Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Loyal to the Truth

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The classic paradigm of a machlokes that hides behind the mantle of piety and ends up wreaking havoc is the spat started by Korach. Supposedly a brilliant man and a leader in Klal Yisroel, he had the audacity to challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.

It’s difficult to decide what is more extraordinary, that a person of his rank and intelligence could presume that he could wrest the leadership of Am Yisroel from Hashem’s chosen emissary, or that people would actually rally behind such a naked grab for power.

Indeed, does it not defy comprehension that anyone was taken in by Korach’s cause? Yetzias Mitzrayim. Maamad Har Sinai. The eigel. The sorry episode of the meraglim. The punishment of Nadav and Avihu. The incident with Miriam speaking lashon hara about her brother Moshe. These miraculous and awesome events all transpired in front of their very eyes. These Divinely orchestrated occurrences were not tales that had been reported secondhand; they were profound real-life experiences for every member of the dor hamidbar.

How could they ignore all the striking signs that Moshe and Aharon were Divinely chosen and believe that a rebellion against their leadership would earn approval from Above?

A person who has a negiah – a personal interest or ulterior motive- is a nogeiah b’dovor; he is blinded and can’t think clearly. Korach and his followers fell prey to their own negiah. It distorted their perceptions, so that what would be obvious to any impartial observer was not apparent to them.

Korach’s followers permitted themselves to be swayed by a sweet-talker with pretensions of greatness. They allowed themselves to be led astray by the presumption that if Korach would win, they too would reap advantages and benefits from his victory.

History is full of examples of gifted demagogues who, armed with a forked tongue and manipulative guile, were able to rally the masses around them. These con artists duped people into believing that granting them power would bring great advantages to the average citizen.

It happens all the time. People fall for propaganda. They are easily taken in by hype and glittering sales pitches.

Although it would seem that anyone with a grain of common sense couldn’t possibly fall for Korach’s outrageous arguments, he nevertheless succeeded in attracting a significant number of people to his cause. Everyone in Korach’s eidah was motivated by the assumption that were Korach to win, their own secret ambitions would be realized as well.

All were blind to the certainty that Korach was doomed to fail in his uprising against two illustrious brothers handpicked by Hashem for their roles.

Today we can witness countless examples of the human tendency to ignore logic and common sense, spurred on by wishful thinking. People flock to listen to gifted orators and easily fall prey to their impressive rhetoric. Men with a good command of language and a stock of good stories draw a crowd wherever they go. Today, a person who can speak articulately is so admired for that talent that people are ready to entrust him with the highest offices, regardless of whether he has any experience or ability to be more than an articulate spokesman.

Take a look at what is going in the presidential race. A genuine war hero well known to the country for his courageousness during a five-year brutal captivity, a man armed with a solid track record, a person readily available for informed discussion on any topic with media members, is facing the real possibility of being trounced in the upcoming elections. And by whom?

By a newcomer of uncertain background, someone with no clear record on any of the vital issues facing the country and no accomplishments of any significance, and who boasts the most liberal voting record in the senate. Nonetheless, despite the glaring lack of substance, this man is viewed as the messiah by his supporters.

This is because the newcomer is a gifted reader of speeches crafted for him by hired experts. The novice candidate takes people’s breath away as he reads the words displayed on the teleprompter by wordsmiths paid prodigiously for their talents.

Though this candidate is consistently ambiguous and fumbles on the rare occasion he is forced to answer a question without a script to rely on, his poll numbers continue to rise.

He advocates the most dangerous policies a country could undertake in a time of war, yet most citizens of this country appear to support him. In a time of energy shortage and price run-ups, he holds fast to discredited ideologies holding back the nation from obtaining more fuel of its own.

With recession threatening, he remains loyal to increased government intervention and long discredited economic policy pushing for more taxes.

