From Discernment to Action


 In 2013-14, I had the privilege of writing a year’s worth of Torah commentaries through the lens of Jewish Mindfulness for the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Every once in while, I’ve found that one of those commentaries seems to really speak to the moment. Below is my essay on Korach from 2014; at the end of an awful week, filled with so much heat and very little light…

Don’t just do something, sit there!

Sylvia Boorstein

I have a friend and mentor whose mantra for tough situations is this: “In the presence of strong emotions, do nothing.” As I understand it, my friend is not advocating for a fear-based paralysis, but for a clear-eyed, mindful response of the sort which usually comes only after other responses have been considered and (wisely) set aside.

His advice reminds me of the clever and wise title of our teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s book about mindfulness retreats, cited above. Through our practice, we hope to “awake…to the happiness of the uncomplicated moment,” as Sylvia has it (p. 3). “And yet habits and challenges lead us to suffer, and then to act out of our suffering in ways that bring more suffering… We complicate moments. Hardly anything happens without the mind spinning it up into an elaborate production.”

Sylvia’s words accord with my own experience. With friends, with congregants, perhaps most of all with my wife, I am very good at making mountains out of molehills in my own mind, and then setting out to climb those ephemeral peaks. It’s hard work, and unnecessary work at that. But when I remember to stop and do nothing, I find that the dangerous ascents vanishing before my eyes. Fear and anxiety are replaced by confidence and calm. Inside and outside, I am a better version of myself for having paused and been present to what was happening.

The struggle to remain calm and present when surprised by anger, fear, or sadness (or, for that matter, joy, pleasure and excitement) comes to mind as I read the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Korach. The portion opens with Korach and his band verbally assaulting Moses and Aaron. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and YHWH is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”

Talk about anxiety-producing language! Moses is accused of self-aggrandizement, of ignoring God’s presence, and of reckless governance. And all of this (following NumR 18:6) on top of the prior stresses of the Golden Calf, the Murmurers, and the Spies. One could understand Moses’ falling on his face as a sign of shock, as the Midrash has it.

Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) sees it somewhat differently:

Moses heard, and fell on his face. This teaches that he was ashamed that they suspected him and called his prophecy into question, and that they spoke this way to him in public. So “Moses heard…” meaning he understood the nature of their complaint… And afterward, “…then he fell on his face.” It was either to seek God’s guidance, to receive a divine command and then act upon it, or it was in order to be alone in order to figure out what to do.

For Abravanel, Moses’ falling is part of his process of discernment. Having heard (and understood) Korach’s complaint, Moses has the presence of mind to create a refuge from the complicated moment. Perhaps that refuge brought him into God’s presence; perhaps it was just a quiet space in which to think. Either way, Moses rose up with a new clarity, answering Korach with (I imagine) a confidence that simply wouldn’t have been present had he not taken the time to understand what was happening.

Another friend of mine, whose yoga practice these days is more consistent than my own, sees significance in the fact that Moses’ posture is supine. As Moses goes into balasana/Child’s Pose, “he’s reaching to his roots, to root himself. And once he’s planted, solid, sure, and confirmed, only then can he come back up and respond as he did.”

Taking the time to understand and calibrate before we act is its own reward. But there is even more good that comes from doing so, in that we become a model for others, who learn from our behavior. That is what Rabbi Tzi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1783-1841) takes from our verse:

The verse alludes to an eternal and practical lesson. In The Duties of the Heart, we learn that people in a state of d’veikut, attachment to God, may be recognized by the light that emanates from their faces. And so, “Moses heard…” which is to say that Moses achieved a level of understanding, gaining enlightenment and intimate knowledge of the Creator. And when this awareness had penetrated the depths of his mind, out of his great attachment to God, “…and it landed on his face.” In other words, people who saw him knew by his face that divine light was present within.

During the week of Korach, may my practice strengthen me so that, in the presence of strong emotions, I have the wisdom to sit and do nothing. May the pauses before I act be auspicious, moment of clarity and wisdom. May my actions follow suit. And may I be known to all by the light upon my face.

May it be so for me, for you, and for all of us.

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