Jewish Thought

The Truth About Sight

My dear friend Beth* was recently diagnosed with a lifethreatening illness. Despite our closeness, it was a while before she was able to pick up the phone (she lives at a considerable distance) to talk about it. Predictably, as the conversation proceeded I began to cry, and soon we were both in tears. Reflecting on our talk, I realized that her difficulty in apprising me of her diagnosis was that Beth has always been the bearer of good news. She has always viewed everything in her life as a blessing—not that there haven’t been many occurrences and aspects of her existence that could have been experienced otherwise. Beth, however, has always chosen the high road. In fact, in the midst of lamenting her current condition and the toll it was exacting on her body, she related that shortly before picking up the phone to call me she’d stepped outdoors for a moment. Witnessing the panoramic splendor of the beautiful day, with its blue skies overheard and ocean sparkling with reflections of the sun’s rays, she had choked up and thanked the Almighty for His abundant bounty, the blessings of the past, and most importantly, for the gift of that very moment. Moved by her remarkable presence of mind, I assured her that the Master of the World had certainly made a very wise investment when He chose to give her years filled with what she has perceived as good fortune, because she always responds with gratitude and appreciation. In my humble opinion, I told her,I would think that Hashem would definitely want her continued presence in the world because of the positive energy she brings to it. I was struck by the startling contrast of the attitude of the inspirational “Beths” in our midst with that of “Korach and his assembly,” about whom we heard a few weeks
ago in the weekly parshah. Korach, Chazal inform us, was a person of great stature, a formidable Torah scholar who was brilliant, extremely rich and respected. Objectively speaking, he had it all. Nevertheless, he chose to focus on what he didn’t have. He wanted to be the kohen gadol instead of Aharon, Moshe Rabbeinu’s brother. With his massive font of knowledge and compelling charisma,he convinced some of the greatest leaders of klal Yisrael that Moshe Rabbeinu was guilty of nepotism.

Jewish Rabbis

In appointing his brother Aharon to serve in Israel’s highest religious office, Korach was convinced that others, mostly himself, were being denied this special position that would bring them closest to Hashem. Hatred and envy, our Sages state, twist a person’s ability to see things straight.  Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu appealed to Korach and his entourage and said, “Is it insufficient for you, sons of the Levite tribe, that Hashem has distinguished you amongst the congregation of Israel to devote yourselves to Him through your service in the Mishkan? Must you also covet the high priesthood?” The lesson of Korach’s terribly misguided play for power and the tragic consequences of his insurgence is relevant for all of us to contemplate. It invites us to scrutinize our own lives and ask ourselves some searching questions, the primary one being: Do we recognize that the life we have, with all of its blessings and challenges, is the life we were meant to have, ordained for us by Hashem in His infinite wisdom? Unquestionably, if we could internalize this understanding, we would not waste precious energy on desires and ambitions that don’t belong to us, on designs that are irrelevant to the unique purpose for which we were created. We would be able to devote ourselves to bringing excellence to that which we do best, to celebrate the role Hashem has specifically tailored for our individual needs.  “Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes,” we say in the daily Shema prayer. The obvious question is asked as to why the heart is mentioned before the eyes. One would think that the heart naturally follows the urging of the eyes after they see something desirable. However, one of the commentators explains the sequence by noting that the way we view things with our eyes invariably follows the heart’s agenda. In other words, the promptings of the heart, its cravings and its biases, shape and form how we see our world.  Throughout her life, my friend Beth has desired nothing other than what she has, and has consequently seen her life as an endless series of blessings. By contrast, Korach and his many twisted heirs in history, despite their privileged circumstances, are conflicted and tortured by desires that they cannot fulfill, and hence cannot appreciate what they already possess.  May Hashem bless us with the wherewithal to open up our hearts to the realization of the wealth of our individual blessings, and our eyes to their presence moment-to-moment in our daily lives.

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