Korah: On Envy, Actualization and Midrash

A great dialectic defines the very essence of man who is, on the one hand, physical, made of the “dust of the earth”; yet, on the other hand, spiritual, imbued with the “breath of God”.  How is man, bound by physical and emotional needs, supposed to transcend himself and approach the divine?  “Learn Midrash,” counsel the teachers of Midrash, “for thus you will know Him at whose command the world came into existence and will attach to His ways” (Sifrei, Ekev 49).

That one should “learn Midrash” to approach the divine is certainly a curious piece of advice, considering that Midrash consists of obscure interpretations and outlandish tales.

This enigmatic style, explains Rabbi Luzzatto, was employed by design, for it is neither appropriate nor effective for the secrets of the divine to be made plain to all.  By abstrusely articulating their ideas, the sages of the Midrash provided selective access to the divine, intriguing the true seeker while dismissing the impatient.

Let us look at one example related to the parsha:

Said Rabbi Hanina ben Sansan: Four opened in “anger” (af) and were lost in anger: the snake, the baker, Korah and company, and Haman. (Genesis Rabbah 19).

While clearly all four are evil, the association made by a “misinterpretation” of the word “af” (which means both “anger” and “even”), leaves us dumbfounded.  How are these four related to each other?  It is my contention that the “anger” noted by the Midrash originates from one negative trait common to all four: envy.

“The movements of envy”, writes Kant (The Metaphysics of Ethics), “are implanted in the human heart, and it is only their utterance which can raise it to the shocking and disgraceful spectacle of a peevish, self-tormenting passion, which aims, in its inward wish, at the destruction and ruin of the good fortune of another.”  Each of the four characters cited by the Midrash exhibited precisely this peevish passion which aimed at the ruin of the object of their envy.

The snake, explains the Talmud (Sotah 9a), was so envious of Adam’s wife that he sought to kill Adam in order to obtain her.  The baker, thrown in to the dungeon by Pharaoh, seethed with envy of Joseph’s secure position, something he so wanted to regain (see Nachmanides, Genesis 40:7).  As for Korah and company, the Psalmist notes them as being, “jealous of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron the holy one of the Lord” (106:16).  Lastly, it was Haman’s jealous disposition that fired his wrath against the confident and defiant Mordechai (see Maharsha, Megilla 12b; Rav Tzadok MiLublin).

Having identified the common drive motivating the anger of the four characters, it is essential to differentiate between each character to fully appreciate the Midrash’s intent.  For if the Midrash only sought to demonstrate the ruinous effects of envy it could have done so with only one example, or other, entirely different, examples (See Sotah 9b).  Why did the Midrash specifically choose these four characters?

Referring back to the statement made by the teachers of Midrash, the general goal of Midrash is to provide a path for man to transcend himself in his quest for the divine.  In modern times, psychologist Abraham Maslow, delineated a kind of “path” that man follows “to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”[1]  This “path” has been famously represented as a pyramid consisting of four stages of “deficiency”, or basic, needs and ending in a pinnacle stage of “being needs” labeled self-actualization – later modified by Viktor Frankl to embody self-transcendence.

I propose that the Midrash purposely chose these four characters in order to express the deleterious effect of envy on man as he treks up the pyramid of self-actualization.  That is, each one of the four characters is a paradigm of envy within one the four deficiency needs.  Interestingly, the order of mention of the four characters in the Midrash follows the order of the four stages of the pyramid.

The first stage of the basic needs is labeled “Physiological” and includes: breathing, sleeping, sex and eating.  It is in this context that the snake figures most prominently.  The Talmud (Sotah 9a) explains that the snake wanted to sleep with Eve, and furthermore that he was to eat the food of man, walk upright and be the king of the animals – all purely physiological needs.  Indeed, to be the king of the animals is to be the king of the animalistic, to wholly satisfy the physiological.

“Safety” needs make up the second stage of the basic needs.  According to Maslow, once one has satisfied his physiology, he needs to feel secure.  The baker, out of a job and wallowing in jail, typifies the individual in extreme need for security.  His dream of birds eating his bread off the baskets on his head, explains Rabbi Riskin (Genesis, p.240), is indicative of his insecurity to the point that even nature was “out to get him.”  Furthermore, Rabbi David Kimchi (Genesis 40:16) notes that the baker approached Joseph for an interpretation of his dream only upon hearing of the “good” – read “security” – assured to the butler.

The third stage of the basic needs, known as “Belonging” needs, refers to the need to be accepted – to belong.  Korah’s opening battle cry to Moses and Aaron was, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the community of the Lord?”  Korah and company claimed, in effect: why should there be distinctions between the people, we are all one, we all “belong”.  The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 18:3) illustrates this belongingness claim through the metaphor of an all blue tallit which Korah argued needed not the mandatory ritual blue threaded tassels.  The all blue tallit without tassels figuratively expresses the claim that all the people are cut of the same cloth and thus there is no need for tassels, there is no need for hierarchy and division amongst “the community of the Lord.”

“Esteem” needs, in which the individual seeks the respect of others, define the fourth, and last, stage of the basic needs.  At the very heart of the Purim story stands Haman’s demand that all subjects of the kingdom show him respect by bowing down (Esther 3:1).  As such, Haman epitomizes – in a most negative way – being motivated by esteem needs.

Maslow noted that these needs are natural and, indeed, must be satisfied before man could become what he was meant to become.  The Midrash comes to teach that, though one can move up the pyramid of needs with envy in his heart and anger on his tongue, his end will come long before reaching self-actualization.  Indeed, self-actualization is dependent on having an appreciation of self; and envy, Kant explains, stands in direct opposition to this:

“[It] is a displeasure arising from not knowing how to estimate our own advantages by their own intrinsic worth, but singly by comparing them with those enjoyed by others.”

Only by sublimating one’s of envy – at every stage of addressing basic needs – can one aspire to the stage of self-actualization; for only by attaining a true appreciation of self can one hope to actualize his own unique self.[2]  Ultimately, this is only possible by making knowledge of “Him at whose command the world came into existence” one’s priority.  And so, wherever we find ourselves on the pyramid to actualization, we would do well to remember that sagely advice: “Learn Midrash.”


[1] I would like to thank Dr. Steve Bailey for helping me to understand the nuances of Maslow’s theory and the resolution of envy therein.

[2] As Kant noted, envy is something which is inherent in the natural psychology of man.  The question is how one will resolve his envy: will one look at his neighbor’s property or achievements and become angry or depressed, or will he be spurred to strive to improve himself.  This idea is articulated by Rabbi Yisrael Lifshutz  who explains that one must apply, among other things, “envy” in the service of God (Mishna, Ber. 9:2).

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at http://www.divreinavon.com