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.