This week’s reading begins with the laws of purification for coming into contact with death.
The name of the parshah- Hukat- is from the word hok, which means “decree”, or “statute”. The particular hok in this parshah contains strange instructions to burn up a completely red cow- a parah adumah- and to mix a magical purification potion from the ashes. Due to the particularly obscure and bizarre nature of this practice, the rabbis came to see the word “hok” to refer to any of the mitzvot in general that don’t seem to make rational sense.
After describing the process with the red cow, it says (Bamidbar 19:14)- “Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel- this is the torah for when a person dies in a tent…”
The beginning of this verse can also be read in a completely different way- “Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!”- hinting that a person is like a holy book, containing all spiritual wisdom within oneself...
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined, saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance from him of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe.”
But as soon as he sat down in one of the regular seats, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them about their rude behavior: “You know, every person is like a holy book; that’s why you mustn’t lean on or push one another.”
One of the hassidim countered, “But aren’t we allowed to stack holy books on top of other holy books?”
Replied Reb Yitzhak: “Yes… but even though you should see every person as a holy book, you shouldn’t see yourself as a holy book.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
Recently, my wife has been learning about a parenting method called, “Positive Discipline”. Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting them.
The catch phrase for this (which I find incredibly useful) is “Connection Before Correction”. In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did. Only afterward you speak to them about how they need to change their behavior.
But this approach is not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent! It’s possible to correct children through harshness alone, but what effect does that have on your own soul?
The answer comes from looking at the motive behind the child’s misbehavior. Why does the child misbehave?
Generally speaking, they misbehave for the same reason the hassidim in the story misbehaved. The hassidim misbehaved because they were desperately seeking something. In their case, they wanted the juice from the tzaddik, they wanted Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.
The Tzaddik is telling them- “your desperate seeking is keeping away the very thing you seek! Learn the middah of composure, of respect, and the Divine Presence will open Itself to you.”
He could have communicated this harshly, and after the hassidim get over the initial shock of the harshness, it would have the same effect. They would still learn the lesson.
But in expressing the teaching through anger, the teacher would have separated himself from the Presence! After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure. So while it may have the desired effect for others, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
We can also see this in the parshah, beginning with chapter 20:
First, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, this means that connection with the Divine Presence (represented by Miriam) is lost. We are then told that there is “no water to drink”. Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with Presence.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. The child is misbehaving! The hassidim are leaning and pushing!
Hashem then instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of your own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hard barrier (the rock) created by the seeking.
Then it says, “hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah- you shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…” The barrier to what you seek can be removed through gentle words of instruction.
As you may know, that’s not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels”, and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink- but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself! How often do you beat yourself for not living up to your highest intentions?
While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly.
As the teaching goes, a person is a Torah!
Meaning- you have the wisdom within to teach yourself, to get back onto the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
In this sense, you should indeed consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah!
I bless you that in this hok of life, this life that is often incomprehensible, that you remain steadfastly committed to embodying the wisdom, compassion and positive transformation that you came into this world to embody.
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 mind.
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.
Reb Elimelekh of Lyzhansk, a disciple of the Maggid and brother of Reb Zushia, used to express his immense gratitude that he was assured a place in Olam Haba- the World to Come.
He explained that when he leaves his body and ascends to the upper realms, they will ask him- “Did you study Torah to the best of your ability?”
“No,” he would answer.
“Did you pray with full kavanah, with all your heart and all your soul?”
“Have you done all the Mitzvot and good deeds that you should have done?”
“Well then come right on in! We can see you are telling the truth, and for that you deserve all the rewards of the World to Come!”
The “World to Come” is actually free, and it is not even in the future, but is present now- thank God! The wholeness of your innermost being cannot get anymore whole than it already is!
But, it is easy to get blocked from feeling and knowing this truth for yourself, simply by craving validation and defending yourself. Reb Elimelekh was considered to be a tzaddik, a spiritual master, yet he had no need to claim anything. He admits- “I could have done better.” He is not defending himself to the heavenly court, and therefore he is open to receive the spiritual gift that is ever-flowing.
Why does defensiveness cut you off from your inherent bliss?
Because defensiveness actually creates your “self” as something separate, as something incomplete. That’s the paradox- if you claim to be somehow superior, valid, righteous or whatever, you create a sense of self that is inherently inferior, invalid, incomplete and separate.
But if you admit- “I could have done better… and whatever good I’ve done is by the grace of God”- then you relax the tense contraction of self concern, and return to the Wholeness that you already are, but that you can’t claim or own.
Then, simply to be is a tremendous gift, not a burden. In fact, it’s the need to defend yourself that’s the burden! Let go of that, and gratitude naturally follows.
In this week’s reading, The Torah says of Moses, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od- and the man Moses was very humble…”
Moses was humble??
He was the tireless and sometimes ruthless leader of the Children of Israel. How could he have been humble?
But humility doesn’t mean meekness or weakness. It means not grasping after greatness for yourself. It means understanding that the greatness you are comes from beyond “you”; in fact there is no separate “you” at all, there is just the Mystery of Being in all Its different forms. That's just what Moses did- he was not concerned with his own greatness. He was serving the Greatness that called to him.
What Greatness is calling to you?
At this moment, what are you being asked to step up to and serve?
When your attention is on That, rather than your own image or desire to be validated or seen in a positive light, it’s humbling… and liberating.
Which brings us to a second paradox: In order to keep your attention on Being, rather than on your identity, you have to keep your awareness rooted in your body. That’s right- your own fragile, material, temporary, flawed, physical body is actually the gateway to Eternity, when your attention is rooted there.
As the parshah opens: “…beha’alotkha et haneirot, el mul p’nei hamenorah ya’iru shivat haneirot- when you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
The light is your awareness. The menorah is your body, with its seven centers of consciousness and seven basic “middot”- spiritual qualities that express your inner Divinity, beyond ego.
Of these qualities, “humility” and “gratitude” are often coupled together as the fifth middah (if you are counting from the top down, or the third of you count from the bottom up).
On this Shabbos Beha’a lotkha, I bless you that you should ignite the fire of your awareness to greater depth and presence in your body, that you more deeply taste the freedom and bliss of your inner Divinity, and that you recommit to serve the Greatness in whatever way you are being called to serve.
Be good to one another, Good Shabbos!