People Do What They Want to Do, or Do They?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 7, 2023 / 18 Tamuz 5783

Summary: We live on autopilot so often. When we finally look in the rearview mirror, we are shocked at the carnage left behind. This week’s Torah portion presents a lesson in turning off autopilot and taking hold of the wheel.

Reading Time: Five minutes

I recently stumbled across a story about how we sometimes do things we don’t mean to do, written by Anne Peterson, a prolific Christian author. She recounts an autobiographical incident in a piece called “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt Her,” about the struggles she had with her mom when she was a teenager. They got in a fight and the next day, her forty-three-year-old mother was wheeled out of the house on a gurney. Game over.

Maybe it’s because the wound of my own mother’s death is still fresh, but the story really shook my emotions. You can find it here. It’s about the normal sorts of regrets death can stir up; more importantly, it is about our capacity to change our perspective and in that way release our regrets. As Peterson writes, “When we get older, we have choices to make. We can keep looking at our lives through the same lenses we’ve always used, or we can learn how to reframe those experiences. I have chosen the latter.”

Some of that happens naturally, the way time can heal the wound of regret. Some of that reframing, however, requires our active participation and effort. It also surfaces the fact that, at times, we do things we don’t really want to do in the moment. With hindsight, when it’s clear how life turned out, we all would have acted differently, yet when we aren’t paying enough attention to ourselves, or what we really need, we get caught up in the small needs of the ego and will, rather than focusing on what would actually make us happy.

This idea is explored in parshat Pinchas, this week’s Torah reading. In Numbers 26:9-11, we revisit the previously mentioned episode of Korach’s Rebellion and now learn that “the sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korach’s band when they agitated against God. Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach—when that band died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men—and they became an example.

The sons of Korach, however, did not die.”

Wait a second! How does one get swallowed up by the earth and not die? In Numbers 16:32 we read: “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”

They went down alive—this is why our parshah reminds us that the sons of Korach did not die. But why didn’t they die when 250 people who apparently were also involved in the insurrection were killed above ground? The sons of Korach’s actions surely deserved some serious consequences. Why did they get a lighter punishment when it was they who initiated the rebellion?

Rashi senses that we might be bothered by this apparent lapse of equal justice and explains, “They (the sons of Korach) were in the plot originally, but at the moment when the rebellion broke out, they had thoughts of repentance in their hearts; therefore, a high spot was fenced round for them in Gehinnom and they stayed there.”

Rashi is drawing on an old Talmudic tradition here, which seeks to explain that God’s punishment for them was indeed fair and equitable, but what stands out this week is how the Talmud reframes the Torah’s narrative. Just at the moment Korach’s sons are about to succumb to their secondary desires and act out of their small ego needs, they have a moment of mindfulness and wake up to the meaning of their lives. It’s too late to unravel all of their errors; thus, they are still punished, yet in this Talmudic reading, their act of self-realization and regret changes the trajectory of their lives. They are spared from death.

Life punishes us when we are unaware. I don’t mean that God metes out justice every time we fall asleep at the wheel. It seems that the universe is both more subtle and severe than that. Rather, our inattention causes us to miss out on life’s beauty and opportunities whenever we fall back into old habits that no longer serve us.

At the same time, ain davar ha’omed bifnay haratzon: Nothing stands in the way of the will. Maimonides reminds us of this in the Laws of Teshuvah (5:1) when he writes, “Everyone has the capacity to turn to the good path and be righteous, or to turn to the bad path and be wicked.” We can become more aware and thus make better choices in real time.

We can all relate to these moments of satori when we catch ourselves in midstream and discover that what we are doing is not really what we want to be doing. One of the gifts that mindfulness practice provides is an enhanced capacity to become self-aware before the insurrection of the soul begins—before, in other words, we give in to our baser desires, appetites, and ego needs, or succumb to our fears.

Today we are exactly ten weeks out from Rosh Hashanah. Teshuvah is one of Judaism’s earliest mindfulness practices, and a powerful tool to help us steer toward the life we really want, the one we deserve.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. Have you ever driven home to realize that you were zoned out the entire time? What do you make of that ability?
    2. Are you trying to turn any activities into habits that don’t require your attention or awareness? What are they and why is it good to have these run on autopilot?
    3. Can you recall a few powerful moments of transformation that occurred after becoming self-aware? What led to those points?

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