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Parashat Korach 5773 — 06/05/2013

Parashat Korach 5773 — 06/05/2013

And [Moshe] said to Korach and all his community saying, In the morning Hashem will make known who is His, and the one who is holy and draws near to Him, and whom He chooses He will draw close to Himself.  (16:5)

In the morning He will make known: It tells you that Hashem will choose one man from the entire witness-community (edah) and will sanctify him as “holy of holies” through one of three methods:

  1. From the side of the special nature of his soul; for there are souls that are singled out (m’sugelet) for this [purpose] from the side of its root and its carving-out [i.e. its creation].  For there is a quality and a level for every soul, and the “Gd of all souls” is the One Who “makes known which is His.”  That is to say, who is singled out to be for Hashem, by virtue of the fact that his soul comes from an elevated place higher than other souls, as it is said “For mine is every bechor” and “The Levites will be mine,” for their souls are singled out for this purpose by their origin and their creation.
  2. There are those who acquire this level by virtue of their own spiritual efforts, for they sanctify themselves with a greater sanctity [than most] and they restrain all the forces of materiality and they “strip off their sullied clothes” and clothe themselves in holiness and spirituality, and this is referred to by “and who is holy and draws [himself] near to Him.”
  3. From the side of [Gd’s] choice, for sometimes Hashem chooses a man who “finds favor in His eyes,” and raises him above where he would normally be based on his nature and his own [spiritual] efforts, solely because of the Divine Will, and of this it says, “and the one He chooses He will draw near to Himself.”

(Malbim ad loc.  Warning: my translation)

As we have discussed in years past, the issue with Korach is authority over the nation – what type of authority, who should wield authority, and by whose (or Whose) authority it should be wielded.  We know of course that the Jewish people has the special mission of infusing holiness into the world, and consequently, unlike other nations, the criterion for Jewish leadership is holiness, rather than birth or wealth or connections or power.  Perhaps it is specifically to emphasize this point that the Haftarah of Korach contains the rebuke of Shmuel to the people when they ask for a king so that they can be like all the other peoples.  We aren’t like all the other peoples, and all the other peoples constantly remind us of that fact when we get complacent and forget it.

If the requisite quality of a Jewish leader is that he be holy, the question becomes, how does one become holy?  Interestingly, Malbim says that there are three distinct ways, all three of which are alluded to in our verse.  Briefly, you can be born holy, you can become holy by your own efforts, or Gd can make you holy.

According to our tradition, every soul has a “root” where it is attached, or grounded in infinity.  From this unity, individuality emerges, in the form of individual souls.  Now since the ground where all the different soul roots merge and find their common basis is an undifferentiated unity, it is hard to see why one soul should be “hewed out” from a better place than another, in some kind of Jewish form of predestination, but it appears that is what Malbim is claiming, and Scripture appears to bear him out.  Probably the most obvious example of someone born with an extra (huge) measure of holiness is Moshe Rabbeinu.  When he was born, Torah records that his mother “saw him, that he was good.”  The Sages, picking up on the similarity of expression here and in the Creation story (“and Gd saw the light that it was good”), comment that when Moshe was born, the house was filled with light; clearly this was no ordinary child.  This is not to say that Moshe was born perfect; one clearly sees a process of growth from the beginning of his mission, when he repeatedly describes himself as tongue-tied, to the end, where the entire book Devarim (Deuteronomy, but literally “words”) is his brilliant final oration and charge to the people.  And while it is obvious that Moshe Rabbeinu started out in a better place than any one of us, nonetheless he had to work and grow in order to fulfill his potential.  His birth may have given him incomparably greater potential than any of us, but he therefore had incomparably greater responsibility to actualize that potential, and that took work and effort as well.