Yet people appear almost bewitched by him, so enamored are they by his oratory. His words attract them like moths drawn to a light bulb. With hollow but enchanting slogans, he ropes them in and gives them the impression that a win for him is a win for them.

“Yes, we can!” they chant, as if affirming their conviction that his electoral victory will enable each one of his followers to see success in their own personal lives as well. They ignore the troubling question marks hovering over this candidate. They forgive the indiscretions and mistakes, and forget - or choose to ignore - the inexperience and the obvious fact that the man is ill-equipped to lead a nation. They’ve been suckered into believing that his victory is synonymous with their own success. This is the fatal negi’us that totally blinds them to the truth.
In Israel, we see what happens when people elect corrupt individuals and people of flawed character as leaders. In that country, the disastrous fallout from the tenure of a prime minister not worthy of office provides an object lesson for any serious observer.

The man parlayed himself into office claiming to be the worthy heir of a war hero. People were swayed by his pretensions and by their desperate desire for peace. They bought into his fallacious argument that by vacating Gaza, they would achieve the longed-for peace.

No matter that the position made no sense, that it flew in the face of everything that his predecessor - and he himself - had advocated his entire life. Reason was trounced by wishful thinking, by self-delusion. Because people wanted so badly to believe the fantasies they were being fed, the truth could no longer influence them.

As anyone could have predicted, the exodus from Gaza turned into a disaster of unprecedented proportions. The prime minister went on to lose the Lebanon War and is facing indictment on no less than five counts of financial misconduct.

Last week, he entered the country into a misguided cease-fire with Hamas, a sworn enemy. Instead of beating the enemy back, Israel has, in effect, handed the vicious terrorists a victory, acknowledging their authority over an area on its border, something Israel swore it would never do.

As the prime minister engages in yet another suicidal move, you would expect other leaders in that country to protest and cry out against him. But that is so slow to happen. Why?

Because the people in a position to do something about the deplorable situation are so locked into their own self-interest, nothing else matters to them. They worry solely about their own jobs, knowing that if new elections are held, they will be thrown out. So they refrain from speaking out and continue posturing for the media.

Tragically, voters are too apathetic to oust leaders who are plunging the country on a collision course.

Just like with Korach’s band, there is no concern for the truth or the well-being of the nation in the country’s government. The hunger for kavod and status overpowers all other considerations. Driven by self-aggrandizement, these people suffer from fatally impaired judgment and are thus doomed to fail—dragging down others with them.

They are so entrapped in their pursuit of personal gain that they cannot save themselves from the most glaring pitfalls.

We must learn mussar and take care—not only in times of elections and life-changing events but at all times—not to fall prey to the incitement of our our less noble inclinations and desires. To keep ourselves on the winning side and ensure that we don’t succumb to charlatans who present themselves as saviors, we must try our utmost to screen our actions and reactions for negios.

We must view them as an outsider would, and as much as possible divorce any potential personal gain from the equation. We must not permit ourselves to become spellbound by rhetoric to the degree that it causes us to veer off into irrationality and reckless conduct.

The more we train ourselves to perceive falsities, the easier it will become to puncture the myths propagated by naysayers and charlatans. We will instinctively know when a person’s motivations are wholesome and when they are driven by negative intentions.

Those who wish to change the way we frum Jews live or attempt to bring down Jewish institutions and those in our community who work to better the lives of others will be easily identified. Those who enjoy scoffing at noble people and disparaging constructive ventures will reveal themselves as people of low character. We will have no trouble sizing them up and taking stock of their true motives.

Korach was able to keep his feud going until the earth miraculously opened and swallowed him and his group alive. Immediately, his convincing arguments vaporized and the truth reigned with clarity once again.

In our own day, we look forward to that magnificent burst of clarity with the arrival of Moshiach, when those who remained loyal and steadfast to the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen will bask in their Divine reward. All the false ideologies holding sway in today’s world will collapse as all will proclaim, “Moshe emes vesoraso emes!”


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