How Leaders Can Use Guilt to Control a People

Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

Silhouette of pointing fingersParashat Korach tells the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. We read:

"They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)

We have to admit that Korach’s reasoning is sound. Maybe Korach and his people were right. But as usual, leadership would not give up its power. 

Moses raises two arguments against the just ideas of Korach. First, Moses says that you [Korach] are ungrateful, because we [Moses and Aaron], the “royal” family, are leading you for your own sake, and we gain nothing from it. We read:

"Moses was much aggrieved and he said to the Eternal, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (Num.16:15). 

Second, Moses argues that we [Moses and Aaron] never sought royalty: it is God's will and we are just obeying His rules, We read:

"By this you shall know that it was the Eternal who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising:" (Num. 16:28). 

Throughout history, leadership has used this kind of argument to maintain power.

How did the people respond?

Initially, and just for a short moment, it seems that the people have the courage to join Korach and stand against leadership. We read:

"Next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You two have brought death upon the Eternal’s people!”" (Num.17:6).Yet, after just few verses and intimidations from Moses and God, they panic and return to obey their leadership, as we read, "But the Israelites said to Moses, “Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost" (Num.17:27).

The community is in a panic. People feel guilty and lost in their own sin. In a chaotic moment, the leadership exercises its power upon the community, as we read: 

The Eternal One spoke further to Aaron: I hereby give you charge of My gifts, all the sacred donations of the Israelites; "I grant them to you and to your sons as a perquisite, a due for all time. This shall be yours from the most holy sacrifices, the offerings by fire: every such offering that they render to Me as most holy sacrifices, namely, every meal offering, sin offering, and reparation [guilt] offering of theirs, shall belong to you and your sons." (Num. 18:8-9)

This is a sophisticated way to handle the community’s guilt feelings; to both encourage them on one hand and at the same time to build the leadership’s authority through the process of remorse. This, too, is a familiar method that leadership has used to maintain power.

 Let's talk about sacrifice and guilt

This is a good time to turn our focus to the guilt offering. Among the various reasons for which a sacrifice is needed, a central space is allocated to the sinner and guilt: A person feels guilty and attempts to atone for his or her sin by offering a sacrifice. The sound of the calls of the slaughtered sacrifice, the sight of the blood on the altar, and the smell of the smoking fire demonstrate in practice what should have happened to the person. This incredibly powerful, sensory experience is intended to awaken in the sinner thoughts of repentance. 

It is easy to understand how the experience is intended not only to direct those who intentionally sinned, but also to evoke a desire in everyone to bring a sacrifice. Indeed, there is even a sacrifice for a person who unintentionally sinned:

"If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Eternal’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes guilt... that person shall bring ... as an offering... and the priest shall thus make expiation for that person, who shall be forgiven." (Lev. 4:27-35)

As we see in our Torah portion, guilt feelings have the power to dominate community and enable the continuity of government. So much of the portion is about powerful guilt feelings that I want to share with you a complex, multibranch system of guilt sacrifices that have developed in Jewish law.

That depends – doubtful guilt sacrifice

What would a person do when he suspects he may have committed a sin, but is not completely sure? This person would offer a special sacrifice labeled the "doubtful guilt sacrifice." (asham talui). It is already possible to sense how this system of sacrifices provides broad operational leeway for those who carry in their conscience feelings of insatiable and boundless guilt.

Guilt offerings of the pious – constant feelings of guilt

As if the guilty feelings of those offering a doubtful guilt sacrifice were not enough, the sacrificial system branches out and offers people with an especially guilty conscience the opportunity for unending pre-occupation with their feelings of guilt. This possibility comes in the form a special sacrifice labeled "the guilt offering of the pious," as we read:

 "Rabbi Eliezer says: 'A person may voluntarily offer a doubtful guilt sacrifice any day and any time and it is called a 'guilt offering of the pious.' It is said that Bava ben Buta would offer a doubtful guilt sacrifice every day except for the day immediately after Yom Kippur. One day he said: 'This Temple pledge of mine! If they would permit me, I would bring one [a doubtful guilt sacrifice immediately after Yom Kippur as well]. However, they say to me wait until there is even the possibility that you have doubtful guilt.'" (Mishnah, K’ritot 6:3).

Yom Kippur ruins the routine of guilty-feeling people

Rabbi Eliezer describes a tradition, likely from the school Beit Shammai, according to which a person can bring a doubtful guilt sacrifice every day, called "the guilt offering of the pious." As opposed to the regular doubtful guilt sacrifice offered when there is a reason to suspect we have sinned, the guilt offering of the pious can be brought unconnected to a concrete suspicion. The guilt offering of the pious is a sacrifice for people experiencing perpetual guilt.

Baba ben Buta, a Sage who lived during the late Second Temple period, was one of Shammai's disciples, and he always felt guilty. It seems that for Baba ben Buta, sin was the basis of life. This is not any concrete, specific sin, but rather the very essence of human existence that disrupts pure spirituality. The substance of life itself is sin. However, the day after Yom Kippur, even the pious are prevented from bringing a guilt offering of the pious as Yom Kippur atones for all sins; as much as one may want to bring such a sacrifice, the potential for sin does not yet exist.

But Baba ben Buta is not just any person nor is he even a typical pious person. Baba ben Buta regrets that even one day of the year he is prohibited from enacting his world's foundational experience -- the experience of guilt.

Couples therapy, guilt, and violence

Upon first examination, it seems that people with a tendency for guilt and self-punishment are not dangerous to those around them. They may be a danger to themselves, but it appears that there is no suspicion that they would hurt someone else. However, an additional aggadah about Baba ben Buta debunks that calming assumption.