Most of us are in the second category.  Our souls’ roots are average, and our job on this earth is to perfect them, or, looked at from a different angle, to bring their perfection into the material world.  This involves dissociating ourselves from our attachment to the material world, and this detachment is accomplished by realizing more and more fully that we are really infinite, spiritual beings.  Once this becomes a living reality in our awareness, we can perceive our true Selves as infinite and transcendental to all levels of finite creation.  The individual aspect of our personality can act, but we are no longer driven by physical lusts and desires.  The rider (our soul) is back in control of the horse (our body) rather than the other way around.  Reaching this state is certainly a process; in fact it can be a long process in some cases, as we clean the windows of perception and understanding, until they become fully transparent.

Finally, Malbim identifies a third path, which we might label the path of Divine Grace, as Gd says (Ex 23:19) I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have mercy upon [the one] whom I will have mrecy.  In this case, somebody whom Gd finds worthy in some way, perhaps in some way that is not obvious to us, that doesn’t seem to have to do with the person’s own spiritual striving, is elevated by Gd to a stature higher than he has “earned” as it were.  Perhaps Noach could be considered to be in this category.  Scripture tells us that Noach was a righteous man in his generations, but one opinion of the Sages is that this means, compared to his dissolute generation he was righteous, but compared to a greater generation he’d not have been considered much of anything special.  Nevertheless, Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Gen 6:8).  Perhaps he was only the best of a bad lot, but there was a mission to be accomplished, and Gd found it desirable to equip Noach with the tools to accomplish that mission.  Significantly, once the mission was over, it appears that Noach had a regression of sorts, as he became a man of the earth (Gen 9:20) and proceeded to drink himself into a stupor.  Apparently living on a purely spiritual plane was too much for him and he returned to his previous situation where his material (earthy) nature dominated.  We do find stories frequently enough where people are propelled by circumstances to do very extraordinary things, things well beyond their normal capabilities, but afterwards return to their quotidian existence.  Inside undoubtedly something has changed, but they may never regain the heights they had that one time been able to scale, apparently with Divine assistance.  Nonetheless, their performances give us a hint of what full human potential can be.

Speculation on where our own soul, or worse, someone else’s soul, might stem from may be an interesting parlor game, but in truth it deflects us from the purpose for our souls’ individuation and their stay on this earth.  Individually, our job is to make our souls as perfect reflectors of Gd’s attributes as we possibly can.  And on a larger level, each of our souls was created to play a specific, unique part in the unfolding of Gd’s plan for the creation as a whole.  To a certain extent these two purposes are complementary – if we develop ourselves fully as individuals, we will no longer be attached to the pull of materiality, the “bribery” that can pervert our perception and action.  We will then be able to fill our role in the larger scheme of things perfectly.  R. Yisroel Reisman put it very beautifully in a lecture – when I stand in judgment before Gd, I may not be able to say that I perfected myself, but I want to be able to say that I was moving as fast as I could in the right direction.  Parashat Korach is always a good time to check our direction!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 19

R. Yannai said: We can understand neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the sufferings of the righteous.

This question is probably one of the most fundamental questions that a religious person has to wrestle with.  I purposely did not say “has to answer,” because, as our Mishnah tells us, we cannot find the answer.  As the Haftarah reading for public fast days (from Isaiah) states: As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My thoughts above your thoughts, and My ways above your ways.  Rabbi Lau quotes R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk: I could not worship a supernal Being all of whose ways are clear to me, all of whose thoughts are apparent to me and all of whose decisions I understand.  When I was in graduate school we had a series of posters on the wall that displayed atmospheric phenomena (this was the Department of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Arizona). They were actually Blake’s famous illustrations from the book of Iyov (Job) and included quotes from Iyov.  The one that stuck with me was: Knowest thou the ordinances of Heaven? Canst thou set dominion thereof in the earth?  In other words, we have to recognize that even the greatest prophet ever to have lived was still a mortal, and although his mind and heart may have been fully expanded, nonetheless there was still some individuality left in his personality; his vision was still not equivalent to Gd’s.  Gd is the Creator; He sees and knows everything all at once, He is beyond time and space.  No matter how great we become, we are still role players in His play.  If we do our jobs properly, our reward will be very great, but it may well be deferred until the World to Come.