Changing Gears (Edited Transcript)
Sometimes in life things don’t work out the way that we planned and we always feel well it should have been different, it could have been different, maybe another thing could or should have happened.
Take this week’s portion, for example, Korach. It’s about the rebellion of a man called Korach who led a whole group of individuals in rebellion against Moses and they challenged Moses. They said to him: who appointed you, and who appointed your brother Aaron and they were raising all kinds of questions. And, in fact, as the commentators explain they were questioning the authority of G-d; because everything that Moses did was based on the instruction of G-d. So he was influential, charismatic – Korach. Our Sages teach us he was wealthy and he had tremendous political powers and he had great powers of oratory, and he raised up a whole rebellion against Moses which was a bitter and difficult dispute.
We read about this in the portion on Shabbat morning, and last week we read about the incident of the spies where they sent in the 12 spies and 10 come back with a negative report about the land. So, in fact, we are sitting in-between two portions of disappointment and bitter conflict. This is a very important part of life.
The Five Books
We have Five Books that were given to us that we call the Torah, the Word of G-d. And really there should have just been four books, not five. That sounds a bit of a sacrilegious comment to make. But if you think about it, the fourth book which is the book which we are reading at the moment – the book called In the Desert – should not have been there because the people in the ideal plan should have gone straight into the land of Israel. What do I mean? Last Shabbat we read about the incident that occurred when the spies were sent into the land and 10 of the 12 spies came back with negative reports.
Just to give a bit of context about where that occurred in our history. Really what happened was on the 15th day of the month of Nisan the Jewish people were taken out of the land of Egypt 3320 years ago and then seven weeks later received the Torah at Mount Sinai. And already then things started to go wrong in the sense that within 40 days of them having received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the people built the golden calf and Moses had to go back up the mountain to beg for forgiveness and the forgiveness was only granted 80 days after that – the first Yom Kippur of history. Then they spent some additional time at the mountain. After about a year at the mountain they then journeyed onto the land of Israel. And the plan was they would go to the edge of the border of the land of Israel, send in the spies for reconnaissance and then go in and conquer the land and that would have been it. And had that been the position, then they wouldn’t have spent all the years in the desert.
However, as we read in Shul last week, 10 of the 12 spies came back with a negative report. The people lost their nerve, they didn’t have faith. They said we cannot conquer the land. They decided they even wanted to go back to Egypt. They said let’s appoint a new leader. There was a massive crisis. And in punishment for their lack of faith and their unwillingness to enter the land of Israel, G-d imposed upon them the decree to be in the desert for 40 years – and so they wandered in the desert for all that time. In a sense this fourth book of the Five Books is the Book of Bamidbar – In the Desert – all the time they spent in the desert. They should not have been there. This was not the time they should have been. They should have gone straight in. Had things followed the ideal track, they wouldn’t have done the sin of the golden calf, they would not have sinned with the sin of the spies, and they would have gone straight into the land of Israel and everything could have been much more condensed and short.
And, yet, this fourth book, the book In the Desert is part of the Five Books of the Torah, and was always meant to be part of the Five Books of the Torah because is this not indeed the story of life? So often we think that we are going to go straight into the Promised Land and that things are going to go smoothly, but yet there is a detour that has to go via the desert. And sometimes that detour can be 40 years of detour as it was in the case of the people, and things didn’t turn out in the smooth fashion. And you take this for example, even Moses – the leader – who took them out of Egypt and was the instrument through which the miracles occurred in Egypt and the splitting of the sea and was the instrument through which the Torah came into the world; Moses himself whose mission it was to take the people out of Egypt and bring them into the land of Israel himself didn’t even get into the promised land.
The Five Books of the Torah end with the death of Moses, with the triumphant return into the land of Israel. Those events are left to be chronicled by the Book of Joshua. The Five Books, the Books that were given to us directly by G-d word for word as opposed to all the Prophets, all the books that come afterwards – the Book of Joshua etc. Those are books that were written down with divine inspiration, with prophecy. But it’s not word for word the Word of G-d as the Five Books are, that is the main body of the Torah, the main body of everything that we believe and we follow is contained within those Five Books. And those Five Books end with the death of Moses. There is no fairy tale ending there. What happened to the fairy tale that right from the time that G-d first appeared to Moses and He said you will lead the people out of Egypt and you will be the instrument through which the Torah will be given and you lead the people into the land of Israel? What happened to the ending? What happened to the fairy tale?
