They're Gr-r-r-r-eat! Korach 5776
To say that the Kellogg family grew up in austerity would be an understatement on par with saying that surgery without anesthesia might tingle a bit. As strict Seventh Day Adventists, the Kellogg family believed that taking indulging in any luxuries would bring the devil into your life, and make you desire all sorts of sinful activities. They lived as plain a life as possible; no meat, no tobacco, no alcohol, no caffeine, no condiments, no spices, and no formal education. Formal education was also a luxury, it was simply not needed because the Second Coming of JC was imminent! What would someone do with a degree in law after JC comes back and leads humanity to a utopian world where lawyers would be as useful as nail clippers for your goldfish.
Every family has its black sheep. John Harvey Kellogg was a true rebel, and despite the deep and prolonged protestations of his devout parents, he studied his letters, and eventually went to medical school and became a doctor. But as is often the case, the rebel came back into the fold, and John Harvey became a fanatical Seventh Day Adventists once again.
John Harvey decided to use his degree to open up a sanitarium devoted to crushing all sinful desires out of the body, and in 1894, John and his brother Will Keith opened up such a place in Battle Creek, MI. The sanitarium provided all sorts of treatments, hot and cold baths, hydro-therapy, electric current therapy, light therapy using strong lamps, radiant heat therapy, and various regimens of exercise and massage. The sanitarium built up quite a reputation, and was frequented by many famous people of the time, including President Warren G. Harding, Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Todd Lincoln.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the treatment at the Kellogg sanitarium was the diet. Strictly vegetarian, it allowed for no spices, no sugar, and no flavor. Everything served at the sanitarium was bland and tasteless, designed to not only cut off forbidden desires, but even the desire for a second helping! The diet consisted mostly of whole grains and nuts, and the Kelloggs regularly experimented with creating new versions of tasteless concoctions.
One day, after cooking some whole wheat kernels to be used in making crackers, they were called away, and when they came back, they ran the cooled kernels through a roller to start preparing the crackers. Each kernel came out flattened into its own wheat flake, which the Kelloggs sampled and found to be a great health food. In 1898, they tried it with corn kernels, and the corn flake was born, each flake being one corn kernel, cooked, rolled out flat, and then baked.
People were enamored by this new food, and the Kellogg brothers began selling these flakes to their patients even after they left the sanitarium, mailing corn flakes all over the country. Eventually they began advertising it on billboards and in mail order catalogs, and this new product known as cereal began to sell like hotcakes. One of the patients, CW Post, opened his own company and began selling this cereal product along with Postum, a caffeine free coffee alternative based on a beverage he had at the sanitarium. By the early 1900’s CW Post was making $3 million a year selling products that he learned about in the Kellogg sanitarium.
Here is where things got sticky for the Kellogg brothers. John Harvey was a fundamentalist Adventist, and all he wanted to do was curb peoples desires through a bland diet. Will Keith on the other hand was a business man, and after seeing Post’s success, wanted to make money as well, and more money was to be made if he added sugar to the cornflake recipe. John Harvey and Will Keith fought bitterly over this in and out of court, and in 1906, Will Keith went out on his own and created the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. That company thankfully shortened its name to Kellogg’s, which is today the largest cereal company in the world.
For close to a century, cereals have increased their sales numbers, with decade after decade of growth mimicking the growth in the US population. But recently, for the first time ever, cereal sales have begun to fall. Some of it can be blamed on the fact that many of the most successful cereals have been sugar heavy and health benefit low, and people are moving to healthier alternatives such as Greek yogurt, raw granola, and healthy energy bars. But more importantly, about 40% of millennials say that they find cereal to be inconvenient, it requires too much prep time and cleanup.
Consider this; eating a healthy energy bar involves three steps: unwrap, toss wrapper, eat. Cereal on the other hand, has many complicated procedures involved: open cabinet, take out bowl, place bowl on table, take cereal out of pantry, open box, pour cereal into bowl, close box, return cereal to panty, open refrigerator, take out milk, open milk carton, pour milk into bowl, close milk carton, return milk to refrigerator, open drawer, take out spoon, close drawer, put spoon into cereal bowl, sit down in stationary position, scoop up cereal and milk onto spoon, lift spoon to mouth, repeat that many times until cereal is consumed, drink leftover milk in bowl, throw away plastic bowl and spoon, think about the Texas sized islands of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean, feel guilty about using plastic, commit once again to use real bowls and spoon from now on, and finally you’re done! And if you ever make good on that commitment to use real bowls and spoon, I can’t even begin to imagine how many steps it would take to clean them and put them away. It’s overwhelming, I think I need a pill, some yoga, or perhaps therapy to deal with the effects of just thinking about eating cereal!
