Once there was a farmer who lived on his farm with his son. The son grew up helping the farmer with all the chores- cleaning the chicken coup, milking the cows, planting, tending, harvesting and so on. As the son grew up, however, he became disdainful of the farm life. He resented his father for raising him in such a sheltered life, and he wanted to experience more.
As he grew more and more restless, he would get into fights with his father, insulting him and calling him a bumpkin and a hick and so on. Eventually he left the farm and set out for a more urban evnvironment. He became a party animal, living for the nights when he would drink himself into oblivion with his newfound crowd of party animals.
One such night, one of his companions who knew about the son’s origins got out of hand and started insulting him and his father. The son suddenly felt protective of his father’s honor, and threatened to beat the guy up. Some other people restrained him, and said “why don’t you settle it with a drinking contest?” They both agreed.
As the son downed shot after shot, there was something different in the way he was drinking. In the past, he drank for his own pleasure. Now, he was drinking for his father. This gave him more drinking strength than ever, and he easily won the contest.
The next night, when he went out drinking, he was reminded of what it was like to drink for his father, and how it somehow gave more strength and depth to his drinking, so he tried it again: Before taking a sip, he would say, “Dad, this is for you”. From then on, every night he went out, he would dedicate his partying to his father. After some time, he felt something like a fire kindle inside his heart. A great love for his father grew inside him. Sometimes he would sit with the glass of wisky for long periods without drinking anything, just savoring this love that was growing within him.
Eventually, he began to realize that the love within him was infinitely more deep and sweet than the scrap of pleasure he got from the alchohol. He knew he had to return home, but he felt so guilty facing his father.
When he arrived and saw his father, he said, “I left here because I had felt like I was just one of your animals, mindlessly doing your farm work. But now that I’ve been out in the world, I feel like I am not even as good as your animals, because your animals at least faithfully serve you, while I just run around after my own pleasure. I am less than an animal. But I love you, and I realize I was wrong, and I want to come back.”
The father was in tears. “My son, these animals don’t serve me on purpose. They follow their instincts, and I know how to work with them so that they serve me and the farm. You, on the other hand, have chosen to some back out of love, and that is the most precious thing to me.”
In the story, the son follows his own desires, satisfying himself through drinking. But when he accidentally imbues his drinking with love for his father, the drinking begins to have a new effect. It becomes a path of transformation.
On Shabbat, as we come together to sing and dance and praise in joy, most of us are drinking in the tavern for God. We’re doing enjoyment, but dedicating it to God, so it becomes a path of transforming the heart, of awakening the power of love. But in order for that power to become a true transformation, we have to take it back to the farm.
But of course there is something in the way; it is easier to drink for the farmer than to clean the chicken coup for the farmer. So the story is really about the very beginning of the son’s spiritual work- the real work begins after the story ends. That’s where the transformation of ego happens- when you clean the chicken coup, when you endure the hardships of life and are able to dedicate it to the One. The other day, I lost my kippa, and I was afraid- it’s my last one, what am I going to do? Then I realized what a crass materialist I was being. What kind of spirituality is that? Worrying about a hat? So insignificant compared to the real hardships of life, but it affected me. But those to me are the golden spiritual moments- when you get to see your own ego at work- because that is the opportunity to drop it for real. Real transformation happens in the flow of actual life, when we offer the whole of our life on the altar of actuality.
In this parasha, Korakh makes a rebelion against Moses with 250 followers, accusing Moses of exalting himself over everyone else, and calling for something more democratic. The midrash asks why this incident comes right after the mitzvah of tzitzit- the ritual fringes worn the corners of the one's garment to remind one of the Path. The tzitzit are supposed to have a special thread of blue in them. It answers that Korakh came to Moses with a garment made entirely of blue and asked Moses, “Does this need tzitzit?” Metaphorically, Korakh was saying that he was totally aware of God’s presence everywhere, so there was no need for the specific tzitzit as a reminder; Korakh was like the garment that was all blue. There was no need for Moses to lead him, Korakh argued, because whatever happens, God is always in control anyway. It’s a very spiritual argument, and it is actually true from a spiritual point of view. But he was using a spiritual argument to justify being a farm animal rather than being a son of God. The farm animals do what they do, and the farmer manipulates the situation. But the son comes back to serve out of love and awareness of the farmer, and that’s the difference between Moses and Korakh. Korakh’s actions did ultimately serve a holy purpose- the story is in the Torah, and is part of the Teaching, but Korakh was motivated by ego. Moses was trying to do his job.
So the point is not using spiritual ideas as argument; the point is our relationship to the present moment. It is being willing to allow this moment to be what it really is anyway, and serving That. This is what it means to serve in simkha- in joy- but also in yirah- in fearsome awe; because only awe and surrender can the things we resist transform us into hearts that burn with Divine Love. May we merit truly spiritual lives, so that the ecstasy of drinking in the tavern be channeled into cleaning the chicken coup. Shabbat Shalom!