(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...lo meigis libo b'talmudo, not taking pride in one's learning...
(Numbers 16:19) Vayak'hel aleihem korach...; Korach gathered the whole community against them...
Every now and then, a rabbi captures the imagination of America. Two generations ago, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman inspired people to seek peace of mind through forgiveness. In the middle of the last century, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein appeared on the cover of Time Magazine representing the social conscience of post-war prosperity. Over the last twenty years, Rabbi Harold Kushner has explored the human soul as an interpreter of Jewish wisdom.
Other rabbis have also gained American prominence as defenders of troubled presidents, promoters of popularized mysticism or unlikely cheerleaders for sexual fantasy. They have their momentary popularity (and, generally, prosperity) and then find themselves as a cultural reference in a trivia competition.
What is the difference between a teacher who leaves a legacy of Torah and one who becomes a flash in the pan? What is the difference between Moses (who left a legacy of Torah) and Korach (who was almost quite literally a flash in the pan)? They both use the same tools and they both seem to have an exceptional ability to attract a crowd. The answer, I think, has to do with the use of sacred text.
My first homiletics (sermon-writing) teacher was Rabbi Henry Fisher, of blessed memory. He used to remind us that there were three ways to preach Torah – as text, as context and as pretext. Each approach is legitimate, he said, but unless you are honest about the one you choose, you do yourself, your listeners and Torah a tremendous disservice. Choosing a text and expounding on it is a time-honored way to presenting the message of Torah. Drawing more broadly from the words of Torah to frame an idea or an issue, and then citing Torah to bolster that context is very much at the center of the halakhic process. Reaching a conclusion and then retrofitting a passage of Torah may seem suspect, but it has been practiced honestly in almost every generation. It allows the speaker to acknowledge his or her own prejudices, and gives permission to the skeptic to challenge.
When it is practiced dishonestly, however, it is not Torah. It is anti-Torah – teaching that removes God's enlightenment from the world. Practiced as pretext, such preaching substitutes the speaker's revelation for Sinai's.
And that illustrates the connection between the teaching from Avot and the verse from Torah. Gematria is the interpretive device that finds connections between phrases in Hebrew that have equivalent numerical values, assigning each letter a number. "Meigis libo" (pride) has a value of 151, as does "vayak'hel" (gathered). Korach's arrogance in setting himself up as leader to replace Moses was illustrated in a long and famous midrash in which Korach "proved" that Moses made up the rules of the Torah and that Aaron was defrauding the poor. Korach instead claimed to know the hearts and destinies of the people, and prideful assembled them in rebellion against Moses. By pandering to the crowd and casting it as Torah, Korach enjoyed short-term popularity, but was condemned to perpetual infamy.
Of course, none of us is Moses (or Korach), and few of us are Liebman, Finkelstein or Kushner. So of what value is this illustration?
We are a highly educated people, and even those of us without credentials are part of a legacy of learning. The difference between shrewdness and wisdom is in the way we employ our knowledge. One who uses expertise primarily for personal aggrandizement (including wealth, power or influence) falls into the cohort of Korach; in the end, his or her self-interest will be its own undoing. One who understands that a single human life is a conduit for the betterment of other human lives is a true student of Moses.
Material success, by the way, is an irrelevant measuring stick. A person need not be poor to be righteous, nor is any wealthy person of suspect integrity. Korach's sin was arrogance, and stood in sharp contrast to Moses's humility. The prideful person gathers followers around himself; the person who acquires Torah disperses them.
How does one practice being lo meigis libo b'talmudo? Sooner or later, you will be asked to teach something. It may be a professional assignment or an informal skill session, or you may just need to offer someone some advice. Before you do, sit down and make an honest list of all the aspects of the subject you don't know. Before you begin to teach on your subject of expertise, review the list, and promise yourself to admit it to your students if you come to an item on the list.