As cereal sales continue to fall, dropping a percentage point or so every year (annual sales of cereal in the US are about $7.7 billion, so a drop of 3 percent translates into more than $200 million less in annual sales), the cereal companies are desperate for a pathway to get more people to start eating cereal again. There is one tried and solution for increasing sales: make something much more expensive. If you can also label something as: artisanal, limited edition, craft, kale, or handmade, it’s even better. The best thing is to make it in such low numbers that people have to wait on line for it, that almost guarantees that hipsters will wait on line for hours for the chance to buy it. Whether it be a craft cupcake, a Cronut, or a brisket smoked for thirty seven hours, make it expensive, and they will come.
That is exactly what Kellogg’s is doing now. They’ve opened up their first cereal store in the US, called Kellog’s NYC, in the middle of Times Square. At Kellog’s NYC, you can buy a variety of artisanal cereal foods put together by acclaimed chef Christina Tosi of the famous Momofuku Milk Bar restaurant. Every bowl of cereal starts with a standard Kellogg’s cereal, but then a whole host of ingredients are added, including mint, matcha, organic pistachios, lemon zest, chai tea, passion fruit jam made in Brooklyn by people with handlebar mustaches, tattoos, and skinny vintage jeans. Of course once you add artisanal ingredients you can now increase the price and start charging $7.50 and up for a bowl of cereal!
This concept is being replicated in other places such as London, where the Killer Cereal Cafe was the originator of the premium cereal ceoncept, or Dallas, where you can indulge in your relived childhood at Cereality, or Tulsa, where Bowl & Spoon will welcome you with um… a bowl and spoon?
Or course this only exasperates the residents in the trendy gentrifying neighborhoods where cereal bars are likely to be a hit. They are already deeply pained by the fact that they can no longer afford to buy apartments in the communities where they’ve grown up, because all the real estate is being bought up by hipsters wearing hemp shoes and $95 vintage T-shirts. Now they also have to see people spending $11 on a massive bowl of Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, bananas, marshmallows, dark chocolate chips, mint, and Pop Tart crumbles. They’re buried under their bills, and their new neighbor is raving about the Berry Me in Green Tea bowl of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies®, fresh strawberries, and green tea powder, that he just bought for $8.95.
You have to wonder what John Harvey Kellogg would say about this. He created corn flakes as a way to minimize excess and promiscuous dining habits, by making a bland simple grain product. The his name was attached to maker of Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, and Honey Smacks. And now his name is imprinted on every bowl of ridiculously priced cereal excess being churned out of cereal bars across the nation. The contradiction between what he tried to start and what ended up happening is a canyon too vast to cross.
At least John Harvey is not around to see his entire platform being reversed. He stayed true to his ideals till the day he died, never reconciling with his brother for adding sugar to his corn flakes, and definitely never condoning what Kellogg’s would go on to produce. But in this week’s Torah portion we read about another person whose platform somehow did a 180 degree changeover, but this happened in a few hours. Korach, the main character of this week’s parsha, seemed to be bothered by something. Why should Moshe lead the Jewish people? Why did the Jewish people need a leader at all? G-d had spoken to the entire nation at Sinai, so obviously G-d felt they were all spiritually pure enough to merit hearing the Divine word spoken by G-d. And if that is the case, who needs leaders? Who needs a Moses to tell the Jewish people G-d’s will? Why can’t every Jew continue to have their own special personal relationship with G-d?
But this seemingly noble idea, that there should be no leaders, and that all the Jewish should have the same personal relationship with G-d in total equity, suddenly morphed into Korach wanting to take Aaron’s job as the High Priest. Not only that, but his entire cohort of over 250 followers also each wanted the job of High Priest, and came out to a match the next day, where the one G-d chose would be the High Priest, but everyone else would die! How do you go from wanting equality for everyone with no leaders to wanting to be the High Priest yourself? How did Korach end up starting a mutiny that almost derailed the entire Jewish people?
How has every single Communist government started with people trying to overthrow the ruling class in a quest for total equality turned into a dictatorial and murderous government that rules the people with an iron fist and no equality?
The answer is that we often don’t fully recognize what is motivating us. Often it is our own honor, greed, jealousy, or anger motivating us, and we simply put up facades of righteousness to hide what we really want. When people are fighting over money, you’ll often hear them say, “it’s not about the money, it’s about the principle! He shouldn’t be allowed to do this!” which usually means, it’s about the money. When parents who are getting divorced enter into a bitter feud, they will tell you that they’re doing it to protect their children, when usually the biggest victims of feuding parents are the children. As a friend of mine told me last night, it’s like two parents shooting daggers at each other, not realizing that their children are standing in the middle, absorbing the daggers without any ability to defend themselves.
