The annals of history highlight the significant role of rebellion and revolution in changing and influencing the fates of empires. Nations have risen and fallen and been swept across the chronicles of time in the shadow of revolt and insurrection. A source of great debate in modern times, American history in particular is riddled with these origin stories; the pioneering and patriotic Colonist rejected the rule of the Royals and threw off a tyrannical yolk.
Yet, there is a fair amount of dissonance created when one analyzes history through this lens, because while it is evident that revolution is necessary, that the rise and fall of nations depends upon rebellion, the ethical and moral consequences of these political and social uprisings depend very much upon the motivation behind each revolution.
To resolve this dissonance, one need only explore the motivations of the “insurgent” rebel and their “oppressive” ruler to determine with which side one wants to align. The devil is in the details: Who was fighting for a value, such as freedom, religion, humanity, or life, and who was simply boasting their weapons and wealth, shedding blood to expand boundaries, or driven to insurrection because of insecurity, jealousy, or greed?
The study of psychology is, in essence, a study of human motivation. Two of the primary questions that psychologists ask is “why do people do what they do?” and “why do people feel how they feel?” In exploring these questions, the field of psychology began to recognize that the answers are linked. Human behavior is often motivated by emotion. Socially and historically, it is evident that the motivation behind one’s actions is perhaps the greatest predictor of that action’s consequences and impact.
Korach’s rebellion is an enigmatic chapter in the narrative of the Jews’ forty-year sojourn in the desert. The Pasuk describes that Korach and his followers approached Moshe and Aharon complaining that they took too much leadership for themselves (16:1). Rashi (16:1) explains that Korach and his 250 followers approached Moshe on the pretense of asking Halachic Sheilos, only to scoff at his responses and use his answers to demonstrate that Moshe’s “logic” (which in truth was actually Divine ordination) was flawed, as a means of casting doubt on Moshe’s wisdom and leadership ability. Rashi (16:3) further notes that Korach not only took issue with the Levite leader, but particularly with the fact that Aharon, Moshe’s brother, was the Kohen Gadol, and that out of the whole tribe of Levi, only Aharon’s sons were able to be Kohanim.
Korach’s behavior is striking, however, because as a Levite, he himself was a high-ranking member of one of the highest-ranking tribes. Furthermore, given our understanding of the holy stature of the Dor HaMidbar, we cannot simply take such an act of rebellion at face value. What was motivating Korach to rebel against Moshe?
Rav Wolbe notes that it is evident that the root of Korach’s rebellion was not curiosity about Halachic issues or skepticism about Moshe’s ability to lead the nation, or even moral indignation at Moshe’s appointments (as we know Aharon was actually chosen by G-d, not Moshe, to be Kohen Gadol). Rather, Rav Wolbe explains that Korach’s primary motivation was his jealousy of Moshe and Aharon, and his frustration with being so close, yet so far - a kindred son of Levi, shunted to the side.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:17) warns that all disputes that are “Lishem Shamayim” will be upheld, while those disputes that are not will not. The Mishna cites Korach’s dispute with Moshe and Aharon as an example of the latter, a Machlokes She’einah Lishem Shamayim. Rav Wolbe explains that this is because Korach’s motivation was rooted in negative character traits, that of jealousy and greed. Jealously is particularly destructive because it can be blinding, and can cause a person to make unwise and unreasonable decisions, with disastrous consequences, such as being swallowed alive by the earth itself.
The Mishnah (Avos 4:21) also states that Kinah, Taavah, and Kavod (jealousy, desire, and the pursuit of honor) remove a person from this world. The mechanism here is as follows: When I am consumed by jealousy, desire, or the need for honor, I am unable to see the world and my place in it clearly and accurately. My perspective of reality becomes so distorted, I am quite literally removed from the world, from the truth of what my life actually is, and what it actually contains. If jealousy is motivating me to fight with others, it is unlikely that my argument will be upheld, because it is more likely that my perspective is distorted, and eventually the truth will come out. This, it seems, may be what befell Korach and his followers.
Sometimes, we must question authority or push boundaries – it is not always healthy or effective to accept all limits and limitations, personally or societally. When one’s questioning and line-toeing are motivated by curiosity, a desire for growth or expansion, or for the benefit or wellbeing of masses of vulnerable people, these kinds of disputes endure. The Mishnah cites the ongoing discourses and debates of Hillel and Shamai as amongst those that endure, because their goal is truth, not glory; knowledge, not fame or power. Korach’s rebellion, however, did not endure, because it was motivated by jealousy and a thirst for glory and honor.
To understand whether a question, debate, or full-blown revolution will withstand the test of time, one need only explore the underlying motivations behind them. Historically, those nations who sought only glory, power, and expansion, and particularly those who oppressed or annihilated others in order to gain these things, have come and gone, fated forever to be known only fleetingly in the pages of history books.
This is true not only about history globally, but also in our personal lives. When fighting for something, when debating, arguing or causing dispute or conflict, we must examine our motivations. When we are dissatisfied with the way something is managed, in school, at home, at work, or when we notice ourselves questioning the actions of those around us, we must ask ourselves: am I speaking out against this because I am jealous and motivated by insecurity, desire, or glory, or because this cause is worthy of being argued about and fought for? Is there meaning here, is there peace to pursue at the end of this debate, is there a future for others here? Who is hurt at my expense? Who wins if I win? Do I win alone?
This week, let us reflect on the motivations underlying our behavior. In what ways might we be driven by our emotions in an ineffective or harmful manner? Where is jealousy or the desire for honor tripping us up? Let us try to utilize our powers of introspection and self-reflection to understand our own motivations, and be blessed to engage only in disputes Lishem Shamayim, discourses that endure.