Korach felt slighted that Moses didn’t select him for a prominent communal position and found 250 leaders to join him in a rebellion.
And they rose up before Moses with two hundred and fifty men, princes of the congregation. (ibid. 16:2)
One of the conspirators was Ohn ben Peles. The Midrash says that his wife convinced him to separate himself from the group and abandon his part in the rebellion. Her argument was that regardless of who would be victorious—Moses or Korach—Ohn, her husband, would still be in a lower tier of leadership. “Why engage yourself in a revolution,” she asked, “if you have no personal benefit?” Whether it’s office politics, war, or any other conflict, the reason we’re willing to risk something is for the potential personal gain—land, money, status, freedom—with the team I’m siding with. It’s foolish to put one’s job or life on the line if there’s nothing to gain; this was the basic argument of Ohn’s wise wife. But did she tell him something he didn’t already know? Surely, he knew Korach would be the leader and his (Ohn’s) status would remain the same; why was it necessary for his wife to explain this to him?
One of the foundational principles of Judaism is the existence of the yetzer hara. Roughly defined, it’s the inner voice or inclination we all live with that attempts to convince us to do something even though it’s against our best interests. For example, if a person in an office needs a laptop at home and knows where one is that’s easy to steal, the yetzer hara will tell him to steal it. After all, he justifies his theft by telling himself, “it will be no big loss for the company” or “people do far worse things.” We are not talking about the morality of stealing; the issue at hand is what’s truly good for the person. If he is caught, he will lose his job, including benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. In addition, his reputation will be damaged. Is it really worth it for a laptop?
A manager of the valet parking at CLT once told me that a valet parking attendant took a Lamborghini to Bojangles to get lunch. Let’s circumvent the moral question of using someone’s car without permission, it’s simply not a smart thing to do. In this case, the attendant was caught and taken to court. There have been incidents with attendants taking home a car for the night when they know the owner, who innocently left his/her car with airport’s valet service, won’t return for a few days. The yetzer hara—inner voice—tells the person, “When in your life will you ever get a chance to drive a car like this?” Or, “it’s just a few minutes; that’s no big deal.” The fact that they lost their jobs, might go to jail or pay a hefty fine, all of this seemed irrelevant when they were being seduced by their yetzer hara.
How does this apply to the advice of Ohn ben Peles’s wife? The yetzer hara (inclination) of getting into an argument is a force most of us need to be in control of. I have had and continue to have occasion to witness people getting divorced who spend much of the highly contested settlement money for lawyers. Each side knows they’re losing money with each hour of bickering (in addition to the adverse effects on the children) but that doesn’t seem to deter them. On a communal level, when Jewish organizations can’t play nicely together, it ends up costing all parties unnecessary tension, anxiety, time, and money. Ohn’s yetzer hara enticed him to get so involved in Korach’s rebellion that it blinded him to the truth that he had nothing to gain from it. Ironically, his behavior was causing him to neglect the person he loved most—himself.
Ohn’s wife was able to pull him away from destructive behavior by using the one tool that has the ability to defeat the yetzer hara; she told him the truth. She simply caused him to think about the ridiculous path he was about to tread, which was ultimately what brought him back to his senses.
When an alcoholic who hasn’t taken a drink in a year is in a stressful situation and is about to down a shot of vodka, he or she calls someone in Alcoholics Anonymous. What magic words does the person say? Many times, it’s a seemingly obvious point like a reminder of the reason of how unhappy he was when he was alcoholic and how difficult it will be to stop if he takes the drink. This isn’t new information but he was too enmeshed in his subjective thinking to see these simple and obvious truths. There’s no talk about morality, it’s merely reminding the person of an obvious truth. The best way to deal with the yetzer hara is to expose it to truth.
What has your yetzer hara told you lately? “I’m a failure in life, there’s no sense in being ambitious.” “I’m not very intelligent, there’s no sense in continuing my education?” “Let me stay mad at my father and remain in the anger and misery I’m in; it’s my way of making him suffer for what he did to me.” Whatever negative behavior you’re holding onto can be curtailed by exposing it to truth you are aware of.
King Solomon said, “The wisdom of the woman builds her home.” Ohn ben Peles’ wife prevented her home from destruction by deterring her husband from foolish behavior. Her methodology provides an important means for how to refrain from letting destructive behavior potentially ruin our lives. (Sources: Midrash Raba 18:15; Proverbs 14:1; Majesty of Man: Torah Insights into Human Nature pp. 234-235)Read More