When people are fighting to overthrow leadership, whether it be of a country, of the Jewish people, or of their synagogue, they may tell you or tell themselves that they just want something better for the people, where deep inside what they want is to rule themselves.
As the Mishnah says in Ethics of Our Fathers (1:24), “Jealousy, honor, and lust remove a person from this world.” When a person is filled with jealousy (like Korach), the desire for honor and status (like Castro, Stalin et. Al.), or lust, all the rational thinking they normally have are removed from the world. They become totally blinded to reality, and find their entire reality being fueled by those powerful emotions!
So how do we stop this? If it’s a feeling buried deep inside, and I fervently believe that I’m doing something right and good even while I’m doing something terrible and destructive, how do I know to stop it? There are a few key tools in this area. Firstly, before making a move, take a few days, and think about it. Let the anger, jealousy, or greed cool down a bit. Often, time alone will mellow things out.
Secondly, have someone you really trust, and ideally someone with a lot of wisdom and experience, that you talk over your next move with. They don’t have the same emotional pulls that you have, their rational thinking is not removed from the world like yours is, and they will often be able to diffuse the situation, or tell you in the nicest of ways that you are going about it in a destructive manner.
Lastly, pray to G-d that He help you navigate the situation properly. When doing so, not only do you enlist G-d’s help, it also helps you see things from a more G-dly perspective, which allows you to see through the pettiness, the lust, or the jealousies. When we follow this formula, we don’t have to worry about seeing everything we work for get reversed in our face, we don’t have to be confronted with the results of our actions five years down the line, crushed that the things we did had the opposite result of what we were looking for.
When we remove the jealousy, lust, and desire for honor from the equation, we then live our lives fully engaged in our world, loving it for what it is, and living it the way it was meant to be lived.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we read of the rebellion of Korach, a man driven by his blind desire for honor. We read of the terrible fate that befell him and his cohorts for bringing divisiveness to the Jewish people. Let us focus on the ketores, the incense that twice plays a vital role in our parsha.
When Korach brings 250 leaders with him, all claiming that Moshe and Aaron should step down, Moshe tells them that ketores will test them. The next day every man should bring a fire pan filled with ketores, and Aaron the High Priest will do the same. G-d will show whom He favors by sending down a fire from heaven to light the ketores of the chosen one, while everyone else will die. Sure enough, the next day the test is performed, a heavenly fire comes down and ignites Aaron’s ketores, and at the same time a fire burns the other 250 rebels to death.
Later in the Parsha, the Jewish people gather around Moshe and Aaron, accusing them of killing people from G-d’s Holy Nation. (They don’t seem to get it, do they? Moshe and Aaron clearly seem to have the winning team, but you always have people rooting for the “underdog”) A plague breaks out amongst the people, and they begin dropping like flies. Moshe tells Aaron to hurry out with the ketores as a plague has started. Aaron brings out a firepan filled with burning ketores and by this act he stops the plague.
What exactly is the nature of this ketores? Is it a killer, as it killed 250 men, or is it a savior, as it stepped into the middle of a plague and halted the dying? Why is it that the same item is used both ways in the same Parsha?
One answer is that the ketores represents the idea that no thing in this world is essentially either good or bad. Good or bad are only defined by our reaction to those things. Wealth is neither good nor bad. We all have seen people whose wealth has ruined them and their families. We have also seen people who have used their wealth properly, bringing greatness to them and their families. So what is wealth, good or bad? In that same vein, is the internet good or bad? Is free speech good or bad? Is being smart good or bad?
Even something as seemingly deleterious as cancer can’t be classified as good or bad. I worked with people suffering from cancer for years. I have seen people who have changed their entire lives for the better after living through cancer. I have seen others who unfortunately passed away, but who, during the time of their illness, reached greatness unimaginable to most people of their age or of any age, for that matter. Of course, there are also those who succumb not only to the illness, but also to despair, anger, rage and disillusionment. The message of the ketores is this duality, that every object in the world contains the possibility of bringing salvation or desolation. Our actions, and our actions alone, merit the titles Good and Bad.
But why is the ketores specifically singled out to teach us this lesson? The ketores was made of many different spices. One of them was known as chelbona, and the Sages tell us that it had an exceedingly foul odor. Yet, when mixed with the other spices, it actually benefited the overall fragrance of the ketores. The chelbona is neither good nor bad; it depends on what you do with it. The very makeup of ketores contained a proof of this concept, and hence it was used to show us this powerful message.
