothan and Aviram, hoping he can defuse the situation with them. Rashi explains that, although Moshe was following Hashem’s instructions in appointing Aharon and therefore could not compromise, we learn from Moshe that we should nevertheless always seek to end a controversy.  Korach and all who were with him were punished by being swallowed up by the earth. We need to understand how this was this a fitting punishment.  Further, what was Korach’s motivation in challenging Moshe? Prior to this controversy, Korach was an extremely great and holy man, so much so that he was tasked with carrying the Holy Ark in the desert.

            Let us start with the adage of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. He would advise us to always carry two notes in our pockets. In the right pocket, we should carry a note saying, “Bishvili nivra haolam/For me was the world create,” and in the left pocket, he should carry a note with the message “Veanochi afar vaefer/And I am but dust and ashes.” When used appropriately to guide one’s life, they two messages balance each other, giving meaning to one’s life without creating arrogance. However, when the messages are contorted and taken out of context, they create either arrogance or despair and envy. One must therefore learn to balance these two so that neither becomes extreme. Using either of these views of oneself in the extreme can easily form the basis of controversy.

            So, is dissension and controversy hardwired into human nature since creation, or are we hardwired to be kind and considerate of others? What is the acquired characteristic and what is the natural one, Nature vs. Nurture, asks Rabbi Chanan in Toras Chesed? Going back to the narrative of creation, he reminds us that while Hashem declared, “It is good,” for every day of creation, He did not do so for the second day. Our Sages conclude that on this day Hashem created separation. He created the firmament that separated the upper waters from the lower waters. This was the first source of separation and of conflict in creation. [The lower waters complained that they wanted to be closer to their Creator, as were the upper waters. Hashem appeased the lower waters by telling them they would be an integral part of the Temple Service.]

            That the first Book of the Torah is replete with narratives of conflicts beginning with Cain and Abel, continuing to the shepherds of Abraham and those of Lot, certainly with the everlasting battle between Yaakov and Esau, and even with Joseph and his brothers bears witness to the strong propensity of humankind for conflict.

            A second Medrash confirms this conclusion. When God decided to make Man, he conferred with his angels before embarking on the project. While some angels concurred, that Man should be created, others disagreed, claiming that mankind would always be arguing. Why create this kind of world, they argued?

            Obviously, God created Man, and He created every human being that followed. But unlike someone who mints coins from a mold where all coins come out exactly alike, no two human beings are exactly alike [even “identical” twins]. But just as their outer appearances are not alike, so too are they different in their internal natures. Each person has a special, unique mission that only he can fulfill in service to Hashem. To accomplish this mission, God has provided me with special circumstances and special characteristics and skills. But these skills that empower me can also become the source of arrogance and make me feel better than others and give me a sense of entitlement. This feeling can also prompt me to ask, “What’s in it for me?” whenever I’m in a position to do anything. This attitude will always create conflict with others who also feel a sense of entitlement, Egocentricity leaves little room for cooperation. In this sense, believing “the world was created for me” is the source of much conflict.

            Machlokes/conflict is derived from chalak/separation, divisiveness, part of the whole, and as such is the opposite of shalom-shalem/ peace and wholeness. One who is involved in conflict is thereby separating himself from others as well as from Hashem.

            To better understand the ideas of separation and wholeness, it would be worthwhile to discuss the well known adage that making a match [between a man and a woman] is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea. Making a match and splitting the sea are so completely different. Yet our Sages saw some reason to juxtapose these two. They recognized in both an element of altering nature. This is obvious in the splitting of the sea, but how is nature changed when making a match? Our Sages answer that both the man and the woman each wants to rule, especially when they are living together. However, when a person understands that his sense of self does not come from his personal importance, but from doing God’s will by bringing shalom to the world, he willingly changes his perspective from ruling to creating peace through cooperation. Therefore, our Sages continue, that’s why when a husband and wife merit, God’s presence rests upon them; when they do not merit, they are consumed by fire.

