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Ego vs. Humility #633

06/26/2020 05:14:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Korach vs. Moses
Ego vs. Humility 


In the small town of Peshischa, Poland, Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827), struggled with two, opposing philosophies:

“Is each one of us the center of the universe — or are we merely dust in the wind?”

As Rabbi Bunim contemplated the matter, he referenced a passage from the Talmud, which teaches that since each of us is minted from Adam and Eve, "no one is like his fellow man. Therefore, each of us is obligated to say, “For my sake the entire world was created.”

So…is life just about us? 

But then, Rabbi Bunim turned to a biblical story about Abraham, who asked God to spare the lives of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah; they were condemned to death, because they were selfish and self-centered.

“I am but dust and ashes,” said Abraham as he humbly approached God. “But if there are 50 righteous people in the towns, will you spare them?”

God listened and altered the decree, according to the sincerity and contriteness of Abraham's words. Sometimes, he taught, humility and self-control can bring about change in our lives and the lives of others.

So which is it? Are we everything or nothing?

To settle this philosophical dispute, Rabbi Bunim offered a unique solution: "Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times,” he taught. “On one write: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other: ‘The world was created for me.’”

And in so doing, for hundreds of years, he has inspired others to maintain a sensitive balance within their lives: Each of us is a universe, but it means little if we apply it only to ourselves.

The balance between ego and humility plays an important role in this week’s Torah portion named after a biblical villain known as Korach.   

Moses, God’s handpicked leader, is confronted by Korach, a charismatic challenger, who asks why Moses and his brother, Aaron, perpetually get to lead the Jewish people.

Korach asks: “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) He is supported in his challenge by 250 “men of repute.”

Often, Rabbis and others examining this Biblical story question what was so wrong with Korach challenging Moses. After all, aren’t debate, discussion and disagreement central to Judaism? We are taught from birth to question authority and the status quo. So, what was the problem?

Our rabbis note that Korach was motivated by ego.

Our tradition says Korach publicly complained about high taxes but failed to mention to the Israelite masses that the taxes were levied to assist the poor and support the Temple’s upkeep.

Our Sages note that Korach and his followers were models of self-centeredness.

So, how did Moses react? 

Upon hearing Korach’s accusations, Moses, “falls on his face.” It is, say our Sages, a classic case of humility responding to ego. 

In the end, the ground opened, and Korach and his followers were swallowed up, with God making an important point: Power for the sake of power does not promote public good.

Notes scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994): “True messengers present themselves as unworthy of the task…only persons of self-interest, eager for the position of leader proclaim, “I can do it better.”

While each of us has a role to play within this universe, we must lead with humility and care for others. This is especially true of leaders.

Each of us is mandated to make a difference in this world — to contribute in the best way we can — but we must do so with modesty. For while each of us is important and vital, our lives, our fates, our destinies are in the hands of God.

As we seem to be exiting a time of great concern about health in New York, is there any question in our minds that we are dust?

During the late 1980s, a society was formed to sustain those who hid Jews during the Holocaust. Over its history, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has raised more than $41 million to support more than 1,800 aging rescuers. 

While the total number of people being supported has dwindled to about 225, more than $1.1 million will be distributed this year.

I have had the honor — on a number of occasions — to accompany our graduating Limud Hebrew school students to an annual dinner held in Manhattan, where a Holocaust survivor was reunited with a family member of a non-Jewish family that sheltered and rescued them and their families.

As hundreds of us stood with tears flowing, these two elders hugged tightly after more than 70 years of separation. Their bond was unbreakable, everlasting.

A Holocaust survivor now in their 80s or 90s, stood before the audience, accompanied by dozens of family members — often with a photo in hand of 40 or so family members. 

All of this was made possible because of the rescuer’s kindness. And each year, what was the consistent response of their rescuer?

“We were not heroes. We only did what was right.”

Each year at that moment, I thought of Rabbi Bunim and those two scraps of paper.

Each one of us is blessed with the capacity to live beyond pleasure — and change the world. The world revolves and depends upon it.

Yet, as we journey on this sacred highway, we are presented with opportunities to do what is right without fanfare — without reward, without ego — with humility.

Moses understood that. He was a true leader. Korach did not, and was consumed by his ego.

There is, perhaps, a little of Moses and Korach in each of us — and of course, that is the essence of Rabbi Bumin’s lesson.

Each year, as I watched two of God’s children re-unite, I was reminded that in the end, politics, wars and borders mean little.

Each one of us has the capacity to make a difference just by being who we are.

Each of us is a speck of dust loaded with infinite potential.

Indeed, each of us is a universe, a collection of dust and souls, which — together — can heal this often-battered and imperfect world. 

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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