This week’s entire Parsha focuses primarily on one story, the story of Korach. Being from the tribe of Levi, Korach had an elevated status compared to most other Jews, but he wanted more power and honor. There are several opinions in the commentaries as to what exactly he wanted. Some say that he was a firstborn, and was angry that the Temple service had been taken from the firstborns and given to the Kohanim. Others say that he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, or the leader of the Kehas clan, a job given to his younger cousin. Regardless of what exactly he was after, we know exactly how he went about getting it, and it is a perfect study in undermining authority.
Step #1 Gather a large group of followers (a.k.a. rabble), with as many famous people as possible (Yes, this is why you constantly find actors and musicians speaking out on areas of politics where their knowledge is nebulous). Step #2 Feed them well. Step #3 Make mockery of anything the other side holds sacred. Step #4 Publicly challenge your opponent.
Let’s see how Korach did this. Step #1 He gathers 250 leaders from his neighboring tribe, Reuben, among them some noted trouble-makers named Dasan and Aviram, who already had an entire file at central booking for their previous run-ins with authority. Step #2 He feeds them a delicious meal where the wine flows like right-wing rhetoric from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. Step #3 He starts mocking some of the laws of the Torah which Moshe had taught, thus implying that the entire Torah could have been made up by Moshe. Lastly, step #4, Korach challenges Moshe publicly, claiming, “We are all a holy nation, so who do you think you are to exalt yourselves (Moshe and his brother Aaron) over us?
Moshe falls on his face before them in humility, and begs them to change their mind. Upon being rebuffed, he says “O.K., lets take this one outside. Tomorrow morning everyone should bring a fire pan with incense. G-d will miraculously bring down fire in just one pan, and everyone else will die. But remember, sons of Levi, you have so much already, why are you demanding more? Be happy with your lot.” (Here is an incredible lesson. All 250+ people knew that only one person was going to emerge standing, yet they all showed up in the morning, each sure that he would be the single winner. When arrogance and jealousy get the better of you, it is clear that you lose the ability to think clearly!)
That afternoon, Moshe, the paradigm of humility, attempts to end the rebellion peacefully by going personally to the tents of Dasan and Aviram to beg them to retract their evil mutiny. They reply with an emphatic “Even if someone were to gouge our eyes out, we would not make peace!” The next morning Moshe delivers the following ultimatum; “If these men die normal deaths, you will know that G-d didn’t send me, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows these people alive, then you shall know that I did everything I did by the word of G-d!”
Moshe tells everyone to step back from the camp of Korach, in order to save themselves from sharing in his punishment. Sure enough, the earth opens wide and swallows up not only Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their familes, but also everything they owned in this world, down to the last bobby pin. The 250 men did not fall into the earth – the same fire they were hoping was going to prove their supremacy over Moshe and Aaron comes down and enters their nostrils, and kills them instantaneously. This shows us the horrific results of machlokes, or divisiveness. It not only destroys the original antagonist, but also his family, and anyone around him. The fire pans of the 250 rebels were taken and beaten into sheets which were then placed on the altar in the Temple to remind everyone never to try to usurp the leadership positions that G-d dictates.
In response to this event, the people complained to Moshe and Aaron, saying “You killed the nation of G-d” (obviously, they hadn’t learnt the two key lessons of the story of Korach: that one is better off not rebelling against Moshe and Aaron (it does terrible things to your life expectancy), and that G-d is the one running the show here, not Moshe and Aaron.) A plague erupts in the camp, executing the people who were slandering Moshe and Aaron. Moshe tells Aaron that he should quickly bring a fire pan of incense and walk amongst the people to stop the plague. (Moshe learnt this trick from the Angel of Death when he went up to heaven to receive the Torah.) Aaron does so, and the plague stops.
G-d tells Moshe to conduct one final test to demonstrate to everyone that Aaron is the one picked by G-d to be the Kohen Gadol. Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes all bring their staffs. The staffs are deposited in the Temple, and everyone waits to see whose staff would blossom. Sure as turkeys hate Thanksgiving, Aaron’s staff is the one in full bloom the next morning. Now the people are shaken up, and express their fears (not complaints) to Moshe, that anyone who gets too close to the Temple will die! Moshe allays their fears by explaining that it is the Kohen’s job to ensure that people don’t go beyond their proper places. As the leaders of the Jews, their duty is to bring people as close to G-d as they can, but also to remind them that one must be careful with that which is holy. Judaism is a system of living, which expects one to understand the importantce of structure and boundaries.