Thursday, June 19, 2014

Parashat Korah: On Taking and Elevating

For me, the bottom line with Korah is the very first word of the parsha: Vayikah. And he took. He had a taking kind of attitude. The story that follows is full of words like “a lot” and “a little,” – you got a lot; no, I got a little. The whole discussion reminds me of children’s squabbles over who got the bigger cookie. It’s a taking kind of attitude, an attitude that shows a selfishness of spirit – a primary concern with I, rather than you or any other, and also an emptiness of spirit – it is out of a feeling of inner emptiness that we look to take and fill ourselves up all the time.

This taking attitude is natural and ubiquitous. We are in some way born to worry about ourselves and to concern ourselves with filling up, taking and taking to ensure we have enough. The problem with such a taking attitude is that it leads downwards – Korah was swallowed up by the earth for good reason. A taking attitude degrades us, makes us not just act, but feel lowly and petty and constrained.

What is the Torah’s antidote to this kind of taking attitude? One answer is provided by the end of the parsha: the mitzvah of terumah, of gifts for the priests. This word terumah and its verb tarimu is in some ways the answer to vayikah in the beginning of the parsha. It’s not just that instead of taking, one should be giving, but also that instead of taking, one should be “raising up,” the literal meaning of tarimu. Giving a share to the priests is one way of “raising up” what you are taking from the world. Like saying a blessing before eating, it elevates the act, creating a sense of sanctity in the environment so that one is not pulled downward like Korah, but upward.

Because fundamentally, we are and always will be takers. We eat, we wear clothing, we constantly consume resources. We take from the world around us. If the whole purpose of such taking is merely the preservation and aggrandizement of some “me,” then it does lead us downward. Somehow, there has to be some higher purpose. We are taking, but we are taking in a way that elevates. There is a notion in Hasidic thought that by performing a mitzvah with a physical object, we somehow elevate that object itself, releasing the divine sparks inside it. Even if we don’t want to go that far in the mystical direction, there can be some feeling that we are making use of resources for the sake of something larger than ourselves. In the Pirke Avot chapter from last week, it says that one should try to do all of one’s actions leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. What would it mean to think, before evey act, even the most mundane, this, too is for the sake of heaven? Evey act would then be elevated.

If we could do this, if we could really feel that all of our actions were sanctified by their connection to some higher purpose, not only would we feel elevated, but I suspect that we would take less – consume fewer resources and also demand less of the things Korah was craving – honor and ego-building. I suspect we would take less because that empty space inside us would already be filled up. Having elevated our every activity, we would feel the blessedness and the sanctity of small amounts, of little things, and all of it would feel large and satisfying. We would not look to grab honor from outside, because we would feel already elevated from the inside.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Parashat Shelakh: How Not to Feel Like a Grasshopper

There are different ways of being small. There is insecurity and there is humility and they are not the same thing. The 10 spies who came back from their tour of Israel saying that we will not be able to conquer the land were insecure; “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their [the local giants’] eyes,” they say. Moshe, on the other hand, is humble, “the humblest man on the face of the earth,” it says right at the end of last week’s parsha, as if begging us to make exactly this contrast to the spies.

“We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we were in their eyes.” I think we know what this feels like, to look at those around us and feel that they are “giants” in comparison to us, to feel our own smallness, to be so intensely aware of all the ways we are lacking to the point that we are sure so it is in others’ eyes as well – that to them, too, we must seem inadequate.

Such is the human condition that we compare ourselves to others and sometimes, perhaps often, find ourselves lacking. How does one avoid such a state? By remembering always that we are a piece of God. And by remembering that as such, each one of us has a certain majesty, a grandeur of our own, our own way of shining forth, not like a grasshopper in contrast to giants, but like a human walking alongside other humans, each with her own way of lighting the road.

The difference between those 10 spies and Yehoshua, at least (Calev, too, but for different reasons), is that Yehoshua carried this knowledge with him – that is the gift that Moshe gave him before he left, changing his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua – the gift of carrying God’s name inside his own, of carrying the knowledge that God is a part of him with every step, bringing dignity and a long range perspective to the task at hand. Yes, at this particular moment I feel really small in relation to those who live here; I am new, a stranger; that’s what it feels like to not know the lay of the land – yes, that’s how I feel at this moment, but I can also keep with me the knowledge that God is a part of me, and this knowledge keeps me steady and balanced, keeps a person from falling into the “I am nothing but a grasshopper” trap.

The end of the parsha offers the same solution to the problem of the spies. It tells us that in order not to let our eyes “scout around” (taturu, like the spies), we should wear tzitzit in order to remember the God who made us and in order to remember the mitzvot – to remember that we have a divine job to do. There is no time to look around and make comparisons and feel like grasshoppers. We have a job to do on this earth, and it is a divine appointed job no matter how inadequate we feel to fulfill it.

That is Moshe’s humility. He doesn’t wallow in grasshopper-ness to the point of avoiding his mission. At a certain point, insecurity stops leaders like the spies from doing their job. If anything, Moshe’s humility fuels his mission, because it reminds him that its purpose is not his own greatness, but being part of something larger. His awareness of his own smallness – in relation to God, not other humans --- keeps him steady and on course in fulfilling his job.