By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
At the first gathering of the Bnei Yisroel, the twelve pillars of our nation surrounded their father as he lay ill in Mitzrayim shortly before his passing. Yaakov Avinu looked at his sons and spoke to them. He focused on the gifts and challenges of each as he studied their destiny, bestowing brachos and tefillos that would accompany them and their progeny for eternity.
When he looked at Levi, Yaakov foresaw a road with some bumps, but one that led to the loftiest of callings, the right to serve in Hashem’s earthly home, standing guard over the Bais Hamikdosh and its sacred keilim.
Along with that, he also saw the dark and turbulent events of this week’s parsha, the uprising of Korach and his people against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.
“I want no part in it. Bekehalam al teichad kevodi,” Yaakov Avinu pleaded. Therefore, Rashi tells us, Korach’s lineage is traced back to Levi, but not to Yaakov.
It’s puzzling. If Yaakov foresaw the incident, why did he not ask that there be no machlokes altogether? Why did he not daven that Hashem’s trusted messenger be untarnished by this rebellion? Why didn’t he daven that Klal Yisroel should not rise up against Moshe? Why did he not pray that Korach be satisfied with his position and not feel the need to stage an uprising to gain more power for himself?
When Yaakov’s grandfather, Avrohom, sensed that Sedom was on the verge of destruction, he immediately began to daven for the people of that wicked city, as improbable as the chances were of him being able to stave off their destruction. Avrohom’s concern for all of mankind led him to daven in a valiant attempt to prevent the judgment from being carried out. Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to use the power of tefillah to try to prevent the ugly story from happening?
THE NATURE OF JEALOUSY
Perhaps the explanation is that at the root of the machlokes was jealousy. Korach was jealous of Moshe and Aharon, and he was upset that he wasn’t recognized for his greatness and given a position of leadership that he felt he deserved. Yaakov wanted it to be clear that this terrible human trait was not traced back to him.
Jealousy is part of the teva with which Hashem created the world.
Back at the very onset of creation, the great luminaries, the sun and the moon, fell prey to jealousy. “Who will rule? Who will be bigger?” they questioned.
The upper waters and the lower waters got locked in an epic and enduring battle, each pining for Divine closeness at the expense of the other.
Jealousy is built into creation. It is part of human nature.
Kayin encountered Hevel and revealed the most basic human emotion. His brother’s offering to Hashem was better. Kayin couldn’t take that, so to overcome his feelings of inadequacy, he killed Hevel. That didn’t solve anything. Hevel’s korban was still better, and now Kayin was a murderer, an appellation sure to cause him to be even more disfavored, but when a person goes into a jealous rage, he doesn’t think about what he is doing. He doesn’t think about the consequences. All he cares about is ruining the object of his scorn.
From that time onward, whenever man ventured forth into the world, interacting with other humans and engaging in commerce and conversation, there were always undertones of jealousy, competition and rivalry.
Many seforim discuss the idea that we do not pray to change nature (see Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amarim 10 and 33). Perhaps we can say that Yaakov didn’t feel worthy of davening that Hashem should change human nature.
Additionally, Yaakov was the av who declared, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.” The Medrash Hagadol Toldos relates that Rabi Yanai said that a person should not stand in a dangerous place and say that a miracle will occur for him. Firstly, perhaps he won’t merit the miracle, and even if he does, it will diminish his zechuyos. Rabi Chonon adds that this is derived from Yaakov Avinu, who said, “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes.”
UNCONNECTED TO MACHLOKES
Yaakov Avinu believed that it would be fruitless for him to daven for Hashem to change human nature. He felt that he could only daven that he shouldn’t be included in the rebellion that would ensue years later on account of jealousy, praying that the machlokes wouldn’t be traced to him.
Human nature is not always what we want it to be. Ki yeitzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. It requires a lot of work for man to break his inclinations and middos ra’os and make a mentch of himself.
