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The Gap

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Korach, whose ill-fated challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership is recounted in the 16th chapter of Numbers, has come to represent the very concept of conflict and discord. Thus the Talmud states: “Whoever engages in divisiveness transgresses a prohibition of the Torah, as it is written (Numbers 17:5): ‘And he shall not be like Korach and his company'”[1] – when the Torah wishes to warn against the agitation of dispute and disunity, it does so by instructing, “Don’t be like Korach…”

The Talmud relates that the great sage Rabbi Meir would deduce a person’s nature from his name;[2] the same applies, say the Kabbalists, to every creature, object and phenomenon. For the letters of the alef-bet are the building blocks of creation,[3] meaning that the letters that make up a thing’s name in the Holy Tongue define the “shape” and character of its soul – of the divine life – force which grants it existence and vitality.[4]

The same is true of the name “Korach.” The three Hebrew letters that spell this word delineate the contours of conflict – the various ways in which the harmony of G-d’s creation might be distorted and corrupted.

The Shape of Reality

If the soul of each individual creation is encoded in the letters which comprise its name, the inner form of the created reality as a whole is that of the letter hei. Our sages deduce this from the verse, “These are the chronicles of the heavens and the earth when they were created”[5] – the Hebrew word behibaraam, “when they were created,” can also be read as be-hei beraam, “with a hei, He created them,” to imply that “G-d created the world with the letter hei.”[6]

The Hebrew letter hei is comprised of three lines: an upper, horizontal line which forms the “roof” of the letter; and two vertical lines, one to the right and the other to the left, which form its walls or “legs.” The right leg is connected to the right end of the “roof” and extends downward to the bottom of the written line. The left leg extends along the left side of the hei, but is not connected to the roof, leaving a small gap between the upper and left lines.

The letter Hei

The three lines of the hei represent three dimensions or realms of our reality: thought, speech and action. The upper line represents the world of thought; the right leg, the world of speech; and the left leg, the world of action.

We all nurture in our minds a vision of an ideal world – a world as defined by our purest instincts and our knowledge of the potential for goodness and perfection invested in it by its Creator. This is the “thought” dimension of reality, represented by the hei’s upper line. “Speech,” the endeavor to articulate this vision to ourselves and to our fellow human beings, is the right “leg” of the hei. By studying, teaching and communicating the ideals contained in the world of “thought,” we create a world of words which draws the lofty but abstract upper line of the hei downward into the more tactual dimension of “speech.”

The left leg of the hei is the world of “action.” This is the realm of our interaction with the physical world to mold it and transform it in accordance with the vision we hold in our minds. Like “speech,” action is a downward extension from the realm of thought, a drawing down of its ideals into a more concrete reality. There is, however, a significant difference between speech and action, illustrated by the difference between the hei’s right and left legs.

In the realm of speech, we can forge a reality that is a direct extension of the reality we inhabit in the realm of thought. We can express an idea as we understand it; we can communicate a vision as we see it and convey a belief as we believe it. But when we seek to apply our ideals to the world of action, we encounter a “gap” – an inherent inconsistency between the ideal and the real. We act upon the physical world, we change it and transform it, but sooner or later we encounter resistance: an insurmountable barrier, an irresolvable conflict, an unbridgeable breech between our inner truth and an obstinate external reality.

The gap between thought and action is an intrinsic part of the created reality. This is what our sages are telling us when they say that G-d created the word in the form of a hei: that this gap is real. It is not an illusion; it is not a subjective projection of one’s personal deficiencies or lack of determination; rather, it was put in place by the Creator of the world, who desired that the breach between thought and action should be a real and inescapable feature of our existence. For it is this dichotomy, this tension between the ideal and the real, which lends challenge, significance and fulfillment – and ultimately, true harmony – to our lives.[7]

The Realist

The three letters that comprise the name “Korach” – kuf, reish, chet – are similar in form to the letter hei. The kuf is a hei whose left leg extends below the written line; the reish is a hei that lacks a left leg altogether; and the chet is a hei without the “gap” – a hei whose left leg is joined to its roof.

Korach (from right to left): kuf, reish, chet

On the face of it, these are more “harmonious” letters: the dissonance between thought and speech on the one hand, and deed on the other, is resolved, or at least allowed to take its natural course. In truth, however, the very opposite is the case: these letters spell “Korach,” the very essence of conflict and disharmony. For each of these letters is a distortion of the hei – a corruption of the manner in which the Creator desires that we perceive and deal with His creation.

The first distorted perception is that of the ultra-realist. This is a person who not only recognizes the gap between thought and action, but also accepts it. To this person, the world is a kuf – a world whose left flank is not only disconnected from its other two lines but also drops below the area delineated by them.

In a world described by the letter kuf, a different set of standards governs the world of action than those which govern the realms of thought and speech.

“Certainly, I have my ideals,” argues this approach to life. “I have my inner truth; I know what’s right and what’s wrong. This is the world I inhabit in my thoughts; these are the ideals I discuss with and advocate to others; these are the truths which I teach my children. But I’m not so naive as to believe that these truths can be applied, without compromise and equivocation, to the world of action. What is right as an abstract or verbalized ideal simply won’t work in the reality of a material and materialistic world. Can I negotiate a business deal with the same integrity I demand from myself when I address G-d in my prayers? Should I assess my physical needs and wants by the same criteria I apply to my spiritual aspirations? These are two different domains, and an unbridgeable gap separates the two. I would never compromise my convictions, but the way we think and speak about our world will always be of a higher standard than the way we act in it.”