This aggadah begins with a Babylonian Jew who comes west to the Land of Israel and marries a local woman. At that time, both Babylonian Jews and Jews in the Land of Israel spoke Aramaic, but they used different dialects. These linguistic differences caused difficulty in communication between the couple: He asked her to prepare a certain dish, and she, in her innocence, prepared a different dish. Thus, in a series of linguistic miscommunications, the couple's relationship became more and more tense.

At the height of this crisis, the husband asks his wife to bring him a "tray butzini." In his dialect of Aramaic that means two zucchini. In her dialect of Aramaic it means two lamps (made of clay). Furious with anger, the husband commands his wife, "Go and break these clay lamps 'al rosh ha'baba." In his Babylonian Aramaic, "rosh ha'baba" means "above the gate." However, in his wife's Aramaic dialect "rosh" means "head" and "baba," as we have already seen, can be a person's name. In her distress and lacking her husband's understanding of this word, the woman goes to the Sage Baba ben Buta and breaks the clay lamps on his head.

This is how Baba ben Buta, the man who has never been opposed to bearing the burden of guilt, responded to that women (Babylonian Talmud, N’darim 66b), "He said to her, 'What are you doing?' She said to him, 'Thusly my husband commanded me to do.' He said, 'You have done your husband's bidding, God will bring forth from you two sons like Baba ben Buta.'"

He sends her back to the aggressor's arms

At first glance, this seems like generous couples therapy. The Rabbi sees the woman's distress, so he puts aside his own honor and lets her fulfill the violent and uncompromising demands of her husband (as at this point, he does not know about the couple's language confusion).

However, the Torah has already taught us: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The phrasing of this commandment reflects the psychological truth that only someone who loves him- or herself can properly love his neighbor.

If Baba ben Buta was not full of so many feelings of guilt he could find room in his heart to get angry and feel injured by the woman who hurt him. If Baba ben Buta would permit himself to get angry at the woman, he could subsequently become angry at her abusive husband. If Baba ben Buta could believe that he isn't supposed to be beaten by a strange woman, he could understand that she too isn't supposed to receive degrading commands from her husband. And, if Baba ben Buta could love himself, he could supply this woman with genuine protection.

It is easy to see that the breaking of clay lamps on Baba's head was not just the result a linguistic mistake; it was a call for desperately needed help. Baba ben Buta should have gone to the aggressive husband and spoken to him harshly and sensitively to save his neighbor from her distress. But Baba ben Buta is in love with guilt, and people experiencing perpetual guilt offer to those around them the same world they experience -- a world without love or mercy. From these combined traditions of Baba ben Buta, we can learn that whoever lacks compassion for himself or herself cannot be compassionate toward others.

Back to Korach

We have to remember that guilt feelings are sometimes used as governmental tools, that guilt feelings are very much overrated, and that often they don't serve the public good but rather serve power positions. We have to be careful with feeling guilty.

(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.)

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D. is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

Practicing the Art of Constructive Rebuke

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Jill Crimmings

A mother rebukes her daughterKorach and his people may have been right about Moses, but their strategy to create change was doomed to fail. Moses and Aaron were not perfect leaders by any stretch of the imagination and this week’s Torah portion gives a glimpse of how it might have felt to experience their leadership. At the same time, the portion provides an important warning for how we challenge our leaders when they go astray.

Parashat Korach begins with a flurry of action. Six verbs are used, one right after the next. Korach acts first: vayikach ... vayakumu ... vayikahalu ...,, “Korach betook himself, rose up with others, and combined with them against Moses.” Then comes Moses’ response: vayishma... vayipol... vay’dabeir... “When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke ...” (Num 16:4-5)

What did Moses hear in Korach’s actions? As Dr. Weiss notes in her d’var Torah, Moses and Aaron were no doubt deserving of rebuke, but because of Korah’s actions, all Moses could hear was an uprising.

This is unfortunate, because tradition teaches that when rebuke is necessary, we are obligated to give it. We read in Leviticus 19:17, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account.”

In his work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides expands on this verse to explain how one should engage in the process:

“It is essential that the rebuke be administered in private; a person shall speak to their offender calmly, employing soft language, telling them that the only reason they speak of the matter is to save them for their own good, to bring them toward a life in the world to come. Additionally, when giving rebuke, it is forbidden to put a fellow Israelite to shame, needless to say publicly.” (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 6:7-8)

Korach didn’t want to rebuke Moses. He didn’t want to help him change his leadership style to be more collaborative, to save him for his own good. Instead, Korach’s intent was to shame Moses publicly. He wanted to take him down so that he could step into his place. And it is for this that Korach was rightfully punished.

It is so easy to move from rebuke to shaming, especially when we have been wronged. When we, like Korach and his people, have been made to feel guilty or terrified, we naturally want to take it out on the person we feel is responsible. And today we are able to accomplish this without having to look our leaders, or our friends, directly in the eye. We can rise up against another human being to shame them with a hateful comment or tweet. And each and every time, recipients respond with greater fury than they had before. This doesn’t mean we don’t have an obligation to rebuke. It just means we have to work a little harder at it. We can call our leaders, or send them an e-mail or a direct message through social media. More often than not, these measured rebukes are met with welcome conversation and sometimes even a change of heart.

This is not to say we should never take hold of ourselves, rise up, and combine with others in the face of injustice. We absolutely must. But when we rise, let’s make sure we are rising toward something instead of against someone. Maybe then we will achieve what Korach never could.

Rabbi Jill Crimmings is the associate rabbi at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, MN

Reference Materials

Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127−1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001−1,017
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 893–914
Haftarah, I Samuel 11:14−12:22 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,265−1,267; Revised Edition, pp. 1,019−1,021 

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