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Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

At the end of last week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, the Israelites were at the edge of the Promised Land. Twelve tribal leaders went to scope out the land and when they returned they advised, ten against two, that the tribes should remain in the wilderness. Perhaps they knew that their people weren’t ready to let go of the spiritual retreat that the wilderness afforded. They weren’t morally ready to deal with the pressures of keeping up with the Joneses in the materialistic world they were about to enter, where they would have to go to work every day—not to please a slave master, but to provide for their families and offer opportunities for their kids. Maybe they wanted more of the spiritual highs of the wilderness, more miracles, more ecstatic moments—divorced from everyday reality.

But if so, these were the voices of Mitzrayim, of narrow consciousness, of addictive behavior, the voices of an ego that always wants more. These voices turn the wilderness, our spiritual retreat, into another narrow place. When the ego gets attached to wanting more highs, more spiritual experiences, that attachment becomes an insurmountable obstacle to experiencing them again; it becomes a new place of stuckness.

In the biblical myth, God understood that although the Hebrews had been brought out of Egypt, Egypt was still ingrained in the Hebrews. The generation of Israelites that had been slaves in Egypt would have to die off in the wilderness, for only people who had never known slavery could stake a claim in the freedom of the Promised Land. You can imagine how pleased the Israelites were at this turn of events! It was only a matter of time before a revolt would break out and, in this week’s Torah portion, here it is: open rebellion by a Levite named Korach.

An interesting name, Korach. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “The Hebrew root k-r-ch means ‘division’ or ‘split,’ and our Sages associate Korach…with these tendencies” (Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, Likkutei Sichos). Korach represents the quintessential splitting and dividing energies of ego who feeds on separateness and control. The ego is playing a game of “divide and conquer.” From a symbolic point of view, the objects of Korach’s rebellion—Moses and Aaron—represent the higher levels of our awareness. The ego wants to take over, to go beyond what it is designed to do and let its need for control spill over into the many facets of our being. Moses answers Korach: “Hear me son of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart…and given you direct access to perform the duties of the Eternal…and to minister to the community and serve them? Now…you seek the priesthood too?” (Num. 16:8-10).

Perhaps this face-off between Korach and Moses is symbolic of the constant inner battle between our controlling, divisive ego, and our accepting, unifying Self; the epic primordial battle between the Yetzer HaRa and the Yetzer HaTov within us. For most of us, it is still the voice of ego that speaks the loudest in our lives, and which—most of the time—obscures the light of our True Self, our inner Moses. We have to keep our practice up constantly and steadfastly. But that alone won’t be enough. Korach will follow us into the wilderness of our spiritual plateaus, prey on our doubts even as we find ourselves—as the Israelites in our story—at the edge of the spiritual Promised Land, and attempts to take over even our most powerful mystical insights. We must relentlessly guard against its enslaving enticement, always remain vigilantly aware.

In Torah it is the voice of Moses that eventually wins the day. Korach is swallowed by the earth at God’s command and 250 of his followers are consumed by Divine fire. The journey to our Promised Land can be difficult and long. We may hope it won’t take 40 years, but for many of us it is the work of a lifetime. But if Torah is any measure of truth, spiritual practice will inevitably lead us back to that Land, the Land of our soul, the Land we have never left.