We’re drawing out what we can through Parshat Korach. As for the name Korach – we’ve talked previously about how names are very important and there are messages encoded in the letters – the name Korach has the root kuf-resh-chet. One of the meanings of kore’ach is ‘bald’ and there’s a story in the Gemara that explains this name. It’s about a man who had two wives. He had one wife who was older and then he took a second wife who was younger. So the Gemara says that the young wife pulled out all his grey hairs, and the older wife pulled out all his dark hairs. The result was that he was bald, with no hair at all!
The idea of Korach then really represents the middle, between one extreme and another. The problem with Korach is that it’s hard to stand there in the middle; if the middle doesn’t hold then everything falls apart.
You need a very deep clarity to appreciate the importance of the middle. Because to be in the middle you have to yield. You can’t go too much in one direction or another. If you can occupy the middle then you can balance the two extremes.
The middle is very difficult. Also you can freeze in those conditions, if you don’t have a warm heart. That is what is needed, otherwise in the middle you can become very cold. That is the real meaning of the name Korach. So what can we learn from this, the problem of being in the middle?
It has something to do, first of all, with Korach being a Levite, which is also in the middle. We already spoke about how things have to be triadic. We spoke about the three-part Torah, the three-part people, given by the third-born person – Moses, third-born to his mother, preceded by Miriam and Aharon. And the triad in terms of the division of the people is the Kohanim(priesthood), the Levis, and the tribes, which are called Yisrael, which represent the body aspect, which consists of all these different parts.
So Korach is part of the Levites, and the job of the Levites is to take the position of the middle, to hold the middle, and really be the heart of Israel. But to be in the middle you have to be willing to yield, to surrender to something that is higher than you.
And that’s the predicament that Korach is in: the test is of the heart, to have a heart that’s going to be warm and not be frozen, not be cold; this comes from the ability to surrender, to take the middle position, to not have to be on top.
To see the importance of the position that comes in the middle – this is basically what Moshe says to Korach:
‘You think it’s me’at, a little thing – I mean, isn’t it enough for you – you think this is a little thing that you’re blessed with the position of the middle, that you don’t want to take that role; you want to collapse the middle; you don’t want to have the three parts that we need; you don’t want to have the integrating principle; you don’t realize how important that integrating principle is – that integrating principle is symbolic of the middle. It places itself in the middle; It’s the centering perspective – to have something higher than itself and something lower than itself.’
We can see that in the prayers in the Chassidic tradition, all the great prayers and all the great pray-ers among the tzaddikim – that they take on the intention before praying to connect their souls with all of Israel. As the Zlotchover Maggid said: ’Every time that I would go to daven, the first thing that I would do is I would connect my soul with all the tzaddikim that were on a higher level than me.’
Who was that?
The Zlotchover Maggid, Yechiel Mikhel of Zlotchov; the root guru of Meshullam Feibush of Zvorazh, whom I wrote about in Uniter of Heaven and Earth.
The Maggid would say:
‘Whenever I daven the first thing that I do is I connect my soul with all the tzaddikim that are on a higher level than me, so I can draw energy from their level, from their clarity. And once I make a connection with them, then I connect myself with all the people that are lower than I am, so they can benefit from what’s coming through.’
So in other words, you could see that the Zlotchover Maggid takes the middle.
This is the hard place, as we saw before – because otherwise you’re stuck with the binary [divide] between the head and the body, what you’re feeling viscerally, and what is stuck in your head. The memes that are implanted in your head create an imaginary world that appears to be separate from your body. So really it takes the establishment of the heart – and really the key to the establishment of the heart is being able to assume the middle – and to hold everything together. This applies not only to the vertical dimension of prayer, but also to overcoming the frozen conditions of any binary conflict.
Now we’ve seen that Korach doesn’t know how to do it.
He says to Moshe: ‘Who are you to be the Rav? You should be higher?’
