V’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah-
And they should take to you a cow that is red, completely...
In Parshat Hukat, it says, Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely.
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah- song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So on this Shabbat Hukat- the Sabbath of the Mystery- I bless you to use your voice in prayer and song. “Even if you can't sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
Korakh separated himself..."
Parshat Korakh begins, “Vayikakh Korakh- Korakh separated himself…”
This is referring to how Korakh “separates himself” by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of unfairly wielding their power. Korakh’s argument is pretty convincing. He says:
“This entire assembly is holy and the Divine is among them- why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Divine?”
Now, the word for “he separated” is vayikakh, which literally means “he took”- hinting at the selfish motive behind his challenge to Moses. Just like when you feel desire for something, like a sugary treat for example, and there’s the urge to reach for it and take it, so too Korakh was grabbing at what he wanted. Only his desire object wasn’t food, but status and control. And just as the body can have physical cravings, so the ego has identity cravings: I want control, I want recognition, and so on, and that ego craving can be much more powerful than bodily cravings in some cases.
Next, it says:
Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.
Why did he fall on his face?
There’s a story that once an opponent of the Hassidic movement came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman of Liadi- to attack him with accusations of arrogance:
“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, only admitting people according to your command- how fancy of you! Isn’t that arrogance? Who do you think you are anyway?”
The tzaddik put down his head, resting it in his arms, as one does during the penitential Takhanunprayer.
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 known as ‘heads.’
“Now it is true, the head and the body are joined together, and neither can exist without the other. Nevertheless, they’re 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 accused Moses and Aaron of abusing their power as leaders, we read that Korakh accused them with these words-
“‘Umadua titnasu- And why do you exalt yourselves?’
“Then we read, ‘Vayishma Moshe, vayipol al panav- Moses heard, and fell on his face.’
“Only after he fell on his face, did Moses answer Korakh. So we might ask the same question there- why did Moses have to fall on his face first, before giving his answer?
“Because 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.
“Then, after searching within and purifying himself from any ego (as the Torah 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 your thoughts and feelings.
So just as the attendant shields the rebbe from his clamoring hassidim, so you too can be the “attendant” of your own mind, keeping yourself free from thoughts and feelings generated by ego.
But, to do this, you don’t really have to “keep out” any of your thoughts or feelings. All you need to do is be conscious of them. By simply acknowledging the presence of selfish or aggressive thoughts and feelings, they’re no longer controling “you.” Then, as you continue to stay present, your thoughts and feelings naturally cool down, revealing themselves as nothing more than fleeting moments of experience.
As it says in Psalm 23, Dishanta vashemen roshi- My head is anointed with oil. When you stay present, your awareness is like aromatic anointing oil poured over your head, cooling and relaxing your mind and heart. And when that happens, you can experience yourself more and more as consciousness, totally beyond and yet inclusive of your mind and heart. And that consciousness is the opposite of ego. Because while ego is needy and is forever restless, trying to fulfill itself, consciousness is full and complete- Kosi r’vaya- my cup is full.
So on this Shabbat Korakh, this Sabbath of Taking, may we fully “take” the only power we truly have- the power to be with what is- to be the space of awareness within which this moment unfolds, and in so doing, become free from the impulses of the mind and heart and realize the inherent peace and wholeness that we are. Good Shabbos!
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