July 17, 2024
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When Cynicism Becomes Dangerous

How often do we engage in “laitzanus,” scoffing and cynically making fun of others? Probably a lot more often than we would like to admit. King David begins Tehillim (Psalms) by warning us to avoid the company of “laitzanim,” scoffers. Why is this so? After all, the joke, the insult or the quick barb are often accepted as signs of wit and intelligence. The entertainers who are paid the most in our society are those who can best make fun of established institutions and famous respected personalities. So, what’s the big deal after all? This week’s parshas Korach teaches us that cynicism actually undermines authority and can often go awry.

The midrash described how Korach began to ridicule the mitzvos in a public debate with Moshe. Korach asked: “If a small scroll with two paragraphs of the Torah, a mezuzah, is sufficient to ‘kosher’ a house, does a house full of Torah scrolls need a mezuzah?” When Moshe replied that the house still requires a mezuzah, the crowd burst out laughing. Then, Korach asked: “If one blue string, techelet, is needed for the “tzitzis” on the corner of a four-cornered garment, does a totally techelet (blue) colored garment require any tzitzis at all?” Again, Moshe’s affirmative answer was greeted with derisive laughter from the crowd.

Korach’s public mockery of Moshe’s rulings on the mezuzah and techelet was not just about the specific mitzvot, but was a calculated attempt to undermine Moshe’s authority and sow doubt about the entire Torah. His derision succeeded in riling up the crowd, leading to a rebellion that ended in tragedy. Ultimately, the validity of Aharon’s priesthood was no longer the issue. Instead, the validity of the entire Torah was now being denied by the crowd.

What was most impressive is that this aura of cynicism was able to erase the serious lessons in faith the Jews should have learned from all their recent experiences. They saw the plagues in Egypt, witnessed the miracles of redemption, witnessed the giving of the Torah, experienced the punishments of the golden calf incident, the spies, the complaints about the water as well as the manna and meat, etc. In fact, even after Korach and his men were swallowed in an earthquake, the Jewish people were still skeptical and Aharon had to prove his claim to leadership once more by having almonds sprout from his staff in the “Ohel Moed” overnight.

The Talmud (Chagigah 15a-b) recounts the story of Elisha ben Avuyah, also known as “Acher.” He started as a great sage, but became a heretic. His downfall began when he scoffed at the teachings of his peers—leading to a complete rejection of Torah values. The Talmud describes how Elisha ben Avuyah would mockingly question the Torah and engage in actions contrary to its teachings. His descent into heresy serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cynicism and mockery.

The Gemara (Avodah Zara 18b) explores the broader theme of the impact of scoffing and derision on one’s faith and actions, highlighting the destructive nature of such behavior. Rabbi Eliezer, for example, stated: “Concerning anyone who scoffs, suffering will befall him.” Rav Ketina stated: “Concerning anyone who scoffs, his livelihood is diminished.” Finally, Rabbi Eliezer stated: “Scoffing is a severe sin, as at first one is punished with suffering, and, ultimately, one is punished with extinction.”

King David—when writing psalms—realized that the cynic has the power to dispel the authority of those who represent societal norms or, in this case, the Torah. Our sages tell us that 100 people can give us mussar (rebuke), but all it takes is one cynic to dismiss it all. From the events in the desert 3,300 years ago, one may need to learn a lesson regarding human nature and try to steer clear of those who have the power to influence one’s spiritual and religious beliefs, claiming that they are “just kidding!”

May Hashem bless us with wisdom and discernment to know when it is appropriate to kid around and when we need to take matters more seriously.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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