Because he can’t accept that the middle means you have to have [something] above you. As he understands it, the middle is a sort of pluralism, where everything is just as good. And that seems to him to be the middle. That’s the misguided middle. Where everyone is equal, everyone’s on the same level.
But it doesn’t really mean that. Because if everybody’s on the same level, then you’ve reached basically the top of rationality – the current limit of human evolution. To be a really good person – most people think that rationality is the epitome of what a person can become.
But the problem with it is, even though that’s a tremendous advance, from an evolutionary perspective, on anything that came before, in the nature of being human and the human mind, it’s essentially egoic. It’s rational to be egoic. Rationality supports the egocentric perspective.
And it leads to the desire to fulfill your own needs. From a rational perspective that’s completely reasonable. Any person says: ‘Look, I’m out to get what I need.’ You can’t say there’s anything wrong with that. From the position of rationality, it’s perfectly reasonable, and that’s what Korach represents: Korach represents the un-evolved potential to become the middle, but he can’t become the middle because he’s stuck at the rational level. The rational is democratic pluralism. Everybody’s equal. There’s no higher. And if there’s no higher, then really there’s no middle. The middle has to be in the centre.
In the tree of the sefirot, the Etz Chayyim, the middle is represented by Tiferet. If you think about the six directions, Tiferet is there in the centre. Tiferet has Keter above it, and it has Malchut below it. To be a true middle, you have to be in the centre of above and below and the four directions, not to go into too much detail about the various rays that come out. But to have a middle, the minimum that you need is North, South, East and West, above and below. That’s what you can see in pretty much any tradition that does powerful rituals. It creates a cosmic mandala that needs to have at least these six elements. That’s where Korach needs to be but he can’t get there because he can’t transcend the rational. Nobody’s better than anybody else. There’s no above. And as long as there’s no above, there’s no surrender.
As I said, I think the problem is that if you can’t transcend the rational, then you can’t get beyond the person who is out for his/her self, whose life is basically based upon fulfilling their own needs.
Our tradition… I’m giving over this teaching by way of the Yam haChochmah, Rabbi Itche Meir Morgenstern, who is one of the greatest kabbalists in the world today.
What I received from him is the sense that, to use the language of our tradition, there are two types of shevirah, that is, there are two types of conditions of being broken, meaning that they’re incomplete, and require tikkun – they need to be fixed. They need to be fixed in order for us to get to Ge’ulah, which literally means redemption.
What redemption means in my lexicon is the next evolutionary step: what gets us out, frees us from the limitations of the present evolutionary step, which is dominated by rationality, and expresses itself in self-interest and conflict.
Parenthetically, that’s why we are currently finding so many people attracted to Ayn Rand and all these people who are basically out for themselves, and what can you say about that? That’s where this framework of ego-centric rationality ultimately leads. It’s human.
In our tradition, according to the Yam haChochmah: that view of the person who is out for their own needs is called shevira d’klippah – that’s the incompleteness of the breakage that is in the klippot. The klippot represent the conditions in which holiness, the sparks of light, that provide the energy for further evolution, are frozen; they’re locked into a form that freezes them. That’s Korach, in the sense of the frozen – the wholeness is frozen in the heart of Korach. The potential, to be the heart – to be the middle you need to be the heart. If you can’t open your heart it’s as if the light is frozen, and that’s called the shevirat haklippah, the breaking of the vessels that pertain to the klippot.
The higher level is what Korach is fighting against – he doesn’t want to recognize that Moshe Rabbenu is on a higher level.
‘What are you talking about? That’s not rational. We’re all the same. Who do you think you are? You must have a bigger ego than the rest of us.’
Because the rational is all about egoic perspective. So it must be, if you think you’re higher, that you have a bigger ego. There’s no other way you could be higher.
