Jul 08 2016

The Power of Groupthink

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ducks-1339549_1280This week’s reading begins with the rebellion led by Korach against Moshe’s leadership. The first half of the reading discusses the rebellion and what transpired afterwards, so clearly there is much to learn from this story.

Korach sought honor and greatness. He was Moshe’s first cousin, and he felt slighted when Moshe, at G-d’s Command, appointed a different cousin to lead the family of Kehas ben Levi. Kehas had four sons; Amram was the oldest, and Amram’s two sons — Moshe and Aharon — were the leader and High Priest of the Jews. The next son of Kehas was Yitzhar, but the appointed leader of the family was not Korach ben Yitzhar, but rather Elitzafan, son of the youngest brother, Uziel. Korach believed that Elitzafan was given an honor that was rightly his own.

He also knew, however, that others would not join a rebellion for his benefit. What was in it for them? It’s like our Sages say: “Ayn adam choteh v’lo lo” — a person does not sin unless doing so is “his,” meaning, to his own perceived benefit. So Korach gave different people different reasons to join his rebellion.

He told the other Levi’im, why did Moshe limit the Kehunah, the Priesthood, to Aharon and his sons? Why should your sons merely be their assistants?

To the firstborn of other tribes, he said, why did Moshe take the leadership away from you, the firstborn, and give it to his own cousins the Levi’im instead?

And to the family of Reuven he said, why did Moshe give the Kehunah to his own brother, and not to your family, that of Yaakov’s firstborn son?

The tribe of Reuven camped on the same side of the Holy Mishkan (Tabernacle) as the family of Kehas, prompting our Sages to observe: “woe unto the wicked person, and woe unto his neighbors!” Because their families were nearby, Korach was more able to spread his evil ideas to them.

People like to imagine that they are objective and impartial analysts of a situation. The reality is that we are tremendously susceptible to peer pressure, and once a group adopts a particular ideology, every member of feels a hidden pressure to conform. And today, with the Internet, you don’t need to live next door to be exposed to evil ideas masquerading as just and good causes.

One person was mentioned as an early adherent of Korach’s rebellion, yet was not killed: Ohn ben Peles, of the tribe of Reuven. How was he saved?

Women have tremendous influence over their husbands. Korach’s wife encouraged him to rebel; Ohn’s wife, on the contrary, saved him. She asked him: what does it matter to you if the Kohen Gadol is Aharon or Korach? Either way, it’s not going to be you, so how do you benefit?

At that point, Ohn confessed to his wife that he was feeling the peer pressure: he had given his word that he would participate in the rebellion the following day.

So what did she do? The Medrash tells us that she first got her husband drunk and put him to bed. Then, she took off her head covering and let down her hair, and she and her daughter sat at the entrance to the family tent. So whenever someone came to collect Ohn, he saw the women with their hair down and turned away! This is why Ohn’s life was spared.

Why was it necessary to get him drunk first? Because she realized that even if he saw she was right, he was still vulnerable to peer pressure. He might have come out of hiding and gone along with them, simply to avoid their knowing that he wanted to back out!

Peer pressure, Groupthink, is incredibly powerful — and incredibly dangerous. Are we choosing our path because it is right, or because it is popular among our friends? None of us are immune, as we learn from the story of Korach and Ohn.

Jul 01 2016

Doing the Impossible

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climber-299018_640In this week’s reading, we find the well-known account of the spies who went into the Land of Israel. The Jews knew that they were supposed to inherit the land; the job of the spies was to find the best way to enter. Are the people strong or weak? Are their cities fortified? All of these were important for tactical reasons. At the same time, the spies were told to investigate the natural resources as well, to see what sort of land would be theirs.

As far as the latter, they performed their task to perfection. They returned calling the land “flowing with milk and honey,” bringing clusters of grapes so large that two people were needed to carry one cluster on a pole. What a wonderful land it was!

But as far as how to enter and take that land was concerned, the spies veered from their mission. Instead of providing tactical advice, they abandoned all hope — they said it cannot be done. They decided that G-d would not keep his promise, and the Children of Israel would never inherit their land.

