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Parashat Korach 5775 — 06/17/2015

Parashat Korach 5775 — 06/17/2015

How did Korach go so wrong as to challenge Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership? And how did he convince many of the leaders of the nation to go along with him? Rav Kook explains that Korach’s thinking was not that off the mark after all. It’s just that when is operating at subtler, more powerful levels, a small deviation can lead to a large discrepancy as the process progresses.

Korach’s premise was that:

The entire congregation is holy and Gd is with them. Why do you raise yourself over Gd’s community? (16:3)

In other words, why should Moshe be the leader and Aharon the High Priest? Why do there have to be differences in the community if all are holy?

Rav Kook goes on to explain:

In our individual lives, and in society and the nation as a whole, we find two general principles at work. The first is havdalah, meaning “withdrawal” or “separation.” The second is chibur, meaning “connection” or “belonging.”

These are contradictory traits, yet we need both. … Similarly, within the Jewish people it is necessary to separate the tribe of Levi – and within Levi, the kohanim – from the rest of the nation. These groups have special obligations and responsibilities, a reflection of their inner character and purpose.

Yet separation is not a goal in and of itself. Within the depths of havdalah lies the hidden objective of chibur: being part of the whole and influencing it. The isolated forces will provide a positive impact on the whole, enabling a qualitative advance in holiness.

Quoting from the Zohar (Mishpatim 95a), Rav Kook now locates the source of Korach’s error:

The Sitra Achra [literally, the ‘Other Side’ – the forces of evil] begins with chibur [connection] and ends with pirud [division]. But the Sitra deKedushah [‘Side of Holiness’] begins with pirud and ends with chibur.

The correct path, the path of holiness, follows the order of first separating and then connecting. In other words, the separation is for the sake of connection. … But Korach’s philosophy … replaces the splendor of diversity with dull uniformity. In the end, this … approach leads to disunity, as all parts yearn to break apart in order to express their unique individuality. The Sitra Achra begins with chibur and ends with pirud.

I think that the “path of holiness” is actually the path of creation, the path by which the Divine plan is actualized. The path of impurity then is the reverse of the process of creation in some sense – a process of dissolution or disintegration. Now actually, creation starts from the ultimate state of chibur, which is the Unity of Gd, This Unity is not the ersatz unity of which Korach was speaking of course. When Gd decides, as it were, to create, the very first thing that is created is light – the supernal light with which Adam could “see from one end of the universe to the other,” and of which the light of the sun is but a pale reflection. Now light is light in contrast to darkness, and very quickly we find that division (pirud) is created, and this division keeps ramifying until it appears that the underlying unity is totally obscured. The other force, of course, is the integrative process that binds all the branches back to their source, into an enhanced unity, as it were, that is more than the sum of the parts. A bigger infinity so to speak.

This progression from Unity to diversity to integration into a “bigger” Unity is one way we can look at the narrative of Torah, and it is a narrative that appears in other cultures as well, including popular culture – The Lord of the Rings is a good example. In our context, it is the story of exile and redemption, and true to Rav Kook’s words, the Mishnah tells us that in the retelling of the story of Redemption in the Haggadah, we begin with a degraded state (“originally our ancestors were idolators,” or, alternatively, “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”) – this is pirud – and we conclude with the Redemption (re-integration or chibur).

We experience this process in our individual life as well. The process of birth is a process of separation, and as we grow and mature we go through a process of individuation. Individuation of course means we establish our boundaries, we distinguish self from non-self. As we grow, however, we start to integrate ourselves into larger and larger units – family, community, nation. Some manage to attain a global perspective. Some have the good fortune of experiencing the infinite basis of their individual existence, and to integrate this experience into all aspects of their perception and action. Perhaps this is the reintegration on the level of the life of the individual that Rav Kook describes as a “qualitative advance in holiness.”

The Sitra Achra begins with unity, and in a sense this is correct – the process of creation does begin with unity. That unity naturally diversifies. The problem with Korach, and with the Sitra Achra, and with any system that does not acknowledge the reality of Redemption, is that the process stops with diversity. Diversity, in and of itself, is of no use. The Law of Entropy guarantees the decay of any closed system. It is only the process of re-integration, the process that brings us back to Unity, an all-encompassing Unity that includes all diversity within it, perfectly harmonized, that can truly be called the “Side of Holiness.” Which side do we want to be on?!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 2

Ben Azzai says: Hasten to fulfill even a light precept and flee from all sin, for one mitzvah generates another mitzvah, and one transgression generates another transgression. The recompense of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the payment for a transgression is a transgression.

This Mishnah teaches us that the world works through feedback cycles. In physics there are two types of feedback:

  1. Negative feedback, which is not “negative” in the sense that we use the term colloquially. Negative feedback simply means that if you move a system in some direction it creates a force in the opposite direction, thus moving the system back towards its equilibrium state. Homeostasis is a prime example, but any system that oscillates is displaying negative feedback. Negative feedback is necessary to maintain stability.
  2. Positive feedback takes a system that has moved away from its equilibrium state and moves it even further away from equilibrium. Positive feedback is necessary for growth and change.

The thing about positive feedback is that we have to be careful that our deviations are in a life-supporting direction. If we go in a life-supporting direction, that will be enhanced – a mitzvah generates another mitzvah. Unfortunately, if our choices are bad, we will find ourselves dragged in that direction (the verb used in the Mishnah literally means “to drag”). We can have a vicious cycle or a delicious cycle. The choice is up to us – we merely have to take the right angle and let go!