We must all be mindful of keeping our envy in check, particularly in relating to close family members, co-workers and friends. We can be blinded by what I have come to label as our “inner Korah,” the part of us that allows jealousy and hurt to make us self-absorbed and prone to creating suffering.
Social media has not become part of my day-to-day communication; however, every few weeks, I open up Facebook and scroll through the postings of my Facebook friends. I see photos of friends’ smiling children, trips to the beach or overseas, and family celebrations, and, more often than I would like to admit, feelings of jealousy arise as I peruse.
Why does this happen? Why am I overcome by envy rather than joy in witnessing the blessings in the lives of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances? Why do I start wishing that I had what they have, rather than appreciating the abundance in my own life?
Most, if not all, of us occasionally experience envy, comparing our lives to our neighbors’ lives and wishing that our lot were different. Envy can make it difficult to maintain a healthy perspective and, if not kept in check, can lead us down destructive paths.
In this week’s parasha, Korah organizes a rebellion against his cousins Moses and Aaron. Korah gathers more than 250 leaders of the Israelites to challenge Moses’ authority. In contrast to previous grumblings of the Israelites during their time in the desert, focused on hunger and thirst and fear of the unknown, this episode is a direct, organized attack on the leadership of the community.
While Korah’s charisma brings together a diverse group of Israelites, there is little substance behind his complaints. What is his rebellion really about?
Midrash Tanhuma, which Rashi quotes, suggests that Korah’s complaint against Moses is rooted in a personal slight and in envy. He felt left out. He saw how Moses and Aaron, sons of his father’s older brother, became the leader and high priest, and how Elizaphan, the son of his father’s youngest brother, was appointed by Moses as chieftain of the Kohathites.
He envied his cousins, their positions and, rather than waiting to discover what his role in the community was meant to be, he allowed his sense of rejection to fuel a rebellion that ultimately led to his own demise and the demise of those he led astray.
We must all be mindful of keeping our envy in check, particularly in relating to close family members, co-workers and friends. We can be blinded by what I have come to label as our “inner Korah,” the part of us that allows jealousy and hurt to make us self-absorbed and prone to creating suffering. We waste energy on focusing on opportunities that were given to someone else, rather than focusing on the blessings and opportunities that are sent our way.
I recall being upset that a friend did not invite me to a gathering. Then when she did invite me a few weeks later, I was still holding on to the hurt about not having been previously invited, and thus unable to open my heart to fully receive the invitation. We are often more loved and appreciated than we allow ourselves to see and, as Moses Hayyim Luzzatto teaches in Mesilat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright, if we realized that we can only receive that which is destined for us, “we would have no reason to resent our neighbor’s good fortune.”
Almost five years ago, I began an intensive spiritual journey as a student in the Mussar Leadership Program, founded here in Philadelphia by Rabbi Ira Stone. These studies, which include a combination of traditional text study and cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), have transformed my relationships as I have engaged in the process of learning to “wake up” from my own self-absorption (yetzer hara) and to experience the joy of serving others (yetzer hatov). In class and in weekly hevruta (partner study), we support one another in developing our middot (character traits).
One of my favorite middot is anavah (modesty): “Always seek to learn wisdom from everyone, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friend’s faults.” If Korah had chosen to work on this middah, if he had reflected on his own contribution to the situation, he might have found a more productive way to deal with his hurt and frustration. This is difficult to do without support because when we are wrapped up in our own feelings, it becomes hard to gain perspective.
We are in the midst of a revival of Mussar studies in the American Jewish community, drawing from a pre-World War I tradition of Mussar study in Lithuania. Being a Mussar student is a challenging, yet joy-filled path to greater connection, compassion and generosity, and I welcome you to learn more at mussarleadership.org.
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein is a teacher of Jewish contemplative practices. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.