On Klei Kodesh & Blind Spots: Lessons from Korach
In the ALEPH Ordination program, we require each student to have a mashpi’a, a spiritual guide. This is a practice we learned from the Chabad Chasidim, conveyed to us by Reb Zalman z”l. We believe that every kli kodesh, every person who wants to be a sacred vessel or a vessel for the sacred, needs to have two things. The first is the ability to question oneself, to be open to personal flaws and able to acknowledge one’s shortcomings. The second is that every kli kodesh needs a trusted friend to help in this process.
Why is it necessary to have such a friend? The answer is that each of us also has at least one blind spot, one place within where it is nearly impossible to go alone or even to see without help. In his teaching, “Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of Teshuvah,” Reb Zalman put it this way:
There is an element that is called the blind spot… [Y]ou keep doing the same thing, but you do it in a different color, you do it in a different situation, and you see that in the gestalt of what it is that’s wrong, that gestalt hasn’t changed much. And then you puzzle and say what is the twist in my perception of reality that causes me to make that same mistake over and over and over again. Finding a blind spot is very hard.
Most of the time people can’t do it by themselves. One of the things about doing t’shuvah for erev Rosh Chodesh is that it’s necessary to work with another person. And if the other person can keep themselves, withhold themselves, from editing you, but only do one thing, record you as it were, you tell as you go inside looking for your blind spot what’s going on, what’s going on, and you report on that. And then you come to a place where you want to stop, you want to go pee, you want to go drink. Why? You’re getting very anxious around that place. And if your partner who works with you keeps you there, and says, “Alright, you’re now getting anxious, you’re getting closer, continue,” then there’s sometimes the moment when you have the great insight. That’s what it is! And a second later you’ve lost it already. You knew it, you saw it, and you don’t have it anymore. In other words, the censor clamps down. So if your friend can help you out and lead you back on the track, this is where you were, this is what you said, and you were getting closer and then once more it opens up a little bit and it clamps down. It’s a process, you can’t do it only at once. For the door to keep open long enough so that you can take the picture into your consciousness, and work with it, takes work. The best kind of work you can do is b’chevrusa, if you work with people who don’t want to edit you.
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Tomorrow’s Torah reading is Parshat Korach, the story of the rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. It serves as an invitation to compare contemporary conflicts to it, even though the Torah is vague about what the issues really were. In Pirkei Avot we are told that this was a conflict that could not endure, perhaps because it was a zero sum game in which there could be only a winner and loser, as opposed to the disputes between Hillel and Shammai which do endure because both sides know that the other is also trying to reveal Divine intention.
There are references in the narrative that indicate that these rebels were unhappy with Moshe’s leadership, his elevation of Aharon to the high priesthood, and a desire for greater participation by those passed over. Yet, Korach himself was from the same family as Moshe and Aharon and, as a descendent of Kehat, had been given responsibility for the care and transportation of the tabernacle’s most sacred objects. So why was he not satisfied with that vital and holy responsibility? Why did he believe that he deserved even more?
Perhaps this story also shows what happens when a person fails to see his or her own blind spot. When Moshe first hears their complaints, he does not react defensively but remains silent. In fact, he actually bows to the ground and, with his silence and humility, signals his willingness to re-examine his own motives. Spiritual leadership is often outside the organizational hierarchy and a good spiritual leader is always willing to look deeply into his/her self and be sure that it is God s/he serves and not a need for power or recognition. It is only after Moshe comes to clarity (represented here by a directive from the Holy One) that he attempts to reason with Korach and his followers. Korach cannot accept the words of his teacher and chooses instead to defend himself, to maintain his righteousness even when he has few followers when measured against the total Israelite population. He would rather defend his innocence than acknowledge an error, do teshuvah, and rejoin the family. He would rather defend the narrative that Moshe had taken them from a land of milk and honey to die in a desert, attack his teacher for questioning him, than do the true spiritual work of deep, often difficult and even painful, self examination.
There is a fine line for klei kodesh between standing on principle, which necessary even if the consequences are difficult to absorb and defending one’s blind spot even when the facts contradict the position being taken. (Witness the US Republican Party insisting on passing a health care bill that is opposed by a majority in every state!)
In the week of this difficult parsha, I pray that each of us, in whatever positions we serve others, can resist the temptation to defend and justify our blind spots. I pray that each of us learn to allow our guides and spiritual friends to shine lights on our blind spots and that, however, difficult and painful it might be, that we thank them and use their light to illumine the darkest places within us.