            Now we can return to Korach and trying to understand how the punishment of the earth swallowing him was appropriate. A verse in Iyov/Job states, “He hangs the earth on nothingness.” Although there may be some scientific support to this statement, our Sages see an even greater truth in this verse. Rabbi Ela’a explains that the world exists in the merit of those who remain quiet in the face of conflict. Rabbi Abahu goes on to explain that this kind of person has made himself into nothingness, that he exists only to do the will of God, to bring peace to the world. In contrast, Korach fueled the flames of conflict. Since he undermined the foundation of the earth by opening his mouth inappropriately, it was only fitting that the earth should open its mouth and swallow him up.

            Negating one’s ego is extremely difficult. Why is it so hard for someone to accept a rabbinic ruling in a court case with another litigant, but not difficult for someone to lose his investment in a chicken that the rabbi ruled was not kosher? Because, writes Rabbi Bernstein in Aggadah, when he loses and someone else wins, his ego is bruised, and he finds it hard to comply. The ego is not involved in rulings when there is no other litigant. A similar kind of one upmanship may be manifest between one man making a brachah and another who seems to drown out the brachah itself with an overly loud Amen.

            The yetzer horo is very sly. It knows that it is hard to feel humility. Therefore, it urges people to claim their argument is purely for the sake of Heaven, writes Rabbi Kofman z”l in Mishchat Shemen. If someone is doing something wrong, the man argues, I must speak up and correct him or the situation. In truth, if “speaking up” perpetuates conflict rather than resolving it, the man in merely stoking his own ego with his comments, so he can feel better than the other.

            Even in situations where one truly feels it is necessary to speak up, one must carefully and fully examine the situation for accuracy. In support of this, Rabbi Galinsky z”l gave an example from Megillat Esther. Haman’s daughter, upon seeing a rider astride the royal steed being led by another man, and hearing the proclamation, “This is what the king does to whom he wishes to honor,” assumed the rider was her father and the lackey leading the horse was Mordechai. She immediately dumped a pail of waste onto the head of the “servant”. Upon realizing her mistake, she jumped out the window and died. Therefore, Haman returned home, in mourning and with bowed head. Bearing this extreme example in mind, one must always remember not to rely on hearsay without examining all the facts.

            Rabbi Fogel cites the Shla”h Hakadosh in reminding us that the prohibition against machlokes/conflict applies even to the smallest degree, because, like a tiny spark, it has the potential of erupting into a total conflagration that would create much destruction. [As Mrs. Smiles points out, just look at how much destruction was wrought by the small incendiary device from each kite that landed on an Israeli orchard or farm.]

            Looking at the word mach-l-o-kes in Hebrew print letters, one already can get a glimpse of the life force within it, writes Rabbi Pinchas Segal homiletically. The “M” begins with a small opening at the bottom. It widens into the opening of the “CH”. Then it grows all the way up with the “l” and sinks all the way down with the “K”. Then it stands upright self - righteously like the “vov/o”. Finally, it trots off on two feet, like the “s/t” with a life of its own. We need to be proactive in promoting shalom both in our homes in in our communities. In fact, there is a short prayer some people are accustomed to saying at the end of shemoneh esreh to erase divisiveness from my life and from Bnei Yisroel, and help us promote peace. In fact, for the sake of peace, one should not insist on standing one’s ground even when he is absolutely correct, factually, not just believing it to be so, writes Rav Goldstein in Shaarei Chaim.

            It is in this context that Moshe sends for Dothan and Aviram. But the prospect of peace never entered their minds, writes the Kli Yakar. All they thought was that Moshe would try to appease them, and they would not accept that in all their “righteousness”. As Rabbi Pliskin points out, there is always a possibility of making peace, even if others have tried before, as long as one does not stand on the ceremony of his own ego.