It’s not a fairytale
The answer is the Torah is not a fairy tale. The Five Books are Books of Truth. They are not fables and legends. In fables and legends and fairy tales there are happy endings. In life there are journeys, in life the journey to the Promised Land often goes around in circles and doesn’t follow a direct path and that journey can be fraught with challenges, with difficulties, with obstacles. Because this is the nature of human life on this earth. We are put on this earth to serve G-d, to overcome these challenges and achieve our potential. We grow through all of these experiences. We grow and we become better people and we are stretched. That’s why the word for the human being is adam, the first human being was called Adam in the Hebrew. And the Torah says because it comes from the Hebrew word Adama – because G-d says I took him from the dust of the earth.
And the Maharal of Prague asks, why is it that that’s the name of the human being after the earth? After all the human being is made up of two components, the dust of the earth and then the Book of Genesis says that G-d blew into the nostrils of Adam, he blew the breath of life. So we have the soul, this breath of life that comes from G-d – the soul as we call in Hebrew the neshama – the soul of person. So why give the name of the human being after the dust of earth – the physical component? Man is made of physical and spiritual. Surely the essential component of the person is the spiritual, not the physical. So why name the person Adam after Adama?
The Maharal explains that the illusion to the earth is based on another similarity between the human being and earth. A piece of land is pure potential. You say, is that piece of land good? Well it depends what you do with it. It may have the potential to produce good crops, but if you don’t look after the land and plough it and prepare it and plant seeds and water it and fertilise and add all the nutrients that are necessary for the plants to grow, well then the land won’t reach its potential. So maybe a piece of land that is ideal for building and it’s a good location, but if you don’t physically draw up plans and lay foundations and put bricks and cement and mortar nothing is going to happen. And conversely sometimes you can have a land that doesn’t seem to have a good potential and yet through hard labour can be converted into something which produces outstanding fruits.
So too are human beings. We come into this world with pure potential and the process of life is actualising that potential and bringing it out. The neshoma, the soul, comes from the upper world. It is brought into this world, the world of action, in order to give it an arena and a vehicle for development to become better, to become more uplifted, to produce mitzvoth – good deeds, and to become elevated. And that process of growth and the actualisation of that potential very often occurs in all of the struggles and challenges of life. And, indeed, all of life is a struggle and a challenge to one extent or another. In fact, the Talmud says that if a person has 30 days without any aggravation or distress then they should be worried and concerned because that’s abnormal. It’s unnatural to have 30 days without aggravation or any kind of distress. It’s abnormal and therefore a person should be concerned that they are receiving their reward for their good deeds instead of receiving their main reward in the next world – they could be getting it in this world if things are that abnormally good.
But what is interesting in case you are getting worried, and I am sure not many people would be concerned with this piece of information because we all face daily aggravations, but listen to the definition of aggravation. The Talmud says the definition of aggravation is to put your hand in your pocket and take out the wrong coin. And so that, indeed, is what we are talking about. Life itself, just a continuum of different levels of challenge and aggravation. It may be 40 years in the desert as an extreme example of aggravation and challenge and distress; but every part of the human existence is struggle. And it is that struggle that brings out the potential within the soul that enables a person to achieve the purpose that G-d put us in this world for.
The other dimension is, of course, that G-d put us in this world to make a difference. And in situations of challenge and difficulty we have an opportunity to do good. Paradoxically in times of pain there are opportunities to do mitzvoth, to do good deeds. We don’t want the pain, we don’t want the difficulties. In fact we pray that we be spared from it, and we pray that other people also be spared from it. But when a person is ill there is the mitzvah of healing them and visiting the sick; if a person has suffered a loss there is a mitzvah of comforting the mourners. All of these situations are borne from challenge and from distress. In fact, we have this Talmudic doctrine of Tikkun Olam – to fix the world. If you think about those words, Tikkun Olam to fix the world, it really means, at heart it means that the world is broken and that’s why it needs to be fixed. So Tikkun Olam is a broken world that needs to get fixed and our task is to keep on fixing. We fix it in our lives, we fix it in the lives of other people – that is so much of what our commandments are about – fixing a broken world. And, therefore, we should never become overwhelmed and despondent when we face challenges and difficulties because it is a broken world. There is so much of challenge and desert that one has to get through to get to the Promised Land of achieving what one wants to do that those challenges and those deserts that is really about tikkun fixing. So it’s both achieving the growth internally and externally fixing and making a contribution.
Making the change
But nevertheless after all that is said and done, it still remains a challenge for a person. It still remains a question of difficulty. How does one deal with the fact that we often have to take these paths through the desert for 40 years and we often have to go through difficulties and obstacles and challenges? How does one deal with that? Added to the fact that life is in constant flux – the constant flux and the constant change that we live with, that itself imposes a stress on a person. And, particularly, there is so much going on in South Africa today and in Israel and the world that people feel stressed. There are so many events. We are getting bombarded by events all the time. And where does one within all of these journeys and the challenges and the difficulties and the myriad of stressful events that a person is confronted with all the time – how do we keep the right perspective?
