One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches begins in one of those exotic import stores, filled with incense holders, meditation bowls, handmade musical instruments and the like. A stoner-type guy who works there comes up to some customers and starts showing them some crafty knick-knack import. He says in a stoner voice:
“This is a Senegalese lute carved from deer wood, used for fertility rituals… oh and you can put your weed in there!”
They move from one knick-knack to another. Each time the stoner guy describes the intricacies and history of the item, he concludes by showing them some hole or little compartment in it and says, “Oh, and you can put your weed in there!”- and stuffs a baggy of marijuana into it.
Finally, a cop comes into the store. When the stoner sees the cop, he anxiously tells his customers to say nothing about weed. The cop walks over to them and says, “How you doing?” The stoner clenches his jaw, trying to restrain himself, and then busts out uncontrollably:
“WEED!! WEED!! WEED!!”
The cop says, “Why are you yelling like that?” He then examines the knick-knack he’s holding, finds the weed and arrests him.
The Talmud says (Sukkah 52a), “A person’s yetzer (drive, inclination, desire) grows stronger each day and desires his death.”
In the sketch, all the stoner guy has to do to not get caught is nothing. But he can’t help it- he yells, “Weed! Weed!”
How often are you given the opportunity for life to go well, to go smoothly, and somehow you find yourself messing the whole thing up? Why do we have this yetzer hara- this “evil urge”- this drive toward self-destruction?
In his introduction to Pirkei Avot, HaRav Yochanan Zweig proposes something unique and compelling: He says that the reason we tend to sabotage ourselves is actually because of our unbelievably enormous potential. We know, on some level, that our potential is enormous, and that creates a kind of psychological pressure. We are terrified of not living up to our potential.
So, to avoid the pain of knowing our great potential and not living up to it, we try to convince ourselves that we have no potential, that we are worthless, and all our self-destructive behaviors are aimed at proving our worthlessness to ourselves.
This week’s reading begins with the aftermath of a self-destructive incident as well.
The Israelites had just been dwelling peacefully in their camp. Then the Midianites come along and try to seduce them into an orgy of idolatry and adultery. The Midianites didn’t attack them militarily; all the Israelites had to do is say “No thank you,” and they’d be fine. But what happens? They are easily seduced and the Divine wrath flares up. It’s the golden calf all over again! Dang.
The fellow for whom the parshah is named, Pinhas, then wields his spear and kills two particularly hutzpadik offenders who were flaunting their orgiastic idolatry right in front of the holy “Tent of Meeting.” This week’s parshah then begins with Pinhas getting rewarded for his heroic murder, and he is given a Divine Brit Shalom- a “Covenant of Peace.”
For many, it’s hard to see anything positive in this story. Murder in the name of religious zealotry? Embarrassing.
And yet, if we dig deep into the underlying currents of the narrative, an urgent message emerges: There is a powerful drive toward self-sabotage, toward self-destruction. It is seductive, sexy, exciting and relentless. It will disguise itself in all kinds of ways to trick you and lure you into its power.
But, you can overcome it, if you are aware of it!
In fact, if you are aware of it, it has no power at all. The Talmud says that in the future, the Yetzer hara will be revealed for what it really is. When the wicked see the yetzer hara, it will appear as a thin hair. They will weep and say, “How were we ensnared by such a thin hair?”
The key is being conscious, and clearly holding the intention that you are not living for your own gratification, but rather you are here to serve the enormous potential for wisdom and love that is your essence, your divine nature.
At the same time, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you do have needs and desires.
While it’s true there are times when our impulses are so destructive that they must be completely halted as represented by Pinhas and his spear, in most cases our thirsts can be quenched in moderation, with balance and wisdom. Our desires, after all, are like the impulses of an animal. Don’t let the animal take over, but don’t torture it either. You have the power, through your awareness, to give the animal enough so that it let’s you have peace, without it taking over and pulling you toward self-sabotage.
There’s a story of a simple man who came to Maggid of Koznitz with his wife, demanding that he be allowed to divorce her.
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the Maggid.
“I work very hard all week,” said the man, “and on Shabbos I want to have some pleasure. Now for Shabbat dinner, my wife first serves the fish, then the onions, then some heavy main dish, and by the time she puts the pudding on the table, I have eaten all I want and have no appetite for it. All week I work for this pudding, and when it comes I can’t even taste it- and all my labor was for nothing!
“Time after time I ask my wife to please put the pudding on the table right after Kiddush (the blessing over wine), but no! She says that the way she does it is the proper minhag (custom).”
The Maggid turned to the woman.
“From now on, make a little extra pudding. Take a bit of the pudding and serve it right after Kiddush. Then, serve the rest of it after the main dish, as before.”
The couple agreed to this and went on their way.
From that time on, it became the minhag (custom) in the Maggid’s house to serve some pudding right after Kiddush, and this minhag was passed on to his children and his children’s children. It was called the Shalom Bayit Pudding- the “Peace-in-the-House Pudding!”
On this Shabbat Pinkhas, the Sabbath of Peace, may we be aware of the needs of our hearts an bodies, giving and receiving the pleasures of life without being controlled by them. May we know that we are infinitely more vast than any particular impulse or want. May we see that all impulses come and go, and that we need not identify with them.
