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Why a Religious Code Gives Us Purpose

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

When I try to put myself into the minds of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, I simply cannot understand their mentality. Why are they constantly complaining about everything?

The plagues in Egypt and the Exodus were miraculous. They feared death at the Red Sea, yet they came through safely.  They experienced something phenomenal at Mount Sinai, and immediately after they worshiped a golden calf.

Earlier in the book of Numbers, Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his wife. The collapse of morale after the spies returned with negative reports led to the sentence of 40 years in the wilderness.

Then we read about Korach, who together with the Levites and the tribe of Reuben, led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, claiming that they had no right to impose themselves on the people, and that Korach and his crew had just as much right to rule. Were they arrogant or stupid not to realize that Moses had a very special relationship with God?

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It seems to me there are several ways of looking at this, all mentioned in different Midrashim. One is to say that Korach was just blinded by his own ambition, wealth, and a political agenda. The other explanation is that it is the company you keep. “Woe to the wicked and woe to the wicked person’s neighbor,” said the rabbis.

You could argue that this episode shows that it is only a minority that leads and causes problems. Others like to say it was only the riffraff, the mixed multitude of non-Israelites who came out with them, the disaffected, who caused the problem. And here too is an example of how when you have a small group of dissidents they can undermine the social fabric and blackmail or bully the wider society to follow them.

But there is another way of looking at this. The Torah in general is a document concerned with human behavior and how to direct people to behave ethically and with a sense of communal identity and cohesion. And yet it constantly records the failings as well as the positives, in every personality in the Torah. From Adam and Eve, Noah, and on through the founding fathers, the greatest leaders and examples have their limitations. And so inevitably does everyone else. All these cases of disobeying God show how easy it is to go off the rails even for the most pious person, no matter what miracles they may have witnessed. The Torah is a document of instruction, on how to make better decisions in life, of encouragement as well as a warning of what happens when we get things wrong.

When we are driven by power, greed, and egoism, we may think we can do better or know better than everyone else, but it rarely works out that way. The Torah is the first document to address the whole community, not just the leaders — and to warn against the abuse of power for selfish interests.

Even if we think we are acting out of the best of motives, we must be made aware of the possibility that we are not. This is why we all need standards and a sense of authority beyond our nature. And why having a structured way of life, that reminds us daily of our obligations and responsibilities, is so important.

Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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