An opponent of the Hassidic movement once came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman- to attack him with accusations of pride:
“You claim to be a holy man- a leader of Hassidim- but look how you sit alone in your study, separate from the people… and with an attendant at your door, shielding you from those who come to see you, and only admitting them one by one according to your command- how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanun prayer.
After a few minutes, he lifted his head and spoke-
“The expression the Torah uses for ‘leaders of the people’ is ‘roshei alfei Yisrael- heads of the thousands of Israel,’ from which we learn that our leaders are know as ‘heads’.
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. They have a most essential and intimate connection. Nevertheless, they are clothed separately and differently.
Why is this?
Because the head must be distinct from the body, just as the ‘heads’ of any generation must be distinct from the people.”
The questioner was impressed with the answer and went on his way.
But the Rebbe’s little son (who would eventually be known as Reb Dov Bear of Lubavich), had a different question for his father:
“Abba, in order to give that answer, there was no need to rest your head in your arms. Why didn’t you give him the answer immediately?”
The Alter Rebbe replied, “In Parshat Korakh, when Korakh and his followers incited mutiny against Moses and Aaron and accused them of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused Moses with these words- Umadua titnasu- and why do you raise yourself up above the people of G-d?’
Then we read, ‘vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
Only afterward did Moses give his answer to Korakh- that in the morning, Hashem would make clear who were the chosen leaders. The same question could be asked there- why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
But Moses suspected that perhaps there was some truth to the accusation- perhaps there was a bit of ego involved in his leadership, so he had to go inside himself and search inwardly to see if there was some truth there.
After searching within and finding that the accusation was false (as the Torah itself says, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- Moses was exceedingly humble’), he was able to respond with clarity.
A similar thing happened with me here today.”
The Alter Rebbe’s description of the head in relation to the body- intimately connected, yet separate, transcendent- is not just a metaphor for a leader in relation to the people, but also for consciousness in relation to the thought.
Just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, admitting them one by one according to the wishes of the Rebbe, so too you need to be the “attendant” of the mind, admitting your thoughts one by one, as they need to be dealt with. This “attendant” allows your consciousness to remain free and not be besieged by your thoughts. This is “attending to your own mind”.
When you practice this, it sometimes happens that your mind rebels against you, like Korakh- “What makes you so great that you get to call all the shots? All of us thoughts are holy too!”
Thoughts will come with incredible urgency, accusing you of being negligent, of being disconnected, of being arrogant, whatever.
And even though Moshe Rabbeinu and the Alter Rebbe may find no trace of ego within themselves, most people will find at least a little. For most, cleansing oneself inwardly from ego is a daily task.
That’s why there is the practice of “Nefilat apayim- Falling on the Face” that happens in the weekday Takhanun prayer, in which you put down your head (originally a prostration, now people generally rest the head on the left arm). You look inside yourself to see any arrogance or misdeeds that you may have done, admit your faults in humility and ask for forgiveness.
But whether you use the traditional words or not, you can take some moments in your day to let yourself feel your own faults, misdeeds and arrogance. Express regret, and let your heart be cracked open so that any arrogance can seep out.
In fact, the Alter Rebbe himself recommended doing this for short periods of self-reflection and purification. It’s important that this practice be only short bursts of breaking your own heart, after which you return to a positive state of joy, with sovereignty over your mind.
Purified from the residue of ego, you can continue enjoying your innate freedom, and the incredible life-power that comes with that freedom. Because that life-power is actually who you are- not who you think you are!
This Shabbos Korakh, I bless you that you should shine with your middos of Gevurah and Hod- your inner power and your inner humility- in freedom of mind and openness of heart.