But there is a higher level, and the higher level is called the shevira d’kedusha, the breaking of holiness. So in this model, you could say there are two ways in which a person could be broken and need fixing, need tikkun. These ideas are straight from Lurianic kabbalah, that the world is in a state of incompleteness; it’s in a process of evolution, but the evolution is not completed, so there’s more that needs to be done.
So there are two categories of need. The lower need, which is represented by Korach at this stage, is the need that is associated with the shvira of the klippah – what I need as a rational individual. I need this. And this need looks for its fixing in getting what it needs, but as long as that’s its perspective, that centre is its middle, it’s Korach with a frozen heart, it’s Korach without a heart and without a true middle – and without a middle you can’t have a real tikkun: you can’t really fix anything.
The reason why, you need to go back to what we were talking about last week, that everything’s triadic. You have a micro, a macro, and your macro is a micro to a bigger macro. Each level is embedded. Each level is an analog for a bigger macro. So there’s no such thing as just fixing yourself. It’s only from this limited evolutionary perspective of Korach, who cannot assume the role of middle, that it seems that he’s separate, that he’s an individual, that you’re distinguished from everything else in some kind of way, and you have individual needs that need to be filled – which is perfectly reasonable if that’s the way you see the world. But you can’t ever fully succeed in that, because from a higher perspective it can be seen that this is a kind of myopic perspective – you’re missing the depths of the way things are; they’re much more integrated and inclusive. And since you’re embedded in these bigger macros, anything you’re feeling really pertains to something in the macros, and isn’t just something that you’re experiencing in the micro of your own experience and understanding through your own senses and so forth, but actually you have no conception of what the forces are, so to speak, that are operative in the macro, beyond what you’re experiencing, that are coming through to you; and so in simply trying to fulfill your own needs you’re going up against insurmountable odds. There’s so much more that you’re involved in – you just don’t see the picture.
Why do we say that the higher levels are also called a shvira, meaning a breaking? The higher level is called the shvira d’kedusha, the breaking of the holy. There are two ways a person can be broken-hearted. The first is what we’ve been talking about. I can be broken-hearted because I want another cup of chai and I can’t find the guy who’s serving me, and I’m going crazy because I need that so much and that’s the only thing I can think of. That’s the shvira d’klippah. I’m broken because something I personally want or think I need I’m not getting.
So you might think the higher level, which is represented often in certain stages or spheres of spirituality, you think the higher level is ‘where I get everything.’ It’s where I have no personal needs. We often fall into that, but that’s actually just a kind of higher level of the shvira d’klippah. Sort of like the mirror image. We have this ideal spirituality – but since we’re really egoic by nature, by human nature, the higher level is where I don’t really have any more personal needs, however that might be. It might be a karmic state of samadhi or enlightenment or however it might be conceived – but really it’s just a reflection of the breaking of the klippah, you see. It isn’t really yet the higher level, just sort of the ideal that would satisfy the structure of the shvira d’klippah.
But the higher level, according to Rabbi Morgenstern, in the terminology of our tradition, is called shvira d’kedushah – it’s holy brokenness. And that’s the quality of the tzaddikim. This is precisely what Korach cannot get. To be higher than the middle doesn’t mean that you’ve got everything that you want or you don’t need anything. Or that you’ve somehow managed to turn off the pain of need.
It means that your sense of incompleteness is on a higher level, because it’s not basically egoic, which is based on fulfilling my personal needs.
Nevertheless it’s still called a shvira – it’s still based on the sense that something needs to be fixed. What is it that needs to be fixed? The higher person, the person who’s above Korach – who obviously in our story is Moshe Rabbenu and his brother Aharon haKohen. They also experience the brokenness. But the brokenness that they feel is not the brokenness of not having their personal interests fulfilled. It’s the brokenness of the absence of the ge’ulah, the realization of the higher level that could take us beyond the shvira d’klippa. And that is the quality of all the tzaddikim.
So we can see how Moshe Rabbenu and Aharon haKohen act in this situation. They fall on their faces.