We understand we are put on this earth in order to grow. We understand we were put on this earth in order to fix – to grow and to fix. But how do we maintain the right perspective, and make sure that we don’t lose our path in the midst of all the turbulence through which we live? There is a phrase from last week’s portion, when Moses says to the spies – go up the mountain. One of our commentators from the Middle Ages points out that the word etahar has a numerical value. We know in the Hebrew alphabet every letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value and the Bal Ha’Turim – one of our classic commentators – who delves into the meanings of the numerical value of these letters because there are deep secrets that lie beneath this. It’s a formal study. It’s called the study of what we call Gamatriah.
Now the Gamatriah, the numerical value of the word etahar – the mountain – is the same says the Bal Ha’Turim as the word ha Torah – the Torah. That’s an interesting concept. The mountain has the same numerical value as ha Torah. Etahar is the same as ha Torah. And he says the message Moses was giving to the spies was go up the mountain meaning go up the mountain of the Torah and that will be the merit that will hopefully protect you from coming back with a negative report. In the end most of the spies didn’t heed his advice. Joshua and Caleb did as we know. But within that is important advice for us – because we see there is a strong connection between the concept of the Torah and a mountain. What is the connection between the two? We see it, in fact, that G-d chose to give the Torah on a mountain – on Mount Sinai. That’s what He chose. He gave it on the mountain. He could have chosen to give it anywhere, especially when you see the fact that G-d values humility and the Talmud says that he chose to give it on the lowest mountain possible to send us the message that the Torah is only acquired by humble people. So therefore it was given, Mount Sinai is a very low mountain – physically a low mountain – in order to convey to us the message of humility.
But He could have conveyed the message of humility even better, give the Torah in a valley. Don’t give it on a mountain, give it in a valley. But you see that even though He wanted to convey the value of humility, He still wanted to give a message that a mountain is an important symbol when it comes to understanding the Torah. In what way is the mountain an important symbol? This is what we have to understand. We now understand there is a connection in the Gamatriah, in the numeric values, and there is a connection in the fact that G-d gave the Torah on the mountain albeit a very lowly mountain in order to convey the value of humility. What is the message of the mountain? You know in English you have that famous expression – to move mountains. That expression comes from the understanding that you actually can’t move mountains. That’s why it’s used to say you are going to do maximum effort – you are going to move mountains. But nobody can move a mountain. A mountain is immovable. And that’s why it serves the very important symbol of the Torah – the Torah is immovable. It is a rock of support for us in all the times of flux and change. It’s immovable in the sense that G-d gave us these principles for all times and all places and we don’t change that, and the times and place and events change around the Torah but the Torah is the one of G-d and His Word is the one rock of consistency in our lives. No matter what else goes on in our lives, that remains constant and it’s not negotiable.
And that gives us then a point that anchors us in this world. Otherwise what anchors us here? There is nothing of permanence. Everything comes and goes. But the anchor in this world and the link to eternity is the immovable mountain, this rock of support that is the Torah. And that’s how we actually negotiate all of the difficult times and the paths that we have to go – 40 years in the desert and go round about in order to get to the Promised Land. Those journeys and those difficulties and those challenges and those obstacles – what gives us the strength is the fact that we are firmly rooted in this immovable mountain which is the presence of G-d and His Torah in our lives.
There is another thing about a mountain. Not only is it immovable, but its high. It gives us a perspective. When you stand on a mountain, you can see the whole world beneath you. You know if you go stand on Table Mountain and see the magnificence of Cape Town beneath and it gives you a perspective, you understand the geography of Cape Town. There is Sea Point and the Atlantic Seaboard, and over in that direction is the southern suburbs and in that direction is Milnerton until you get a real sense of the overview of the land – that perspective of what people colloquially call the bird’s eye view. The perspective is what one sees on top of the mountain. And the perspective that we get is through G-d’s Wisdom and His Torah – we get that perspective and the insight of being able to see the purpose of life; where we are meant to be; to understand what people often call the big picture. And so that enables us to rise above all of the difficulties that we face and be able – as again another colloquial expression – to see the wood for the trees. Because so often we get intermeshed in the trees, we are unable to see the big perspective of the wood. And that’s what the Torah gives us, that’s why its referred to as a mountain.