Two Idealists

At the other extreme from the ultra-realist is the ultra-idealist. This is a person who, if he cannot deal with the actual world as an unbroken continuum of his thoughts and words, prefers not to deal with it at all. Why sully our lives by venturing into an arena which, if it does not corrupt us outright will, at the very least, coarsen our higher sensitivities?

The ultra-idealist’s response to the gap between the hei’s left leg and its other two lines is to jettison that leg entirely: to shun the world of action and devote all his energies and resources to the worlds of thoughts and words which comprise the higher two strata of creation. The reality he inhabits is in the form of a reish – a two-dimensional world of theory and polemic, devoid of all regard for the state of the physical universe.[8]

The third corruption of the hei is the chet, which represents a more subtle, but no less destructive, form of idealism. Rather than disavowing the left leg of the hei, it disavows the gap, claiming that no true separation exists between the various realms of G-d’s creation. The material, says this world-view, is no less sacred than the spiritual; actions are no less pure than words; both “legs” are equally connected with the “upper line” and can equally bring down its ideals into their respective realities.[9]

The problem with this vision of reality is that, lacking a proper awareness of the true state of the world of action, one is far too easily satisfied. While the reish thinks that thoughts and words can take the place of actions, the chet deludes himself that his thoughts and words are actions, or that a few vague, symbolic deeds suffice to transform the world into a harmonious actualization of its highest potentials.

Tension

True harmony in life can be achieved only in recognizing, confronting and grappling with the intrinsic dissonance between thought and action. If we succumb to the gap, we end up with a kuf – a physical world that has slipped below the line[10] and gone awry from the principles upon which it is founded. If we escape the gap by renouncing all the lies beyond it, we end up with a reish – a world lacking its most “real” and important dimension.[11] If we ignore or make light of the gap, we end up with a chet – a fool’s paradise in which nothing has been changed and nothing has been achieved save in one’s own imagination. Because they fail to deal with the world as it has been forged by its Creator, each of the three “Korach” approaches ultimately break down into chaos and conflict.

On the other hand, the hei perspective on life is the formula for true and enduring harmony. The hei approach defines the world of action as disconnected from the worlds of thought and speech but nevertheless confined to the boundaries delineated by them. In other words, the gap between the ideal and the real exists, but this does not mean that we cannot profoundly transform the physical world with our actions and bring it “in line” with the ideals which we contemplate and propagate.

The gap is a source of dissonance and tension, but this is a constructive tension which drives the aspirations, challenges and achievements of life. For it is our knowledge of our imperfections which fuels our striving to improve ourselves and our world. It is our sensitivity to the distance between what we are and what we ought to be which makes us aware and productive partners in the divine endeavor of Creation.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Korach 5724 (1964), 5727 (1967) and 5748 (1988)[12]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a.

[2] Talmud, Yoma 83b; thus the naming of a child by its parents constitutes a “minor prophecy,” for at that moment they are granted a vision of their child’s soul and inner character (Shaar HaGilgulim, hakdamah 23).

[3] As related in the first chapter of Genesis, the world was created through divine speech: “G-d said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light”; “G-d said, ‘Let the earth sprout forth vegetation…’ and it was so”; and so on.

[4] See Tanya, part II, ch. 1; Igrot Kodesh, vol. I, pp 288-290 and sources cited there.

[5] Genesis 2:3.

[6] Talmud, Menachot 49b.

[7] The bottom, open side of the hei represents the vacuum of evil, the “sin which lurks at the opening” (Genesis 4:7). Thus, the world of Moshiach, when G-d will “annihilate death forever” and “banish the spirit of impurity from the world” is represented by the letter “final mem,” whose form is that of a closed square (as alluded to in the verse, “For the increase of the realm and for peace without end” (Isaiah 9:6), in which the letter memuncharacteristically appears in its closed form the middle of a word). In this future world of divine perfection, the gap between spirit and matter will be closed and the negative “fourth side” will be transformed into a positive force

[8] This was the error of the spies sent by Moses to scout the Holy Land, who refused to leave their spiritual life in the desert for a material existence of life on the land (see Holy Land WIR vol X #39).

[9] This perspective is reflected in Korach’s contest of the kehunah (priesthood-i.e., the ideas that the spiritual is loftier than the material) and his argument that “The entire congregation is holy, for G-d is in their midst; why do you [i.e., Moses and Aaron, the spiritual leaders of Israel] raise yourselves above the congregation of G-d?” (Numbers 16:3; see our essays “Divisiveness, Division and Distinction,” in Beyond the Letter of the Law (VHH 1995), pp. 286-295, and “High and Low,” The Inside Story (VHH 1997), pp. 230-241).

[10] I.e., into the realm of evil-see note 8 above.

[11] “This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral-to make for G-d a dwelling in the lowly realms (i.e., the world of physical action)”- Tanya, ch. 33.

[12] Likkutei Sichot, vol. VIII, pp. 102-113; Sefer HaSichot 5748, vol. II, pp. 502-503.

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