June 21, 2011
Prophecy vs. Ego
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
Shavuot, unlike many Jewish holidays, does not take place on the full moon. This celebration, when we study all night to commemorate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, precedes the night of the moon’s peak brightness by about a week. So, along with the gift of Torah, we are given the two weeks of the moon’s greatest light for our Mount Sinai descent. This allows us to carefully examine our footing as we endeavor to decode each year’s revelation of Torah and affirm our Shavuot insights for “walking in God’s ways” and bringing holiness into the more quotidian world. Under the light of the Sivan moon, we ask ourselves whether the truths we have perceived are the voice of prophecy or self-serving assertions of our ego.
It is, therefore, fitting that on the way down the mountain, as the moon begins to wane, we encounter Korach, who brought what might appear to be a reasonable complaint against the privileged authority of Moses, the prophet, and Aaron, the priest, saying, “You take too much upon yourself. The entire congregation is holy, with YHVH in its midst. Why do you raise yourself above the community?” (Numbers 16:3). In response, Moses challenged Korach and his followers to present a priestlike sacrifice to God, which God met with an earthquake that buried alive both Korach and those who joined his rebellion.
What was so wrong with Korach’s statement that it merited punishment of this severity? Didn’t we all hear God’s words at Sinai? Are we not a Nation of Priests? Should we not all be empowered to enact the holy rituals? Certainly I have made these points in this space in the past, when I have urged all of the community to perform the priestly role of going outside the community to offer care to those who are isolated by illness and grief. But there is a difference between the holy actions of a Nation of Priests and what commentators, including Rabbi Rachel Cowan, in “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” have described as Korach’s attempt at an ambitious power grab, coming not from the call of prophecy, but from the self-serving voice of his ego. Cowan advises that we must discern between “the voice of our needy, small-minded self [and] ... the wise voice ... speak[ing] from our deepest and best values and truth.”
Before we take action on the insights and desires that come to us as a form of revelation, we must examine them in order to filter out what is not the call of holiness. Finding this distinction is a process spiritual directors call “discernment.” Owning our true revelations takes disciplined spiritual practice as well as validation and support from community. Mussar teacher Alan Moranis quotes Rabbi Chayim Luzzatto: “[Y]ou cannot make judgments relevant to piety according to how they first appear. You have to turn [them] over in your mind ... [to] judge the most fitting.”
We need time between insight and action. We work within ourselves and with respected others known to be truth-tellers. We pray. The familiar Hebrew word for prayer, hitpallel, is built around the root pll, meaning, “to judge, differentiate, clarify, incriminate or intercede.” A reflexive verb, hitpallel asks us to apply those words to ourselves as we clarify our behavior and intercede with ourselves when we need guidance.
With input from Moranis, and Christian writer Denis Edwards, here are suggestions to apply to our revelations to determine if they are, in fact, holy calls:
1. Assess the pros and cons — list them, ponder them — consult with people you see as exemplars of right-minded action.
2. Ask yourself: “Does this help me walk in God’s ways/align myself with holiness?” “Does this link to the community, its values and traditions?” “Does this build community and contribute to tikkun?”
3. Do you have moments of doubt about this action? Do you assert your truth with humility? Absolute certainty sometimes reveals self-aggrandizement.
4. Does it call for disciplined practice?
5. Again, seek the wisdom of others. Is this a decision for life, peace and walking in God’s ways?
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reminds us that the call from Sinai is constant. It comes not only on Shavuot, but at every moment, reminding us of the people we must be if the world is to be a place of holiness; indeed, if our species is to survive. With a commitment to the disciplined discernment of our individual call comes a life of value and meaning, a life that is in service, not to the self-centered desires of the Korach that lives in each of us, but to the goodness and healing that is the earthly realization of the revelation from Sinai.