This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.
By Shoshana Rosa
The very first chapter of Tehillim (psalms), actually, the very first verse, gives us a clue on how to tap our latent potential. Avoid the Rip Van Winkles of society, it declares, the drunken Gastons and village-do-nothings. "The praises of a man are that he did not follow the counsel of the wicked, nor did he stand in the way of sinners nor sit in the company of scoffers" (Tehillim 1:1). Do not lose out on getting to know yourself because you chose the company of people who did nothing more than hang out at the local tavern, spitting tobacco and exchanging the latest news.
Not only is this week's Parshat Korach about machloket lo l'shem shamayim (controversy) and skirting bad company, it also demonstrates the strength with which a story can dismantle an entire edifice of wisdom. Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky (a speaker responsible for bringing so many closer to Hashem) mentions that one's sitting in the company of scorners is a reference to Korach, "...who treated Moshe and Aharon with scorn" (V'higagadeta Yom Kippur and Sukkos).
In my previous article, we discussed the logic of Korach's complaint against Moshe. In this year's article, I am going to point out how Korach staked his claim against Moshe with the people. When "Korach gathered his assembly of men" (Numbers 16:19), he publicly mocked Moshe and Aharon with the following anecdote:
I know a widow with two daughters who owned a field. They needed to eat and in order to eat, they needed to work. She harnessed her donkey and her ox to her plow. But Moshe said to her, ""You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together (Deuteronomy 22:10). Nebbach. Poor thing. She unharnessed the donkey and ox and her daughters took the animals' place.
Once the field was plowed, they wanted to plant a variety of crops so that they would have different kinds of produce for food. But Moshe said, You shall not sew your field with a mixture of seeds" (Leviticus 19:19). So she planted only wheat.
When it came time to harvest, Moshe said, "Don't forget about the laws of leket, shikchah and pe'ah - leaving dropped stalks, forgotten bundles and a corner of your field to the poor. She complied and harvested the rest. Then, she was ready to thresh the wheat but Moshe said, "First give me terumah and ma'asar from the wheat. Being a righteous woman, she complied and handed it over. After all that, she realized she couldn't make a living as a farmer.
The story continues on this line of thought for some time until eventually, she throws up her hands in defeat, sits down and cries. Meanwhile, the nation is stirred to a frenzy; Moshe is bleeding the defenseless widow dry. Korach says, "Is this right? To reduce a widow and orphans to poverty? With this argument and similar ones, Korach assembles his 250 cohorts.
The senselessness in Korach's line of reasoning is that neither this woman nor her set of circumstances existed. Not only that but the Jews were living in the desert for crying out loud; the manna that fell from the heavens every day made the need for fields, planting and harvesting unnecessary. Everything was provided by Heaven. But still, the emotion of Korach's invective had the nation swept off its feet. That's the power of a story Rabbi Yaakov tells his readers, it allows people to feel what the people in the story are feeling. Korach, unfortunately, utilized that knowledge for his own nefarious ends.
The effect of scoffing at something is lethal in the same way that propaganda is; it deadens one's commitment to truth, and therefore has the power to knock people off their ethical feet. Like shards of glass, mocking comments can, once erected, form a shield that isn't easily stripped down. Statements like, "Did you see that speaker's tie?" or "Where does he get his haircuts?" or "Did you see how many times he looked down at his notes?" can deflect, with horrible ease, lofty thoughts, personal intentions and New Years resolutions.
Thank G-d, that's not all there is to it, though. Stories can be stretched in both directions - for good as well as evil. Sweep your audiences off their feet with tales that draw out behaviors like kindness, empathy and an excitement to serve Hashem. Teach your children, through the medium of stories, to live life to the fullest, to never give up and to be selfless givers. That is the point of life, after all. So let's live it.