Monday, June 16, 2014

Korach. Twelve Divrei Torah, and an Observation on the Progress of Human Morality

Here are twelve Divrei Torah I've posted over the years on Parshas Korach.  Following the links will be a little observation about religion and progress..

Ahf Ki Amar Elokim; an amazing Chasam Sofer.

16:15. Al taifen el minchosom. Moshe Rabbeinu's Request that the Rebels Not Benefit from the Community Korbanos.

16:1. Vayikach Korach. What a Difference a Good Shidduch Makes

The Doors of Gehinom

16:1. Achdus I: All You Need is Love, and Other Symptoms of Dementia

17:5. Good Tzara'as, Bad Tzara'as

18:8. Counting Resurrected People to a Minyan

Respect for Gedolei Yisrael

18:19. Separating Challa from Play Dough

17:3. When People Who Sin Become Sinners את מחתות החטאים האלה.

How are We Supposed to Know?

The Makriv is Part of the Korban.

An observation of the progress of human morality.

Why did Moshe show so much anger against Korach for attempting to take over the leadership of Klal Yisrael (assuming that he wanted the malchus and not just the kehuna)?  There are two kinds of leaders.  One kind has leadership thrust upon them, despite a conviction that they are unworthy, as we find with Moshe.  The other is driven by his ego and seeks leadership because he wants and deserves it.  Korach’s quest was “vayikach,” he wanted to take it.  Moshe knew that a ego-driven leader would be a calamity for the Jews.

Rav Noach Weinberg said the following. Chazal say that we should serve the Ribono shel Olam with both our personality traits, with the Yetzer Hatov and the Yetzer Hara, “bishnei yetzirecha.”  We understand the chidush of serving Hashem with the Yetzer Hara.  We can serve Hashem with our desire to be great, with our non-spiritual appetites, turned to the service of Hashem.  But what is the chidush of the admonition to serve Hashem with the Yetzer Hatov?  Isn't this what the Yetzer Hatov naturally does?

The answer is that Yetzer Hatov can mean self-sacrifice for the greater good, or building things for lasting use.  This character trait, while tending to good, can be used for bad as well.  The suicide bombers, the nationalists that endanger themselves for their people, they are using their Yetzer Hatov powers, but they are using them badly.  The same way the Yetzer Hara can be used for good, the Yetzer Hatov can be used for bad.  Just as one can serve Hashem by enlisting his Yeitzer Hara, the reverse is equally true– one can enlist the Yetzer Hatov to do evil.

When Korach said 'מדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה; when the tzeduki said (Yoma 19b) כל ימי הייתי מצטער על המקרא הזה (ויקרא טז, ב) כי בענן אראה על הכפורת אמרתי מתי יבוא לידי ואקיימנו; when Dassan and Aviram said “לא נעלה....העיני האנשים ההם, תנקר--לא נעלה...," and Rashi says they meant “even if our refusal to come will result in our eyes being plucked out, we will not come,” ) they all had turned selflessness and self-sacrifice for the greater good to the service of the Yetzer Hara.

Ambition is a double edged sword.  Informed by empathy and restrained by humility, it is a powerful motivator.   Moshe Rabbeinu saw through Korach's duplicitous pronouncements of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and knew that Korach's leadership would be a national disaster.

I think that most evil done in the world today is done by using the Yetzer Hatov.  There is an ironic historical lesson here: it used to be that wholesale violence was committed unabashedly by people ruled by their Yetzer Hara, like Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan.  They enjoyed pillage and murder and rape.  It was a very satisfying way of life.  But history has moved forward, and people rarely commit genocide only because they love violence.  Now, they commit genocide only with a teretz, they have to enlist the Yetzer Hatov to their service.  The degree and efficiency of the violence has increased, but now it is ostensibly motivated by, and always abetted by the Yetzer Hatov, either in the service of god or for the political betterment of society.  Boko Haram, al Shabab, and ISIS are born murderers and rapists and pederasts.  They enjoy murdering people, just as pre-adolescent boys have a forbidden thrill when they pull the wings off of flies.  But they're adults, and would be slightly uncomfortable satisfying their desires stam.  So they find a teretz in their religious or political beliefs.  The blood lust and pleasure is the same, and maybe even enhanced by their delusion that they are serving god and man.

Onwards and Upwards.  Now, we generally don’t commit murder on the larger scale unless we have coopted/subverted our Yetzer Hatov to the service of violence. One difference is that the lifestyle of honest rapine and violence ultimately becomes tiresome, but rationalized violence is forever fresh.   When one convinces ones self that the ideal is  an ultimate good, be it heaven or utopia, one can silence his conscience and engage in the worst and most heartless viciousness, just as a surgeon or dentist that sometimes has to cause pain does not suffer from remorse.  Unfortunately, not all that rises will converge.

Reb Chaim B. said a good he'ara.  We have the Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) תנא דבי ר' ישמעאל בני אם פגע בך מנוול זה משכהו לבית המדרש.  Here's a chidush: the same way shlepping the מנוול Yetzer Hara into a Beis Medrash melts him into nothing, shlepping the Yetzer Hatov into a makom metunaf will destroy him equally well.  Maybe that's what Yaakov and Eisav were doing.  It wasn't just that Yaakov was drawn to the Beis Medrash and Eisav to the other places.  Yaakov was trying to shlepp his menuval twin into the Beis Medrash in order to make him into a mentsch, and Eisav was trying to shlepp Yaakov into the other places in order to make another Eisav out of him.

This is not as cynical as it may seem.  I do think that while resha'im will use even the Bible to rationalize acting out their horrible desires, many others who might have otherwise have been drawn to the dark side are influenced positively by monotheism and the Bible and turn away from that inclination.  The only question is which side will dominate.  As G. K. Chesterton once said, “As for our own society, if it proceeds at its present rate of progress and improvement, no trace or memory of it will be left at all.”


  1. Chazal say if your yetzer ha'ra is getting the best of you, learn torah, i.e. shlep the yetzer ha'ra into the beis medrash and put its energy into arguing with your chavrusa. So it makes sense zeh l'umas zeh that if you can shlep the yetzer ha'ra into the beis medrash for good, you can shelp the yetzer tov into criminal activity as well.

  2. Good tzushtell. If you shlep the Yetzer Hatov into a makom metunaf, it'll energize rishus. I think I'll put that into the post.

    Funny thing is, I was just writing to Eliyahu Fink, and I realized that there are many people out there who think they're saving the poor agunos, and there are women out there who knowingly and cold-bloodedly engineer the dissolution of their marriages in a manner such that they can use the power of the aguna advocates like a spiked club, to force the most traumatic, unjust, and horrible settlements on their husbands. They are using the Yetzer Hatov to serve Ra.