Korach says ‘You must just be a bigger ego than me. Who the hell do you think you are?’
And Moshe Rabbenu says ‘Look, this isn’t about me. You’ve got to check this out. We’re going to do something and I’ll show you this isn’t about what I want. This is about what God wants.’
This is the quality of the tzaddik.
You know it reminds me of the way that Heschel understood the Prophets. Heschel wrote a famous book on the Prophets, and his basic thesis is that a prophet is a human being who has evolved to a level where they feel divine pathos. They feel when something happens – they feel what God feels, not what a human being feels. An ordinary human being is frozen, has a frozen heart, is stuck, they’re stuck on the ego-centric level, which may seem totally justifiable to us:
‘I don’t really like bad things to happen to other people – it’s not my interest, I may try to avoid it, to the extent that I can. But I’m not going to go crazy about it, because I have to spend the majority of my time taking care of me.’
And that’s not what a tzaddik is. Heshel’s description is basically of a human being who gets the divine perspective on something. They experience that God basically can’t stand a person suffering as a result of somebody else’s maltreatment, ill-consideration, lack of sensitivity, these things – not to put it too much in political language, but any kind of taking advantage, exploitation, oppressing other people. The whole prophetic tradition tells us that that is abhorrent, from a divine perspective. But how many people actually feel that?
That’s the quality of a tzaddik, who has what is called kissufim amiti’im. Kissufim amiti’im means real longing, means a person really feels in their heart, they feel in their body absolutely, like, craving. Your longing is for the next level, is for the light to be revealed, is for people to get it, that everything is tied up together, everything is integrated together; that it’s not the way we presently see things, which justifies our acting as if we should get everything we can and defend ourselves against others and so forth.
But that perspective is frozen in that it creates a barrier in our ability to recognize and to respond to the One Presence, the element of Present Reality that everything is in fact an expression of. That’s precisely what you can’t get, when you’re stuck in the egoic perspective.
The tzaddik – and there are many levels of being a tzaddik; but what distinguishes the higher level is the degree to which a person has a heart that is truly longing, truly longing for the redemption, for the next level, next evolutionary level in which we can transcend and overcome the effects of this present level, this shvira d’klippa. And that’s what Moshe Rabbenu is basically trying to demonstrate to Korach in this parsha.
So the real teaching is the teaching of the heart. You have to be able to unfreeze the heart. To unfreeze the heart means that I’d be happy if I knew someone was on a higher level than I am. Not in the “more,” egoic sense, like I have a million and they have a billion, because then I’d rather have two billion. Rather I understand that the person who is higher is not, like, more. It’s higher, meaning it’s higher as in more evolved, in that evolution that means greater empathy, greater sensitivity, greater capacity to love. And what goes with it, why it’s still called shvira d’kedusha, is because there’s an element of pain in it, an element of suffering. If someone is suffering, if you’re a tzaddik, you can’t stand it – you can feel it in your body! It’s not just a political theory. Your politics are this and my politics are that and I don’t agree with you. I’m protesting because I cannot stand…
It’s as if the world and your engagement with the world are no longer abstracted.
Exactly. You end up a heart-being rooted in your body. But when your heart is open in your body, you will physically, in an embodied way, feel the pain of any being. Any person’s pain will be your pain.
But heart-broken is different from depression. I remember Reb Zalman once saying the heart-broken are the people that it’s as if you gently touch the heart, and it’s that sore tender place – that your world hits you on that level. You can tangibly feel it.
That’s right. You can feel it. It’s not just in your head, with some theories about what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s very visceral, and that’s the next level. The people on the higher level are feeling something that we should be feeling but are not yet capable of feeling. And that’s Korach’s predicament. And Moshe is showing us, basically, what that higher level is. That it’s not all about me.
Korach is a tough archetype to hold.
Moshe Rabbenu doesn’t even really want Korach to suffer.
