Where do you begin and where do you end?
It’s a silly question because you can feel your hands and touch your nose and wiggle your toes and say, “that’s where I end, at the tip of my nose and edges of my toes, that’s where I end.” But take a breath and go on a little journey with me. Think for a moment about how you show up online in a photo or a comment, does your reputation not extend beyond your extremities? Think about how you lived in the dreams of your parents. Can it be that their love for you, their hopes for what your life would become even before you were born, is some kind of extension of yourself beyond your physicality? Just ask a parent who dreams of their child if their son or daughter lives within them. Moreover, think of the ancestors you knew who are no longer alive. Do you ever hear yourself saying exactly what your mother or grandmother said or smell something that brings you back to her kitchen? How can you say she does not live in you when it is not your words coming out of your mouth?
Where do you begin and where do you end? Maybe it’s not such a silly question after all.
The very first step in a spiritual journey is to recognize that you are more than your body, more than sinew and flesh and freckles and earlobes. Your life began before you knew it, and it will end long after you are aware because your spirit extends beyond yourself into the hearts and minds of others and lives both in the past and in the future. It’s the part of you that helps you think bigger, to forgive and be forgiven, to overcome weakness, and to strive for greatness.
Judaism teaches that your total selfhood is more than your body. When God created human beings, God fashioned us from the earth and blew the spirit of life, creating the will to live. (Genesis 2:7) The rabbis imagined that when God gathered souls, God assigned angels to show the soul what life was like on earth. Many souls were fearful of immorality and disease that befall humanity, to which God assured them that the soul only improves life because it is marked with God’s Divine Name. (Tanchuma Pekudei 3) And so when God blew into the first human, God imprinted the Divine Name upon each of us, giving us our uniqueness and our capacity for transcendence. (Ramban ad locum) The Jewish story of where we begin and where end teaches us that while we have our own accomplishments we also carry God’s trademark. Your soul is that part of you that transcendence your ego and your baser needs to grow into the most flourishing person you can be. With God’s trademark, you are both the artist and the canvas, both the potter and the clay, you are both conductor and the orchestra, you are what the writer David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Both flesh and not.”
At the core of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we find the deepest of rebellions against godliness in the world. Korach, cousin to Moses and Aaron, gathers a large group of Israelites and challenges Moses, saying, “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) Korach’s mutiny first appears to be a mutiny of political power. Why should Moses appoint Aaron to be priest? Why should there be priests at all? Afterall, did not every Israelite hear revelation at Sinai? (Tanchuma Korach 4) While this might appear to be a populist revolt on the surface, something much deeper is happening.
Korach is no populist. He is no simple citizen wishing to change the social order to be more open. Korach is already a Levite who has access to the Tabernacle (God’s home), carries many privileges others do not have, and presides over the community with authority; a fact that Moses reminds him of in his rebuttal. (Numbers 16:9) Korach couches his own desire for power in populism, but really what he wants is absolute power in absolute terms. He claims to be fighting for the people when he is only fighting for himself. He claims to be righteous but is only self-righteous. Korach cares so much for his own designs and ambitions that he is willing to distort holiness to make his point. By invoking holiness for his own ambition, Korach inverts the dynamic of the spirit and soul of Judaism, by trying to force God to serve his aspirations, instead of partnering with God to live out a shared dream. Korach not only seeks political and ritual power by using God to serve his own ends, he infringes on God’s trademark.
When we realize that our lives extend beyond our physical selves we have the opportunity to see how we show up in the lives of others in the past, present, and future. Korach’s sin was not in his ambition to be a leader, but in the hubris to think that we can own what is not ours. Our spirit is not owned by us, but only gifted to hold by God as a trademark. You carry within you both the will to live and the spirit to serve. Use them in partnership, and we can all make the world a more wonderfully flourishing place.