            When a person distances himself from conflict, he opens the gates of heaven. Rabbi Kofman z”l offers a parable from the Chofetz Chaim z”l to illustrate this point. A child is outside with his candy when another child snatches it from him. Instead of fighting, he calmly goes inside to his father, tells him what happened, and proclaims, “And I didn’t fight back., because I knew there was much more candy in the house.” The father now tells his child to go to the “treats” stash and take as much candy as he wants.   All Hashem wants from us is to love and respect one another, for He is the Father of us all.

            Korach, Dothan and Aviram perverted the deeper meaning of “For me was the world created,” making it a point for arrogance, and were therefore swallowed up by that very earth.

            Rabbi Brazile, who titled his work Bishvili Nivrah Haolam/For me was the world created, points out that each of us actually recognizes our own uniqueness Not one of us would accept millions of dollars for someone else to be able to control our brain, for then we would lose our personal identity. Since each of us is unique, each of us has our own path to follow, giving us an alternate translation of Bishvili Nivra Haolam/For my shvil – my unique path – was the world created. Therefore, it is my mission bechol drachecha daehu/To know Him and serve Him with each of the unique characteristics He has given me and according to my unique path. Understanding this purpose will leave me with a sense of humility, for Hashem has invested so much in me and I am so far from the potential of fulfilling my path.

             Cain was the first who lost his path, continues Rabbi Brazile. When he was born, his mother named him Cain saying, “Coniti ish et hoElokhim/I have acquired a man with God.” His purpose as Eve saw it, was to be with God and serve Him. Instead of serving God, he made himself a servant of the earth. Rabbi Brazile quoting the Yid Hakodesh z”l, suggests that by taking on this role, he had already figuratively killed himself and his purpose, leading him to eventually kill his brother. Since he served the earth instead of God, as his name mandated, he was punished by becoming a wanderer upon the earth, never really finding God. He lost himself when he tried to be something he was not.

            The Shvilei Pinchas, Rabbi Friedman, continues this discussion. In spite of this punishment, Hashem gave Cain a sign to help him live. Some say that sign was Shabbos, a path to reconnect with Hashem. [Perhaps this is alluded to in the phrase shivatayim yukam, usually translated as before seven generations have passed. Could it not also mean “By the sevens, the Sabbaths, will he stand and rise?” CKS]

            Hashem punished Cain when he heard the bloods of his brother calling to him from the ground. Hashem cursed Cain from the ground which “opened its mouth wide to receive your brother’s blood. Citing the Arizal, the Shvilei Pinchas posits that Korach was a reincarnation of Cain for, just as Cain became jealous of his brother, so did Korach become jealous of Moshe. He too was not happy with his chelek/his portion in life. Aharon become the priest because he could rectify this jealousy; he was happy at his brother’s elevation even though he himself was older. That the earth swallowed Korach was a fitting punishment, for it rectified the earth covering the bloods of Hevel in the earlier incarnation. Consider the earth. All trample it, yet it does not complain. It is happy with its “chelek/portion” and in its ability to produce fruit. [There is a connection between chelek/portion and chelek/divisiveness, for one may cause jealousy that produces the other. CKS]

            There is certainly room in the Torah world and interpretation for disagreement, but it should never create conflict between people. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed on many points, but their families intermarried. So too in pre- war Europe with adherents to the mussar movement and those who felt it was unnecessary. We can be cordial, and agree to disagree, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l.

            Rabbi Leff presents three beautiful metaphors for achieving and maintaining peace. Look to the kettle, the river, or the bird. The kettle has nothing to gain by uniting fire and water to cook food for the benefit of others. The river does not seek to overflow its banks to be more than it is meant to be. And the bird is always ready to fly away to make room for others.

            Korach, Dothan and Aviram refused to bend. They retained their haughtiness and therefore sunk to the lowest depths. May we steer clear of divisiveness, learn from the humble Moshe to do our best to maintain peace and keep the foundation of the earth strong.