Parshat Korach (Numbers 16-18)
Everyone in this week’s Torah portion needs therapy. And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean the general Israelite population, but also the Princes and Chieftains, Moses, Aaron, and even God! The people are anxious, fearful, mistrusting, and bordering on paranoid. The leaders are jealous, competitive, suspicious, and resentful. Moses is frustrated, stressed, exhausted, and depressed. Aaron is so traumatized that he has become mute.
And God? At first, God is hurt, bewildered, and deeply heartbroken. In last week’s parsha, God cries out, “How long will the people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” Last week, God wanted to disown the people and even strike them with a plague, but Moses was able to talk Him out of it, by appealing to God’s merciful and compassionate nature.
This week, however, God seems to have reached His limit, and His pain has now turned into a murderous rage. Fed up with the people’s ingratitude and rebellion and their willingness to believe the worst in every situation, God orders Moses and Aaron to “stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in a second!”
Everyone in this story, both human and Divine, seems to be having a nervous breakdown – or as the Mayo Clinic describes it, “intense mental and emotional distress and an inability to cope with life’s challenges.” The underlying symptoms have been evident for several Torah portions and now have finally exploded into a full-blown crisis.
The catalyst? An extremely wealthy, charismatic, highly popular demagogue named Korach, who inspires two hundred and fifty “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute” to join him in an insurrection against Moses and Aaron. Under the guise of being a populist, Korach, a member of one of the most respected Levite families (and a cousin of Moses and Aaron), accuses Moses and Aaron of raising themselves above the community and claiming unfair power and prestige: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Though he claims to speak for the people, the truth is that Korach is not interested in the community at all, but lusts for personal power and glory by discrediting Moses and usurping Aaron’s role as High Priest for himself. The fact that Korach is able to have such a strong influence upon the elected leaders of the community, who will then influence the people who follow them, has labeled Korach a dangerous and destructive arch-villain in the Talmud and the ultimate symbol of divisiveness and chaos.
Under Korach, the truth is perverted, and facts are so twisted that Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s co-conspirators accuse Moses of duping the people into leaving Egypt, “a land flowing with milk and honey to die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us.” And when God rejects Korach’s coup attempt, reaffirms Moses and Aaron as His chosen leaders, and punishes the insurrectionists in a spectacularly graphic and gruesome manner, the people turn on Moses and Aaron, denouncing them and accusing them of murder.
What is happening here? People seem to be losing touch with reality, believing rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. They are refusing to take responsibility for their actions and instead of looking for scapegoats to blame for their woes and unhappiness.
Our Kabbalistic and Hasidic masters understood that dark, selfish, destructive (and self-destructive) impulses reside in every human being. They called these negative forces the Sitra Achra, which literally means “the other side,” and recognized its influence over our psyches and our actions. The Sitra Achra, they explained, gains its powers from our Nefesh Behamit, our primitive, animalistic soul which thrives on physical pleasure and self-indulgent behaviors.
Opposite the Sitra achra is the Sitra d’Kedusha, “the side of holiness,” which every person also contains. The Sitra d’Kedusha derives its power from our Nefesh Elokit, our pure, Divine, holy soul which influences us to elevate our lives by practicing lovingkindness and compassion and performing good deeds.
In other words, according to our Jewish mystics, we all have two souls - one animalistic and one holy - who are in direct opposition to each other. These two souls constantly vie for control over our thoughts, our speech, and our actions, which are considered the “garments” of the soul. The struggle, the challenge, the human dilemma, whether in Biblical times or today, is for us to choose which garments we want to wear. According to the Kabbalah, it is this choice that will determine whether we release sparks of holy light or shards of darkness into the world.
The past years have felt very dark for many of us, especially for our younger generations. My daughter was born around the time of the LA riots, witnessed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the ensuing Iraq War, lived through the Great Recession of 2008, was bombarded with countless images of horrific mass shootings all over the country, followed by years of hate speech, divisiveness, verbal and physical assaults on minorities, including Jews for the first time in decades, and a world-wide plague.
Where are all the holy sparks? Why has the Sitra Achra become so powerful? Why do so many people hurt themselves and each other?
The ancient Israelites had an excuse. They were traumatized slaves with a slave mentality, fearful of change, mistrustful of the future, unprepared for freedom, and unused to thinking for themselves. They basically reacted from instincts and emotions, from their Nefesh Behamit, which Korach cunningly channeled and manipulated.
But today, most of us know better. Every religious tradition teaches in its own way that we each contain a Nefesh Elokit, a higher, better, kinder self. We all know when we are behaving badly. We’re all aware when we are being selfish. Or hateful. Or greedy. Or vengeful. Or – what Elie Wiesel called the worst sin of all – indifferent to the suffering of others.
The Kabbalah teaches that the Sitra Achra is only as powerful as we allow it to be. Our Sitra d’Kedusha, our source of light and holiness, is a valiant warrior ready to do battle and push back the painful, destructive darkness in ourselves and our lives. All we need is to do is recognize that residing within us is a beautiful, shining, Divine essence, a force for goodness – and then take a moment to connect with it – through a whispered prayer, a quiet plea for help, a wordless chant, a visualization, whatever works – and then consciously make the choices and changes that will release our holy sparks into this broken world.