Posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
The relationship between student and teacher is at the core of almost every spiritual path. While each of us is born with the potential to reach infinite spiritual heights and depths, that potential must be brought to actualization under the guidance of one who has already begun to actualize his or her own potential in that way. While each religion and spiritual path has its books on which to draw, those books must be brought to life. The only way to learn the way described by the book is to watch it being exemplified in human form.
In this sense, Judaism is no different than other religions and paths of spirit. Pirkei Avot demands of us ‘make for yourself a teacher!’ Though there are many clever ways to interpret this phrase, they are all based upon the simple meaning – you cannot progress without a human guide. The Talmud writes in a similar vein: Who is considered a layman and who is considered a scholar? One who has read the entire body of sacred literature is considered a layman. One who has apprenticed by a scholar is considered a scholar.
The denial of the need for a teacher often comes from a misperception that one has already actualized one’s potential. This might come from, among other sources, witnessing moments of one’s own greatness. These moments can be misinterpreted as indications of one’s realized greatness. True mastery, however, manifests in a constant ability to manifest what one has learned.
Korach’s misperception about his own abilities was based upon his prophecy about the future. Midrash Tanhuma writes that he saw in his future Shmuel, the great prophet whose abilities were compared to Moshe’s and Aharon’s together. Based upon this, he had the courage, or the gall, to say ‘You [Moshe and Aharon]have taken too much upon yourselves. The entire people is holy, and G-d is within them; why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of G-d?’
The question is a fair one, if it is asked innocently. But Moshe’s reaction, and the ferocity of G-d’s response, indicate that Korach’s question was the ultimate subversion and therefore punishable by the most severe of punishments. Whereas Moshe makes every effort to pray on behalf of any element within Israel that is to be punished by G-d, he makes no effort in this case to save Korach. While he does pray on behalf of the remainder of Israel, when G-d says ‘separate yourselves out from this assemblage and I will consume them in a moment’, he makes no effort to save Korach from his fate.
Why was Korach’s rebellion any more potent than, say, the golden calf or the episode of the spies? Why would Moshe, who Rebbe Nachman calls ultimately compassionate, not exercise his seemingly endless compassion in this case? The question is deepened by the fact that Korach’s claim, ‘they are all holy and G-d is within them’ seems to be a true one. Was Moshe denying the holiness and Divine Indwelling of each of the Jews?
The fierce response of Moshe and of G-d indicates that the very subtlety of the difference between Korach’s statement and the truth is a foundational one. Error in this important but subtle distinction will inevitably have disastrous results. The line is drawn where potential is misperceived as actual ability. When one believes he has abilities that he does not have, he will never be able to actualize that potential. For example, if two people are attracted to one another, but cannot build the skills necessary to communicate with each other, then that attraction will remain in potential. It will never give birth to the powerful connection it could generate. But if those two people understand that it is but potential, and requires deep and humbling work in order to be actualized, they will be able to patiently work through the obstacles that are preventing that attraction from actualizing into a healthy relationship.
In another example, a person has the raw talent to be an exceptional pianist. That raw talent must be refined in order for it to shine. If that person mistakes that raw talent for a viable skill that can be used effectively in the world, the talent will go to waste. But if that person can realize that such potential is only the beginning of a long process of unfolding, that it is merely a signpost indicating a direction of how to invest his or her energy and time, then that raw talent can become mature.
These situations, like Korach’s, usually require a teacher or guide to bring potential to fruition. But the barriers to allowing another to help bring forth one’s potential are many, and they are fortified with distrust of authority. Does a person have a right to speak for G-d? Must I listen? Why should I give a person outside of myself authority to make decisions for me? Don’t I know better than anyone else how to bring my talents forth? Korach’s questions are alive – especially today, as people search for a positive relationship to a Judaism they feel is authoritarian and hierarchical.
Moshe’s answer to these questions must be a real and demonstrative one. The very answer ‘because I said so,’ or even ‘because G-d said so’, will not satisfy, for they still are dependent upon the assumption that, when Moshe says he is speaking for G-d, he is actually speaking for G-d. Moshe’s answer must give a clear indication that he is the teacher of the Jewish people because of his innate qualities. And he must further demonstrate that Aharon, his brother, is exactly the person who is worthy of serving as the High Priest.
Moshe’s answer to Korach is one that will enable G-d to show, and not merely say, that Moshe and Aharon are fitting to be the leaders of the Jewish people. ‘In the morning,
G-d will make known that which is His, and He will bring close the designated one, and whom He chooses He will bring close to him.’
Moshe sets up a demonstration that seems to be a controlled experiment: ‘Thus shall you do; take fire pans, Korach and his assembly, and put fire in then, and place incense upon them, before G-d tomorrow, and the one who G-d chooses, he is the designated one.’ It seems clear that Aharon will be chosen, as G-d has already demonstrated willingness to receive Aharon’s incense offerings. But a closer look at the commentaries reveals that, for Moshe, the possibilities of G-d choosing otherwise were very much alive.