It is the goal of the human experience to work on enhancing the spiritual side and subjugating the animal side. The spiritual and animal base traits combine to make us what we are. The word adam, says the Shela Hakadosh, hints at the potential, “adameh le’elyon,” and also the risks, “adamah,” the depths to which man can sink, like dirt.
To the degree that we enhance our spiritual side through the study and observance of Torah, we are able to tame our more base predispositions. If we commit ourselves to absorbing its lessons, studying Torah can cure us of pettiness and help us rise above jealousy and the propensity for machlokes.
Yaakov was an ish tom yosheiv ohalim. He was purified and cleansed by Torah and its mussar. Having devoted his energy and strength to rising above human frailties, he felt that the machlokes had no connection to him. He wanted to demonstrate that although teva dictates that human interactions lead people to jealousy, the condition is not terminal, as one who is a yosheiv ohalim and works on himself to be subservient to the precepts of Torah until he becomes an ish tom, can win these battles.
After arriving in America from the Shanghai refuge during the Holocaust, Rav Leib Bakst, later to become the famed rosh yeshiva in Detroit, encountered a prominent rebbe, who asked Rav Leib about his great rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz. Rav Leib discussed the mashgiach’s sainted ways and messages, and the rebbe nodded appreciatively. Rav Bakst then shared a shmuess from his rebbi about the depth and potency of evil, which lurks within man, ready to entrap him.
After hearing the shmuess, the rebbe said, “The mashgiach was certainly a tzaddik, but our way is so different than that of the mussar personalities. Why spend so much time engaged with sin, the darker side of man’s behavior, the yeitzer hora? Here there is jealousy, desire and pettiness. Mussar is obsessed with the bad. We prefer to focus on the grandeur and greatness of man, his abilities and potential, rather than studying and probing his negative character traits. Through raising the level of my followers by speaking of Elokus and lofty spiritual matters, automatically the small frailties that afflict humans are overcome and fall away. Why not speak about the royal and divine, rather than stains and blemishes?”
Rav Leib took the rebbe’s words to heart, and when he had the opportunity, he shared them with the revered mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, asking him what he should answer the rebbe.
“Tell him about Sassoon’s house,” the mashgiach curtly replied.
Sassoon was a wealthy Sephardic merchant who had settled in Shanghai, China, where he purchased a beautiful, flat, vacant plot of land upon which to build a house. He erected a magnificent mansion there and moved in, enjoying the spacious layout and impressive décor.
Within a short time, he sensed that something wasn’t right. The structure seemed to be sinking. He called the construction crew, who worked to set the building right, firming up the foundation. Everything seemed okay for a while. Then the house started to sink again and Sassoon called in a team of engineers to investigate.
Their exploration turned up some history. Years earlier, the municipality of Shanghai had transferred all its waste to a central location, which became a dumping ground for the garbage of the locals. In time, the city found another location and decided to sell the large piece of empty land, which was prime real estate. They covered the tract with piles of sand and the attractive parcel was soon snapped up. Sassoon was the buyer.
The unfortunate industrialist was stuck with a beautiful home on inferior ground, and his palatial residence was virtually useless.
A palace of emunah cannot be erected on a garbage dump. A person can only rise after he has cleansed himself of inappropriate traits.
RIVALRY, BUT LOFTY DESTINY
In that fateful meeting with his sons, Yaakov turned to Levi. He saw the unfortunate results of jealousy and rivalry, but he also saw something else: the lofty destiny of the shevet and the strength of character they possess to rise above it all. The fruition of this vision is found later in this week’s parsha.
The pesukim in perek yud ches following the tragedy of Korach relate that Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells Aharon what to do to ensure that there won’t be another catastrophe such as the one that took place with Korach and his eidah. Hashem tells Aharon that he, the kohanim and shevet Levi, should be “shomer mishmeres” and then there will be no more “ketzef” on the Bnei Yisroel. The posuk explains that Hashem separated the kohanim and Levi’im from the Bnei Yisroel. They will not engage in everyday commerce with the rest of the Jews. They will perform their work in the Temple of Hashem. They will do the avodah in the Ohel Moed and will receive no nachalah, portion, in Eretz Yisroel. Hashem will be their cheilek and nachalah.