Only two spies opposed the consensus: Yehoshua and Calev. Calev told the people, “we should certainly ascend and we shall possess it, for we certainly are able to do so” [Num. 13:30].

What was his message? Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 35), which says that this was far more than mere encouragement regarding their capabilities. “‘We should certainly ascend’ – even to Heaven. If he [Moshe] says ‘make ladders and ascend them,’ we shall succeed in all his words.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Calev provides us a model for all growth in Torah and performing G-d’s Will. Calev teaches us that it doesn’t matter if it looks impossible! Since what you wish to do is a “D’var Mitzvah”, something HaShem wants done, then if you try, He will help, and you will be able to do it.

Jun 24 2016

Genuine Humility

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humble-flowerThe Torah describes Moshe in a startling way. It says that he was “more humble than any man” [Numbers 12:3].

First of all, we know that Moshe had a unique relationship with G-d. That should make a person proud of his accomplishments, proud to be selected for such a prominent role. But he regarded everything that he had as a gift from G-d, not something for which he could claim credit. And we can understand that.

But there is another issue, as well. When we think about humility, we think of reticence — the opposite of leadership. This is the same Moshe who stood up to Korach, and who rebuked Israel every time they erred. How could you describe him as humble? He held back nothing!

The answer is that there is nothing that Moshe did for his own honor and respect. He was not standing up to Korach for himself, but for G-d. He did not rebuke Israel for offending him, but for not following the Torah!

The context of this comment about Moshe’s humility is when his siblings spoke with each other, feeling that Moshe was doing something wrong. Our Sages say that he separated, and remained separated from his wife, because he knew that G-d might speak with him at any moment — as G-d proceeds to explain to Miriam and Aharon.

What is the relevance of Moshe’s humility? He didn’t even know what his siblings had said to each other.

The Torah is saying that even had Moshe heard of it, he would not have justified himself. He was in a unique circumstance, both in his time and throughout history. He would not have spoken up simply to protect his honor.

So HaShem did it for him.

Our Sages say that a person who is shamed and does not respond, who says nothing, is honored and rewarded tremendously. In so doing he or she is following in the path of Moshe, who cared not at all for his own honor, and only for honoring G-d.

Jun 10 2016

A Unique Encounter

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flowers-mountainThe Torah teaches that at Sinai, G-d did not reveal Himself to a single individual. Rather, He spoke to the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, the famed Jewish scholar of over 800 years ago, calls this event the foundation, the “pillar upon which our belief revolves.”

Why is this not circular reasoning? The answer is that this event is not something taken on faith, itself. Every Jew today knows that at least until recent generations, his or her forebears believed that this event actually happened — Maimonides says “the best of all witnesses testified” about it.

He points out, further, that there has been no similar event in history, and that the Bible itself tells us that this will never happen again. Moshe warns the Jewish nation to never forget “the things which your eyes saw,” and to teach this to the next and following generations [cf. Deut. 32].

Many have tried to explain that this was merely a story, that it never actually happened. But when they try to explain it in detail, an alternative story stops making sense.

Imagine a village in Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean, that holds a festival every spring. The festival, they tell you, is a celebration of a miraculous event 400 years ago, when a flood swept through their community. The flood did massive damage, washing away entire buildings, yet afterwards not a single villager had perished. And they celebrate that miracle with an annual event. And they present you with records copied by hand from originals dating all the way back to that period.

Would anyone disbelieve the story? Would people argue that the village elders just made it up at some point? Everyone would agree that this almost certainly happened; there is no reason to discount it.

When we look around us today, we see billions of adherents of religions based upon Judaism. There are literally hundreds of religions and sects which claim that they and they alone have the correct theology. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormons — and the list goes on — most of which differ on core theology.

Obviously, the best way to start such a religion would be to create the tale that G-d Returned, spoke to a new group of believers, and explained His new rules. But the Torah asserts that “when you shall look back at the days before you,” you will see that this story was never told prior or after Sinai. The Rambam elaborates: “that there was never anything like this prior, and there will be nothing like it afterwards, this being that an entire individual nation shall hear the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and that they shall see His Glory eye to eye.”

Maimonides teaches that this has not been done, because it cannot be done — because the Jewish Encounter with G-d is truly unique in human history.

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