And that is the good kind of self-destruction!
Immediately I looked- the Uber was half way down the street! I took off running like my pants were on fire. The car started to slow down- yes! He sees me! But then he went over a speed bump and… started accelerating again!
Adrenaline pumping, I ran even faster. I yelled for him to stop. He approached a second speed bump, slowed down, and… yes! He stopped!
As I reached his car, he handed me the phone out of the driver’s side window. “You’re a fast runner!” he said.
“Not usually,” I replied.
The body has tremendous potential, usually untapped. But in the moment of emergency, that potential can be unleashed. When I was little I remember hearing a story of a woman who lifted a car to save her child who had become trapped.
But there’s another potential of the body besides its physical potential- the potential to save you by lifting the weight of ego, under which you may have become trapped. Have you ever been motivated by negativity or craving to do something that would have terrible consequences, and in that emergency your body gave you the message to stop and turn back?
In this week’s reading, Balak king of Moab becomes frightened of the Israelites who are camping in a nearby valley, so he petitions the prophet/sorcerer Bilam to curse the Israelites. As Bilam rides out on his donkey to the Israelite camp, there is a strange and unique passage- one of only two instances in the Torah of talking animals (the other one being the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden).
Bilam rides his donkey through a vineyard, when an angel blocks the path with sword drawn. But only the donkey can see the angel; Bilam is oblivious to it. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the sword-wielding angel, and accidentally presses Bilam’s foot into a wall. Bilam gets mad and hits donkey with a stick, at which point the animal opens her mouth and speaks:
“Ma asiti l’kha-
“What have I done to you that you hit me?”
Bilam yells back-
“Because you mocked me! If I had a sword I’d kill you right now!”
Says the donkey-
“Am I not your donkey that you’ve ridden until this day? Have I ever done anything like this before?”
Then Bilam’s eyes are “uncovered” and he too sees the angel with the sword. Bilam bows, prostrates, apologizes, and goes up the mountain to view the Israelite camps.
When Bilam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse, his mouth utters a blessing instead:
“Lo hibit avein b’Ya’akov-
“(The Divine) sees nothing bad in Jacob...
“Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael-
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…”
The donkey is your body- the beast you live in. You may think you want to say something, but your words will be a curse if you can’t “see the angel.” But the donkey sees it- and the donkey can talk!
What is the blessing that God “wants” you to say?
Your body is the gateway to this awareness, if you become present. Connect with your body, open your mouth and let the blessing come through.
But, the question may arise:
Isn’t the body also a hindrance to consciousness and wisdom? Isn’t your body the source of negativity and cravings?
In Kabbalah, one of the symbols for wisdom is fire- as in the fire that Moses saw at the burning bush. This is the fire of Reality becoming conscious- the fire that looks through your eyes, reading these words, right now.
But fire is also a symbol of destruction- of craving and negativity- as in the plague of hail and fire that rained down on the Egyptians. This is the fire of anger and craving, seducing you to satisfy its every impulse, then leaving you unsatisfied, with a trail of unwanted consequences.
Both of these manifestations of fire, however, are teachers of wisdom- if only you learn to discern whether it’s the fire of “yes” or the fire of “no.”
“Yes” to love, “no” to reaching- to seeing fulfillment outside yourself. “Yes” to blessing, “no” to the impulses that keep you stuck.
There’s a story that when Reb Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch was four years old, he asked his father, Reb Shalom Ber:
“Abba, why do we have two eyes, but only one mouth and one nose?”
“Do you know your Hebrew letters?” asked Reb Shalom Ber.
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“And what is the difference between the letter shin and the letter sin?” continued Reb Shalom.
“A shin has a dot on the right side, and the sin on the left.”
“Right! Now, the letter shin represents fire, and fire makes the light that we see by. The dots on the right and left are like your two eyes.
“Accordingly, fire has two opposite qualities. On one hand, it can give us life by keeping us warm and cooking our food; that’s the right dot. On the other hand, it can burn us; that’s the left dot.
“Similarly, there are things you should look at with your right eye, and things you should look at with your left eye. You should see others with your right eye, and candy with your left eye!”
On this Shabbat Balak, the Sabbath of Body-Blessing, may we keep our awareness deeply connected to our senses and our breathing, so that the fire of Presence burns brightly with wisdom and with love. May we not identify with the urgencies of craving and negativity, and know that through the power of Presence, we are totally free from their power. And may the warmth and light of that freedom deepen more and more…
It all began a few years ago, when she read 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.
The catch phrase for this 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, and only afterward speak to them firmly about what behavior needs to change.
While I have not found this approach to be workable all of the time, especially in extreme situations, I still find the principle incredibly useful. And when it does work, it’s not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent. That’s because when you communicate only through harshness, it’s all too easy to be seduced into anger.
And though it is possible for the parent to correct the child with anger, the parent is then misbehaving too!