To understand the correlation, we examine the famous words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmittah V’Yovel (13:12-13). He explains that Levi did not receive any nachalah, because he was chosen to serve Hashem in the Mishkon to teach His righteous ways and laws to the rest of the people. Therefore, says the Rambam, they were separated – “huvdolu midarkei ha’olam.”
In other words, in order to ensure that there would never be another catastrophic event such as that which took place in the time of Korach, shevet Levi was separated and removed midarkei ha’olam, from the ways of the world. They didn’t engage in regular daily commerce, as others do, because doing so could cause them to become jealous and argumentative. To prevent them from falling back into the teva of man which leads to jealousy and rivalry, allowing human failings to manifest themselves and cause “ketzef,” they could no longer engage in the type of human interaction that exposes mortal weaknesses.
From that point forward, Levi would not be subject to these pressures, but would instead be dedicated fully to Hashem’s work. For the only way a person can overcome issues that lead to machlokes and bitterness is by dedicating himself to the complete service of Hashem and rising above routine everyday business. It is only by dedicating oneself fully and wholly to observing the precepts and teachings of the Torah in every field of human endeavor that man can rise above the subliminal earthiness that seeks his downfall.
Thus, the Rambam states in the following halacha that this mode of life is not only reserved for kohanim and Levi’im, but can be followed by anyone who wishes to earn for himself a life of blessing and peace, cleansing himself of human trivialities and foibles.
SEEKING THE “BIG JOB”
Korach was blinded and hindered by his negios. His desire for personal advancement grew out of his jealousy of Moshe and Aharon. He couldn’t rise above the teva. It seems strange to us, but he was able to convince all the great men of Klal Yisroel to join him in his rebellion. For it wasn’t only Korach who was cosumed with jealousy, but others as well. They all wanted the “big job.” Thus, their vision became impaired and they were unable to appreciate Moshe’s greatness. Jealousy clouded their vision and dulled their senses, and they were unable to grasp the significance of what happened to the meraglim, who had doubted Moshe. They weren’t able to rise above the teva of anoshim and thus brought ketzef upon themselves and others.
As we study the parsha, we have the benefit of hindsight, the clarity of Rashi’s words, and the Rambam’s lucid perspective. We delve into the explanations of the tale and think about how such smart and righteous people could sin so terribly and err so badly. We learn the pesukim, the Rashis and the Rambam, and we resolve to improve so that we won’t be brought down by our base inclinations.
We often see people acting foolishly as they seek to advance their careers and self-serving agendas. We wonder how they can be so irrational as to not realize that they are their own enemies. But once people have been bitten by the jealousy bug, their vision becomes clouded and their thinking tainted, and there is very little you can do to save them from themselves.
We witness people who have spent a lifetime accumulating wealth and power finally achieve their ambitions, only to lose it all by being unable to deal with other people on a human and social level. Their arrogance and jealousy are as potent as they were when they had nothing. This drives them to humiliate others and leads to fits of rage when people they are jealous of receive recognition or achieve measures of success.
Let us always look inward and not seek outside praise and adulation. Let us work on ourselves to overcome selfishness and conceit. Let us hone our emunah and bitachon so that we don’t become jealous of what other people have, and can be happy with what we have and our position in life.
Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach would remark that the power of daas Torah is that those who possess it are free of negios; they have no personal investment in what they are called to rule upon. Their only negiah is to the truth. They study Torah and are enveloped by it, as the Torah overtakes them and transforms them. All their decisions and actions are guided by the Torah. They are possessed by a love of the Torah and Am Yisroel.
It is possible for a human being to rise to such heights at which he is above agendas and pettiness, and his sole concern is for the ratzon of the Ribbono Shel Olam and the good of His children. May we all merit to aspire to – and reach – that level.