Moshe pleads for all of Israel, doesn’t he? When Korach starts rebelling, he pleads for all Israel.
Of course, because that’s the very nature of the higher: He’s not saying ‘my people, my party, me, me, me.’ He means allpeople.
In the very response, it’s the response of God…
The response of the tzaddik is the integrated perspective, the perspective that includes everybody. It includes everybody in that one feels everything, feels everybody and everything. But at the same time, Moshe can’t really save the old Korach, because he basically has to be swallowed up. Because we basically have to have the middle. And that ice has to be melted. May it be so.
I feel more than ever this is a very timely teaching. To get to what is higher, and how important the middle is, which is what Moshe Rabbenu says to Korach:
‘Don’t you get it? You’re given the honor of holding the middle. But you’re not up to it yet…’
So do you see that all these invitations, all the signs right now are really pointed towards, the knocking on the door we hear right now, is the invitation to open up the heart..?
Yes. I think that one of the things that is feeling to me as important to say as part of participating in bringing through the next evolutionary stage of spirituality and being, is that we need to distinguish between the ideal of Korach, the spiritual ideal of Korach, which would be the stage where we’re relieved of all our shvira – ‘I’m relieved of my heart being broken’ which is an individual experience; and to understand that actually the next stage is a higher form of a broken heart that is not individual. It’s the heart that is broken because of everything that is keeping us from peace and the higher consciousness of redemption.
Do we have to be willing to be heart-broken to get to that next level?
I think so. I think that Moshe Rabbenu is, Aharon haKohen is. I think this is something that many of us stumble over at one point or another. Especially when we get very impressed by what we think is the character of some of the Asian spiritual traditions – we take a look at our tradition and we don’t see people sitting there in samadhi and bliss. We see people undertaking tremendous responsibilities and bearing the burden that comes along with it.
And in order to do it there also has to be access to noam haShem, the pleasantness of divinity. We have to be able to have access to those higher levels which transcend, which suffering doesn’t reach. But not stay there as an end, not view them as the goal of our studies. But to access them. But what we see represented and demonstrated [as the goal] is some form of serving, ofavdut, of becoming the eved, the servant. We have the same idea in Islam of course, becoming the servant of something higher. And that isn’t completely pleasant.
It’s not pleasant, really, to be Moshe Rabbenu. But it’s higher to be Moshe Rabbenu.
So that’s what I want to bring through, really.
This notion – which is in Rebbe Nachman, too, but people tend not to take it far enough; but Rabbi Morgenstern takes it farther: people tend to think it’s all vertical, that when Rebbe Nachman talks about kissufim and ga’agu’im and longing and all this sort of stuff, I think it’s because people can’t transcend very well Korach’s level – they think it’s all about me, somehow, or all about my tradition, even if they become very spiritual.
Then their longing is just too vertical and narrow: ‘I’m not getting a certain experience. I want the experience, to really feel that God loves me,’ these sorts of things. Not to say that that’s necessarily bad. But it’s a model that goes with the level that we want to transcend, we want to get beyond, that has to have a lot more of the horizontal in it. It has to embrace all the macros that we have access to, macros that are also empowering micros of other beings and traditions, and not just the connection between our individual micro and our Jewish macro. So I think that’s really the issue. These kissufim (longings) are not really about you. As long as the longing is just about your spirituality, that ‘I’m not satisfied with my spirituality’ – well, that’s OK for a beginner. But that’s far from being a tzaddik in training.
To be any degree of tzaddik, to at least be a beginner tzaddik in training, and please God we’ll at least be beginners, is to have some degree that you can feel the suffering of others.
So in other words, yes, there has to be suffering and pain. That’s the shvira d’kedusha. That’s a holy form of suffering, not a frozen-hearted form. Not a form based on unfulfilled egoic cravings, but it’s the suffering taken on by someone who’s serving a higher purpose, the higher evolutionary purpose itself. And of course, there are great rewards in this.