There is a true story told by the great Tzadik, the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal Zt”l (d. 1993), about an older Jewish man who lived in Brisk (a city in Belarus) where he owned a textile shop. On the same street was another textile shop, owned by another Jew who had many more customers than the old man and far outdid him for business.
One day an army officer entered the popular other store and made a purchase. When he arrived home and inspected the materials he found that he had received far less than he had paid for (so he thought). He immediately assumed the Jewish merchant had cheated him purposely. He informed the authorities who sent off an inspector to check the store’s weights and measures.
Somehow the older man found out about the up and coming inspection and although he was not sure whether his competitor did in fact have inaccurate measures, he was sure that the anti-Semitic authorities would punish his competitor extremely harshly if they could find some excuse. The old man therefore went to the other man’s store, informed him of the government inspector and gave over to the man his own weights and measuring instruments which he knew to be precisely accurate.
At first glance the older man’s actions seem like the simple kindness that one would expect from any decent human being. But there is a deeper powerful character trait that allowed for this act of kindness. Its opposite surfaces in this week’s parasha and it is something that is well worth delving into, to inspire us as we enter this Shabbat.
In this week’s parasha, Korach, the first cousin of Moshe and Aharon, from the tribe of Levi, gathers together a rebellion against Moshe’s leadership and Aharon’s position as Cohen Gadol.
They (Korach and his men) gathered against Moshe and Aharon and they said to them; ‘You have gone too far. All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation? (Bamidbar 16:3)
On the surface, it seems as though Korach’s claim was based on innocent ignorance. He thought, it seems, that Moshe and Aharon had chosen the leadership for themselves, and not G-d, and thus Korach and his cohorts felt that Moshe and Aharon, being brothers, were taking advantage by giving each other the top jobs.
But this is not the case at all. In fact, Korach was intellectually very sharp and even had prophetic insight (See Rashi v.7) and the men who joined him in his dispute were great wise men (see Rashi v.1).
The Midrashim explain what was really motivating the rebellion. Rashi brings the midrash that asks; ‘What was it that Korach saw that led him to dispute with Moshe?’ The midrash answers that he was envious of the princely position which had been given to his younger cousin, Elitzaphan ben Uzziel. Korach felt that he should have been chosen for this role. After all, Elitzaphan was also a first cousin of Korach’s, but while Korach was the first born from his father’s family, Elitzaphan was not the firstborn of his. This envy says the Midrash, drove Korach to rebel against Moshe.
The truth is that another Midrash teaches that Korach actually saw with ruach haKodesh that from him would descend great holy people including the holy prophet Shmuel. Korach reasoned that if such greatness is destined to emerge from him, it must be that he should also be destined for greatness and thus Hashem would choose him in a showdown with Moshe and Aharon and Aharon’s priesthood would be his (Rashi v.7).
What is amazing is how someone of such insight and genius can act so foolishly leading to his own tragic downfall. What causes the intelligent to act with such stupidity? What blinds the eyes of the wise to be so foolish? The answer is the burning inner voice of envy.
Envy causes irrational behavior and only leads to our own detriment. The Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just, 1738) poignantly describes the foolishness of Envy:
Envy is only lack of understanding and foolishness for one who is envious does not gain anything for himself, nor does it cause any loss to the one whom he is envious of, rather he (the one who feels the envy) only causes himself to lose… There are some whose foolishness in this regard is so great that if he sees his fellow with some good thing, he will worry and feel pained to the point that he will not even enjoy his own good things because of the pain of seeing that which his neighbor possesses. And this is what the wise one said “Envy rots the bones” (Mishlei 14).
Why do people allow themselves to feel envy of others? What is the point? Like the Ramchal so brilliantly teaches, you will not gain what your friend has by being envious of him. You only lose!
What do you lose exactly? Well firstly, as the Ramchal explained, you feel pained and worried by another’s success or accomplishment. With each person’s triumph you feel as though you have lost something. You feel smaller when you feel someone else is taking up room that you should occupy. And you can even lose out on enjoying the good which you actually do have in your life. How sad it is to be so focused on that which others have, that we become blind to the good that surrounds us. With this we lose our most basic source of happiness – the (immeasurable) good that we already have in our lives.
But you lose so much more; you also lose your unique sense of mission and purpose in this world. This is because envy is the result of thinking that ‘he/she has what I should really have’. Hashem gives you exactly what you need to be the best you and the uniquely special you that only you can be. In fact there is only one you – in the history of the world and the future of the world. There never has been and never will be another you with the same exact tool box of goodies to do a unique job in this world. When we feel envy, we think someone else has got our tool box – as if there was a mistake somewhere in the postal system from above. No, there are no mistakes. Each person gets exactly what they need to do their job and we cannot afford to let envy push us to lose our sense of personal mission by attaching it to someone else. It is far too precious.
The Messilat Yesharim therefore writes: “If only a person knew and understood that he will not touch that which has been prepared for his friend – not even a hairs breadth (Yoma 38b). If they recognized that everything proceeds from Hashem in accordance with His wondrous judgment and unfathomable wisdom, they would have no reason whatsoever to suffer over their neighbor’s good.”
Perhaps this is one of the meanings of the teaching in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot when it says “Envy, lust and honour remove a person from the world”. We can lose our entire purpose for being in this world by thinking we need to be someone else.
This, the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva explained, was what happened with Korach. His wisdom and insight were blinded by his envy which literally took him out of this world. The Rosh Yeshiva added that this envy is what he believed was completely absent from the old man in the story above, and as such he was able to help out his competitor without even a seconds thought.
In the extremely competitive world we live in, we must constantly remind ourselves that ‘I don’t need to be anyone but the best me – no one else but me’; and have a wonderful and holy Shabbat,