Last Friday, my son’s class put on a show to celebrate their completion of kindergarten. The kids sang songs recalling all they had learned in school this year – complete with choreography and props. The evening was just wonderful! My husband and I and both sets of grandparents watched eagerly, kvelling with pride at Jeremy’s enthusiasm. Afterwards of course, we all told Jeremy how proud we were of him and what a great job he had done. One of the relatives told Jeremy, “I think you did the best in your class.”
The comment was well-intentioned, but I wondered: why introduce competition into a situation where it’s not inherently present? Why isn’t it enough to have done a great job? Why do we feel the need to be “the best”? That same night, we also celebrated another accomplishment. I had just received an acceptance from a publisher for a book I’ve written on spirituality and parenthood. My father opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast, saying “May this be the first book of many.” His toast expressed his pride in me. But again I wondered: why isn’t one book enough to celebrate, without the expectation of many to come? Why is it so hard to enjoy an accomplishment without thinking of what’s next?
This week’s Torah portion speaks to these questions. In the parasha, a Levite named Korah instigates a rebellion against the leadership of Aaron and Moses. Korah challenged Moses and Aaron’s authority by asserting the holiness of the congregation and asking: “Why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
Moses realized that Korah’s real problem was his inability to be content with his responsibilities as a Levite which fueled his impulse to challenge Moses and Aaron for more. Seeing through Korah’s question, Moses responded: “Is it not enough for you that God has set you apart from the community of Israel to bring you close to God to serve in God’s tabernacle and to stand before the congregation to serve them?”
After an elaborate series of confrontations, Korah and his followers are killed (when the earth swallows them up), but later in Numbers we read that “the sons of Korah didn’t die” (Numbers 26:11). Korah’s discontent exists in each generation — indeed perhaps in each one of us. Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Ancestors) contains Ben Zoma’s famous dictum: “Who is wealthy? The one who is content with his portion.” He makes it sounds so simple, but finding contentment is one the hardest spiritual challenge in life.
Indeed, Moses’ question haunts me. Why is it so difficult to be content with one’s portion and not always be looking for more? For example, I always wanted two children — a boy and a girl. Now that I have them both, I wonder should I have more? Will I regret it later if I don’t have more children? Whatever I accomplish either professionally or personally, I’m always wondering what’s next. The Korah within is ever eager to load more expectations on me and to compare myself unfavorably with others.
Friday night, as I tucked my son into bed, I told him again how much we enjoyed the celebration. “You did a great job and all your friends did wonderfully too. I am so proud of you and your whole class.” He smiled and gave me a hug. The evening reminded me to stay vigilant against the Korahs within and without.