Rashi has Moshe making a curious comment: ‘…we have but one High Priest, and you are 250 people whoa re seeking the High Priesthood. I also would like it. Here, use this most precious of ways to serve G-d – the incense is the most dear of all offerings. But there is an elixir of death within it, by which Nadav and Avihu were burned. Therefore, he warned them.’ And, Moshe continues, ‘the one who G-d chooses will be the designated one. Don’t we already know that the one who G-d chooses is the designated one? Rather, he told them, ‘I am telling you that whomever G-d chooses will not be guilty of any crime [i.e. rebellion against me], but will walk away alive. And the rest of you will be lost.’
It seems clear from Rashi’s reading that Moshe was open to the demonstration bearing different results than planned. It seems he was capable of at least imagining that his communications with G-d were illusory. He was prepared to allow G-d to make G-d’s will clear to all of the people simultaneously, and he was open to the possibility that he had entirely misinterpreted the will of G-d.
This very quality demonstrates the veracity of the test, and this very quality will show Moshe’s and Aharon’s unparalleled abilities as leaders. The fact is that Moshe’s greatness lies in the very fact that he does not consider himself to be great. AS R’ Tzaddok writes (Pri Tzaddik Korach 8), Moshe did not at all know his own greatness, that his greatness was at all above anyone else’s. He knew that Hashem had chosen him, and figured that, since someone had to be sent to receive the Torah, G-d chose him. But if Hashem had chosen another, then that other could have been in his place. And all Israel were fitting for this task… Moshe considered Korach to be on his level.
Moshe saw himself as equal in ability to all of Israel. This very quality made him the ideal leader – without conceit, without a sense of superiority, he would be able to offer the guidance necessary to bring his charge’s potentials to fruition. Korach, on the other hand, separated himself from the community. The first verse of the Parsha has Korach ‘taking’. There is, however, no object of his taking. Rashi interprets it as ‘taking himself to the other side’. Onkelos interprets it as separating himself form the community. Another interpretation has him luring (a common interpretation of ‘to take’) the leaders of the community with his words. All of these have separation in common – he creates a new place, a new center within the camp. In fact, the Torah calls his camp a Mishkan (Bamidbar 16:24).
Moshe and Korach represent opposite trends in transmission of knowledge. Korach is the source of his own ideas – as Rashi describes, Korach reasons that a garment consisting entirely of techeilet does not require additional strings of techeilet. He sees himself as the beginning of a line of great leaders that will end in Shmuel. The Parsha traces his lineage back to Levi, but no further. And, as Resh Lakish comments in the Talmud, and as Rebbe Natan elucidates in Likutei Halachot, Korach was able to taint the lineage from which he came – an effect that reached only to Levi, but not to Ya’akov himself. His sense of privilege to leadership was based upon his future and his perception of self, and not based upon the teachings he had received.
Moshe, on the other hand, sees himself as the humble transmitter of the word of G-d. As he tells Yitro, ‘They come to me to seek G-d.’ We find Moshe persistently using his abilities in order to connect the Israelites to the vast amount of knowledge that has been transmitted – and is constantly being transmitted, through the Torah. The Sfat Emet comments repeatedly on this Parsha that true relationship to Torah implies constant learning and constant teaching. The learning and the teaching are dependent upon one another.
This discrepancy between what they were transmitting plays out in how it is transmitted. Moshe positions himself as a conduit for the transmission of Torah knowledge. When we encounter a teacher who provides access to a tradition, rather than representing it or speaking for it, the learning can happen without the usual barriers the human mind can create pertaining to authority. The non-interference of the teacher can allow for the non-interference of the student. The process of transmission happens by osmosis.
This opens up the possibility of a dynamic relationship between teacher and student – each can, at different moments, be the teacher. When neither party is attached to being the transmitter of knowledge, then a true flow from more knowledgeable to less knowledgeable can be created and sustained. But when one insists on being the teacher, as Korach seemed to do when he separated himself from the community, it creates a human authority dynamic, which almost inevitably creates barriers to learning.
However, Moshe should not have to prove his worth as a conduit for the tradition every time he must teach. The people Israel should, at some point, recognize that he consistently provides access to G-d’s will. This very consistency should provide good reason for the people to give him the benefit of the doubt, and open themselves to him without fear that he will lead them astray after his own desires and aspirations.
While Rebbe Nachman encourages ‘holy chutzpah’ in pursuing a teacher, that chutzpah need not persist throughout the relationship. It serves to weed out a teacher who will ultimately prove inappropriate. But once the relationship is established, as it was Moshe, it should be counted on.
From this Parsha, we learn the necessity of having a teacher, and we learn the importance of that teacher being a humble conduit for knowledge, as opposed to a source of it. We further learn that the teacher must resist the urge to ‘take’, to pull away, and to use the position of leadership as a platform for personal aspiration. Though this may be tempting, in light of experiencing one’s own abilities, it ultimately leads to isolation – a ‘living hell’ whereby no further learning is possible.
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