Dealing with Adversity – Fleeing From Honor

In this week’s parashah, Korach instigates a rebellion against Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership and the granting of the kehunah to Aharon HaKohen. He is miffed when he witnesses Elitzaphan ben Uziel being divinely appointed the leader of Shevet Levi. Korach is joined by Moshe’s longtime adversaries, Dasan and Aviram and 250 distinguished members of Klal Yisrael. The defiance of Korach and his ilk of Moshe and Aharon, appointed by Hashem – in effect a violation of Hashem’s honor – warranted a harsh, unprecedented punishment. The earth opened and swallowed the rebels.

In Pirkei Avos this week (perek 4) we learn “Envy, desire and the pursuit of honor drive a person out of the world (mishnah 28) It would seem Korach’s wicked conduct was driven by all three.

Sefer Mesilas Yesharim (perek 11) states explicitly that honor was the force that caused Korach’s downfall, his righteousness and Torah scholarship notwithstanding (although envy and desire were assuredly part of the formula for disaster). The Ramchal (acrostic for its author, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato) tells us that the desire for honor tugs at one’s heart more than any other earthly desire. Sans this quality, a person would be satisfied with whatever he has in the way of food, clothing and shelter. Because he cannot handle being seen of lesser status than his peers he joins the fray of those competing for honor and approval of those around them.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) makes a similar comment about the wicked king Yeravam ben Nevat, who had spread idolatry among the Ten Tribes and spurned Hashem’s offer to do teshuvah which would have awarded him with the opportunity of walking together with Hashem and Dovid Hamelech in Gan Eden. When he learned Dovid would be in the lead, Yeravam could not bear serving in a subordinate capacity to Dovid.

Some people do not consider themselves pursuers of honor since they feel abashed when honor is bestowed upon them. A more accurate measuring rod of their approach to kavod is their reaction when they are passed up for honors. The proverbial Shabbos guest in a shul is approached by the gabbai who asks him whether he is a Kohen or Levi. “I’m a shelishi,” he assuredly replied, indicating that he is a Yisrael and expects the coveted third aliyah.

In contrast, Rav Akiva Eiger, zt”l, was once called for shelishi in a shul where Harav Yaakov Lorberbaum, zt”l, the famed Lisa Rav and author of Nesivos Hamishpat, one of the Gedolei Hador, was present. Rav Akiva fainted at the notion that he was given this kibud in the presence of the Nesivos (as he was known), whom he deemed to be much greater. Our Torah luminaries not only shirk honors but seek to bestow them on those they consider greater. 

Korach desired recognition because he saw prophetically that he would have exalted lineage including Shmuel Hanavi. Harav Avrohom Yaakov Pam, zt”l, wonders why he did not react oppositely; would not the honor and nachas from his descendants suffice? Rav Pam cites Mishlei 28:20, “A faithful man will have many blessings but one who rushes to become wealthy will not go unpunished, which the Yalkut Shimoni says refers to Korach who was antsy about his future acclaim. Similarly, Malbim on this passuk decries the lazy man who is impatient to “get rich quick” as opposed to the serious worker who trusts that his hard labor will reap rewards   at the right time.

Mesilas Yesharim muses about how many people refuse work they deem to be beneath their dignity and choose to live in poverty rather than compromise their honor. This is one of the greatest obstacles facing man, says Ramchal, and impedes a person from being a faithful servant of Hashem

Interestingly, when it comes to giving kavod to other people, we should have a different perspective. Rabbi Yehuda Mandel recalled that in the Novardok Yeshivah in Bialystok, much consideration was given to how the aliyos were distributed, taking into account respect due to the talmidim. This was an instructive policy given the Novardok school of thought that generally taught disdain for the pursuit of honor.

The first mishnah in this perek states, “Who is considered honored? One who honors other people.”

Some might view giving honor as simply a form of courteousness or derech eretz. Harav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, (Alei Shor, chelek alef, p. 118) explains that honoring others is much more than that – it implies recognizing the greatness of the neshamah  and making known someone else’s luminous qualities and talents. These efforts build them up and uplift them as we allow them to see themselves as they are worthy of being seen. By praising others we may feel in a sense we are placing ourselves second. Truthfully, we gain as well in terms of chessed and consideration and as contributors to another person’ success;

Rabbi Yosef Gesser is a longtime writer for Hamodia Newspaper as well as an inspirational speaker on various topics, including dealing with adversity. He can be reached at ygesser@hamodia.com.

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