So the mountain has that dual symbolism. This immovable rock that says this is who we are and this is what happens, and no matter what changes around that is the immovable rock in our lives. And, secondly, it gives us the perspective of the elevation of perspective; and thirdly the inspiration of the elevation. To be up is to be on a high, is to have that sense of feeling uplifted. So it’s not just the perspective from an intellectual point of view – to understand the big picture; it is also to be inspired and uplifted for the purpose of life.
The other thing that enables us to confront changing times and all the challenges of life is one another. We draw strength from one another. That is why the concept of community is so important. This is how the Maharal explains in fact in permission in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers – in chapter 2 where it says, do not separate yourself from the community because from others we draw strength. And that is actually what we read about in this week’s portion.
The portion that we are going to be reading this Shabbat is the portion of Korach. Korach came with his rebellion against Moses, to come and challenge the authority of Moses. Korach’s assault is on the notion of community. He came to break it up. He came to break up the unity. And that’s what Moses said to him. He said, one of the uniqueness of Judaism is that it’s founded on principles of unity. It says we have one temple, and one high priest. And this is part of what Korach was challenging. He was challenging Moses, he was challenging Aaron who had been selected by G-d to be the high priest. And Moses said, “now you come to break apart that unity”. And that’s why it says in the verse, “do not be like Korach and his congregation”. And according to some Halachic authorities, Jewish law authorities, that in fact constitutes one of the 613 commandments – you shall not be like Korach and his congregation.
And that’s why we find that in an ideal Torah state there was a judiciary which culminated in what we call the Sanhedrin Hagadola – the great Sanhedrin – the 71 judges as well as the two other highest courts of land of 23 judges each in the city of Jerusalem. One at the gates of the Temple Mount, and one on the Temple Mount itself at the entrance to the courtyard of the Temple. And the Torah, as explained by the Mishnah and the Gemorah, in Sanhedrin explains that if there were any disputes of law, of Halacha, they would find their way up. If they could not be resolved by the lower courts they would eventually find their way up to these three highest courts, and if the two at the Temple Mount and at the Courtyard could not resolve it, it would eventually go to the 71 judges and there they would rule finally. And then that would be binding practice throughout the country. The Gemorah says in order that there should not be dispute. Machlochet, the vision, is regarded as something of great destructive power within a community. We are always striving for unity within a community. And that’s why this whole elaborate system of courts was set up in such a way that there would be cohesion and not a fractured society.
One of the things that we lost when the Temple was destroyed and we went into exile and the land of Israel was conquered by the Romans all of those years ago, was the fact that we lost the institution of the Sanhedrin and this proper court system that would hold the people together. And, in a sense, this is how the Maharal explains it – since the people of Israel were splintered that itself led to a situation where even the law and the principles were splintered because we didn’t have a mechanism and we still do not have a mechanism to make sure that all of our practices are cohesive. Therefore we make do with what we have in order to achieve the unity but realise that this is something, obviously when praying for the final redemption, we are not only looking towards a rebuilding of the Temple but we are looking towards a re-establishment of that judicial system headed by the Sanhedrin Hagadolah – the great Sanhedrin that could bring that cohesion back to the people. That cohesion, that was challenged by Korach.
But apart from that, we can and still value the concept of unity and community in all respects and we know that that is a pillar of support. On a practical level, we know from our community how many wonderful community resources and organisations there are to help with absolutely every facet of life and every dimension so that people are never left alone. Community, society is there to help to ensure that no human being is left alone and no human being is left behind, because life is changing and there is too much time in the desert to be able to say that you must be left to your own devices. If you think about it – how G-d looked after us in the desert. It’s true that we had to be in the desert for 40 years, but there is such elaborate description of how G-d looked after us in the desert for all of those years. And that’s what we celebrate, for example, on the festival of Succoth, the constant miracles: the well of water that accompanied the people, the clouds of glory that protected them from the elements, the manna that fell from heaven. So it’s true that we have to spend time in the desert, but that we have to help one another the same way G-d helped us in the desert, we have to help one another – to provide food, to provide shelter, to provide water, to provide all of a person’s needs. And that is a very important responsibility of a community.
So in dealing with all of these fluxes and changes in life, not only do we have this rock of support and consistency of G-d and His Torah, we are bound by G-d and His Torah to establish communities that are cohesive bodies looking after one another, making sure that nobody is left behind. And so that’s why Korach who challenged the notion of community, also challenged the authority of Moses and indeed challenged the authority of G-d. Because all of these things are bound-up together. All of these things are part of our value system and enable us to maintain the path in this world through all of the difficulties and trials and tribulations in such a way that we can grow to a maximum, that we can fix the world to a maximum, and be able to achieve everything that G-d asks of us when He put us in this world in the first place.