Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”
Chabad.org

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
Saratogachabad.com
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”
Chabad.org

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.

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