This week's parsha features the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moshe. Korach's main point of contention was Moshe's appointment of Elizaphan Ben Uziel as a Nasi, despite the fact that, in terms of age, Korach was next in line for this position. Korach, perceiving this to be a fabrication of the Will of Hashem, gathered together two-hundred and fifty heads of the Assembly to challenge Moshe's leadership.
The Midrash Tanchuma asks a deeply penetrating question regarding the motives of Korach: "Korach was a clever man; what did he see that brought him to such foolishness?” The Midrash answers: "His eyes misled him, for he saw a great chain of descendants emerging from him: Shmuel Hanavi, who was as important as Moshe and Aharon, as it says in Tehillim (99:6) 'Moshe and Aharon were among his priests and Shmuel was among those who invoke his name.'" Korach saw from the fact that Shmuel is mentioned in the same sentence as Moshe and Aharon, that Shmuel is just as important as them. He then took this as proof that he, an ancestor of Shmuel, was rightful in mounting this rebellion.
Korach's line of reasoning is very difficult to understand. He feels that he is justified in replacing Moshe and Aharon as leader because he saw that one of his descendants will be a very important person. How does his offspring prove that he is fitting to be a leader? If Shmuel himself were leading this rebellion, then the argument would make sense: Shmuel is just as important as Moshe and Aharon, so perhaps he could be fitting to lead in their place. But what does Shmuel's greatness say about Korach's own worthiness? Furthermore, this thought process only proves the very opposite of Korach's entire goal. Inherent in his argument is the assumption that Moshe and Aharon are men of spiritual greatness themselves (i.e. Shmuel is as great as them.) But yet, he claims that Moshe and Aharon are unfitting, and that they are fabricating the will of Hashem! How can they be great enough to prove his own greatness, yet not great enough to be the rightful leaders?
How can Korach make such an incredibly illogical argument?
From here we can gain tremendous insight into the devastating effect of a negiah (a personal bias) on an otherwise straight-thinking individual.
Rav Yecheskel Weinfeld Shlit”a explains that there are two ways that a negiah can manifest in a person. In the first, the person is uninterested in the facts that might prove him wrong and simply ignores them. Such a person is so stubborn and set in their ways, that they refuse to consider anything that may move them from their belief; they walk through life with proverbial blinders over their eyes. Then there is a second, more pernicious type of bias. This is when the person willingly examines the facts, but he is so engulfed in his prism of reality that these facts cannot disprove his notions and theories. On the contrary – all the facts in the world only serve to corroborate him!
This second level of negiah, even a minutely subconscious one, can skew a person's reality with absolutely newfangled, misguided interpretations, all just in order to justify his desired worldview. No matter that others don't understand or agree with a word he says – and tell him he's crazy – for this person is so locked in his ideas that he concludes everyone else is crazy!
This was the downfall of Korach. His main thrust to overtake Moshe and Aharon – his negiah – was his desire for honor. This bias led him so far astray that he came to the ridiculous conclusion that he was fitting to be a leader, and argue that he had been unjustly denied a position of authority, all through a faulty line of reasoning. Shmuel, the progeny who “proved” his worthiness, and would himself have been fitting for the job, would not be born for generations. Additionally, his logic caused him to mount a rebellion against leaders whom he himself inherently admitted were great and holy men!
This clarifies another difficulty in the sedrah as well.
It's interesting to note that this Midrash cited above is only quoted by Rashi much later in the episode (16:7), after Korach has already begun his rebellion. Seemingly, if the Midrash is explaining Korach’s motives, wouldn't it have made more sense for Rashi to quote it in the beginning? However in light of our explanation we can understand that Korach’s thought process was really post-facto; once he already decided to rebel, his bias forced him to conjure up a justification for his actions. Meaning that Rashi implicitly understood that the real, initial motivation for Korach’s actions was the appointment of Elizaphan, and the Midrash only comes to tell us this this was Korach’s second-thought.
This explanation also sheds a new light both on the Midrash and on a fundamental question in our parsha. The Midrash says "His eyes mistook him for he saw a great chain of descendant's emerging from him." Seemingly, Korach saw this with ruach hakodesh. If he was of the caliber to be able to merit these lofty visions, doesn't that perhaps lend some credence to his claim of personal greatness? How could such a great person be so misled? However, now we can understand that when a person is unaware of his subliminal biases, it can bring ruin upon him. It can even turn his positive traits against him. The Sefas Emes quotes the Chozeh of Lublin in regards to what we can learn from Korach: when a person is not self-aware, even ruach hakodesh is destructive! The need to be aware of our biases is so great because the damage they can wreak on our lives can be monumental.
Rav Yisrael Salanter called this necessity to be self-aware, the avodah of דע את עצמך – “to know thyself”. L’ehavdil, this idea goes back to Plato and the pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Thales of Miletus. Benjamin Franklin, in his 1750 Poor Richard's Almanack observed, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Even the wise men of the world were cognizant of the potential damage that an unchecked bias can cause.
Though it is extremely difficult to do, if we can challenge ourselves to become more attuned to our inner workings and subliminal thoughts, we can avoid being led astray from our tasks in life. May we merit the strength to realize – and subsequently overcome – our biases, and may we be able to see reality in a pure form that will allow us to fulfill the true will of Hashem.