After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure- the very thing you want to correct in the child. So while expressing anger may have the desired effect of correcting the child’s behavior, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
Spiritually speaking, impatience and loss of composure have a deeper root- they stem from a loss of presence, and consequently, loss of connection with the Presence. When a child acts out, they have lost their presence; they have been taken over by their impulses. Have you ever seen an adorable and beautiful child suddenly become a monstrous terror?
And in the presence of such lack of presence, it can be very difficult to keep your own presence.
In this week’s reading, there’s a metaphorical demonstration of this principle. The name of the parshah- “Hukat”- is a form of the word hok, which means “decree,” or “statute.” The particular hok described here is the ritual for purifying someone who has come in contact with death. Metaphorically, death represents the loss of presence that comes when you are taken over by anger and negativity.
In the ritual, one must take a completely red cow and slaughter it, then burn it up completely. (Both the redness of the cow and the burning represent the fire of anger, which causes one to become spiritually “dead.”)
Then, the ashes are mixed with water and made into a potion to be sprinkled on the impure person. And, while the potion causes the impure person to become pure again, it causes the one who sprinkled the potion to become impure- just as parents who discipline their children with anger may help to “purify” the child’s behavior, but in the process they become impure themselves.
This theme continues to vibrate throughout the parshah-
Shortly after the hok of the red cow, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, Miriam’s death is the loss of connection with the Divine Presence, which Miriam represents. After she dies, we are then told that there is “no water to drink.” Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with the Presence that was lost.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. Hashem instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of his own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hardness- to the lack of connection.
Then it says-
“Hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah-
“You shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…”
The barrier to holiness can be penetrated by gently bringing awareness to it through speech, by using speech to return people to presence. That’s the role of the spiritual teacher- to help others return to Presence, often through speech.
But, 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 up 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. You have the power to teach yourself from your “Inner Torah”- to set yourself on the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
But to do this, you have to consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah. Yes, we are flawed humans, but on the deepest level we are also Torah. That level of Torah within is ever available, if you but remember and open to it.
There’s a hint of this in the parshah as well, when it describes the law for a person who dies in a tent:
“Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel-
“This is the torah (teaching) 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!”
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 to sit 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 of his presence.”
But as soon as he sat down, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him anyway.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them: “You know, every person is like a holy book- every person is in fact a Torah- as it says, ‘Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!’ And just as you wouldn’t pile things on top of a Sefer Torah, so too please don’t push and shove one another.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
On this Shabbat Hukat, the Sabbath of Decree, may we take care to embrace the “decree” of what is, even when confronting the negativity of others, not allowing our resistance to be embodied in self-defeating anger. But rather, let us embody Presence in all three garments- in our actions, words and thoughts.
A disciple of the Baal Shem Tov once asked, “Why is it that I usually feel the holiness of the Divine Presence, but occasionally, it vanishes and there is only a sense of remoteness and alienation?”
The Baal Shem explained-
“When parents teach their children to walk, they sometimes hold out their hands so the child can grab on and toddle toward the parent. But at some point, the parent will withdraw their hands and step back, giving the child the chance to toddle without holding on, so that in time they can learn to walk on their own.”
Sometimes, withdrawing is a form of giving.
But, that can be challenging. I know this with my own children- the “teacher” in me wants to step in, instruct and correct. Sometimes I have to remind myself to “step back” and let them figure it out on their own.
What is it that makes withdrawing a form of giving? Of course, it’s the intention. To withdraw out of love, to give space to the other, is a form of giving.
But often, withdraw isn’t motivated by love, but by negativity. Then it becomes not a form of giving, but a form of taking.
This week’s reading begins:
“Korakh separated himself…”
Korakh “separated himself” by rebelling against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of unfairly wielding power over the children of Israel. Korakh’s argument is convincing-
“For the entire assembly is holy and the Divine is among them- why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the Divine?”
Interestingly, the words for “Korakh separated himself” in Hebrew is literally “Korakh took”- a telling idiom, pointing to the selfish motive behind his challenge to Moses.
If you’ve ever complained angrily in a way that only created more negativity, more of the very thing you were complaining against, you’ve experienced separation as a form of taking. It’s a form of arrogance, and arrogance always distorts your ability to see things clearly.
That’s Korakh- he has intelligent arguments behind his complaints, but his mind is distorted by arrogance, so he accuses Moses of being arrogant.
How do we purify ourselves of arrogance and see clearly?
An opponent of the Hassidic movement once came to the Alter Rebbe- Reb Sheur Zalman- 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, 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 known 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 God?’
“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 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 the thinking 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 you too can be the “attendant” of your own 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.
But, as the “attendant” of your own mind, you don’t really have to “keep out” any thoughts or feelings. All you need to do is be aware of them. By simply acknowledging the presence of selfish or aggressive thoughts/feelings, they are no longer “you.” When you are present, your thoughts and feelings are nothing more than fleeting moments of experience- and they can no longer control you. Ego vanishes.
This is the deepest separation as a form of giving- giving your attention to your own thoughts and feelings, you separate from them.
When you give your thoughts and feelings space to just be, without trying to control them, you become free. And ironically, this kind of separation is simultaneously the deepest intimacy- intimacy with your own being. And in that intimacy, you will come to know directly who you actually are- not who you think you are!
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.