Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Next Spielberg Fllick? / Parshat Korach

Since Cecil B. DeMille is no longer among the living (zichrono livrakhah), but Steve Spielberg is alive and well, I nominate the magician of special effects to produce a movie that features Korach and his minions, rebelling against Moses and Aaron in the Wilderness, and then being swallowed up into the earth. No claymation here — with DreamWorks and their cosmic special effects, I imagine it would be something like this: the ground undulates and sways, a gap opens and the breach grows larger—against the backdrop of heart-pounding music. Then Korach, gesticulating wildly, screaming furiously, and writhing violently, falls into the gaping pit, spinning head over heel again and again as he plummets ever deeper into the abyss of Sheol, while all around people shriek in horror and flee for their lives…  I think it would probably have to be rated R for violence, but hey, after all, Korach’s the bad guy, right? He deserves what he gets, doesn’t he? Torah tells us:

Now Korach, son of Itzhar son of Levi betook himself along with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet, descendants of Reuven, to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They joined together in opposition to Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Numbers 16:1-3)

The classical commentators vary only in nuance. Rashi_, following Tanhuma_, says “Korach betook” means he split off from the community, objecting to the selection of Aaron as High Priest. Nachmanides_ says Rashi has misread Tanhuma: Torah is saying that something betook Korach, his heart carried him away from the community. They agree, however, that Korach sought Aaron’s position. Rashbam_ and ibn Ezra_ say that Korach took men with him to stand up to Moses; the word “men” is not found in the Hebrew, but is understood. Rashbam seems to believe that Korach wanted not Aaron’s position, but Moses’s position; Ibn Ezra says Korach resented Moses having removed the first-born status from the tribe of Reuben. Everyone clear on the scorecard? At the end of the day, all agree that Korach’s intentions were evil. He conspired with others to foment rebellion against the Israelite leadership, threatening the stability of the entire nation. So we can all agree that Korach got what he deserved, which Torah describes this way:

…the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. (Numbers 16:31-34)

Over the centuries, Korach has come to represent the arch-villain, a demagogue pursuing power and control to boost his prominence. He ignores the welfare of the community in favor of his ego needs and over-inflated self-image. Korach thereby becomes the Rabbis’ poster child for controversies that are not for the sake of heaven. As Pirke Avot famously tells us: 

A controversy for heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure… What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach and his followers. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Given the weight of tradition excoriating Korach, it is surprising to find a different perspective. Yet such exists. The 18th century hasidic rabbi, Meshulam Feibush Heller of Zbarash (1740-1795) provides a strikingly different, far more nuanced, and sympathetic lens for viewing the figure of Korach. In Yosher Divrei Emet he tells us:

Korach’s conflict with Moses took place despite the fact of Moses’s great humility, as the Torah states [Numbers 12:3 tells us: Moses was more humble than any person on the face of the earth]. Nevertheless, some grandiosity remained in certain things [Moses] did. He was ruler over Israel, and he conducted himself like a king over his people. Yet he did all this for God’s sake, to guide people in God’s service. This would not have been possible without someone to take the lead. Still, at first [Moses] did not want it. He refused, saying to God, Send whom You will (Exodus 4:13) until God forced him to accept the office.

Rabbi Meshulam reminds us to view the situation through Korach’s eyes. Moses played the part of king. Granted, it  was a position he neither sought nor wanted, and which God thrust upon him, but from Korach’s perspective, Moses played “high and mighty.” What Korach saw was arrogance and pomposity. This is the source of Rabbi Meshulam’s compassion for Korach:

Even though Korach possessed both intelligence and the holy spirit, a spark of envy remained within him. He had not purified his heart of it in a total way. Envy derives from that sense of grandness; he could not believe that Moses did everything by the word of God and that he was in truth so humble and lowly. [Korach] thought that Moses was using his exalted role in a way that opposed truth, that he had strayed from truth and erred in aggrandizing himself. Korach thought that it was Moses’s sense of his own greatness that cause him to exalt himself over God’s community, and so [Korach] said, Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Adonai? (Numbers 16:3)…

Rabbi Meshulam gives Korach the benefit of the doubt, and in that alone there is an important lesson for us. But the substance of his commentary is to point out that due to his own ego and gradiosity, Korach truly believed that Moses was abusing his role and straying from the straight path of God’s truth, indulging his ego by bathing in power. Korach’s focus, Rabbi Meshulam next tells us, was outward—on Moses—rather than inward, exploring his own feelings and motivations. Envy blinded Korach. Korach's radar picked up a signal he understood as Moses’s self-aggrandizement, because he could not recognize the grandiosity his envy had generated.

Neuroscience supports Rabbi Meshulam’s underlying assumption: We judge others far more harshly than we judge ourselves. Put another way, we condemn in others what we give ourselves a free pass on. In an article in Scientific American, Ozgun Atasoy takes aim at those obnoxious Dove commercials in which a forensic artists draws two pictures of the same woman he never sees: one based on her self-description, and one based on a virtual stranger. Lo and behold, the stranger describes a much more beautiful woman than the woman herself. Atasoy sums up the research—the real science—this way:  “The evidence from psychological research suggests… that we tend to think of our appearance in ways that are more flattering than are warranted. This seems to be part of a broader human tendency to see ourselves through rose colored glasses. Most of us think that we are better than we actually are—not just physically, but in every way.”_ “Every way,” of course, includes morally. This describes Korach, but not only Korach.

Korach, it turns out, is not unique. He is all of us. Yes, he blundered on a big scale, which is why it would take the likes of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks to do justice to the biblical story on a wide screen, but we blunder more often than we admit or even know, on a much smaller scale, thinking that only we are qualified to do some task or another, only we have the skills, expertise, intellect, or experience needed to do it right.

Rabbi Meshulam now comes to his point. He reminds us of the need to examine ourselves, our egos, our envies, our projections onto others, in the light of this model. He tells us:

…It requires great faith to always assign the lack to yourself, ever seeking submission and humility, even when it comes to doing good. Take care: it might be sinful self-exaltation that makes you want to do a mitzvah that is not required of you and that might be performed by somebody else. Do not think that you are more the right person to do it than your fellow, for that is grandiosity…

We all have a tendency toward envy that colors our view of others and removes us from objective judgment, particularly in matters of power, authority, status, and money. And in case you’re thinking, “Hey, this is human nature and there is nothing we can do about it,” the nascent field of “Cultural Neuroscience”—which emerged about a decade ago—tells us that culture makes a difference. Beth Azar writes in an American Psychological Association publication, supplies this striking example from the realm of morality and judgment: “When an American thinks about whether he is honest, his brain activity looks very different than when he thinks about whether another person is honest, even a close relative. That’s not true for Chinese people. When a Chinese man evaluates whether he is honest, his brain activity looks almost identical to when he is thinking about whether his mother is honest.”_ Whatever else we might conclude about American and Chinese cultures, I bring this to make the following point: What we might have thought was hard-wiring in our brains is not. This means that our brains can also be rewired. 

Rabbi Meshulam Feibush Heller tells us that the key to rewiring is humility. The humility of Moses, so esteemed by our Sages, is within our grasp when we wrestle to tame the ego needs that envy generates. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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