I never really got my Lamaze breathing down pat. When it came to the labor of my daughter, I preferred to gaze intently at a mandala and say psalm twenty up to three times. That’s about how long it took for my belly to bend inwards in her effort to get the new life out. I gave birth to Chana at 10:50 on a Thursday night of Parshat Korach and in between contractions, I spoke with the Jewish nurse about Korach, Rebel with a Cause.
In my teens, as I struggled with the many issues Apartheid served up – embarrassed to be part of the bourgeoisie; heavy with the guilt of wealth in a society of discrimination; regurgitating what revolution might mean and look like and wondering where my Jewish identity fit in to the mess (placards during campus rallies proclaiming “Zionism = Apartheid” screamed in silence through my soul) – Korach reached across the generations, his voice echoing out of the Sinai Desert and down the African Rift Valley to Waverly, Johannesburg.
The Rebbe gave him a voice. To the superficial ear, Korach was an ambitious Levite aspiring for nothing less than the position of High Priest itself. But the reality, as in all things, was more subtle. Korach was misunderstood. And for that I thanked him: I resonated with anyone whose position on the rim of the status quo caused him to be misinterpreted, as I felt we were by the establishment – teens willing to burn all our parents had worked for on the alter of social justice.
Through the Rebbe’s teachings, Korach emerged as a visionary. He looked towards the Messianic era, longing for the time when our oneness and equality would become manifest. I could identify with that! And yet the Rebbe added a layer to my rebel-mentor. On the inside of his inside, in the space between the spaces, was the subtlest of selfish motives. He wanted to be High Priest. I began to understand how difficult true revolution is to attain, how insistent the status quo is on maintaining its grip.
The faces of Korach, the way the Rebbe took me in and out of veils of understanding, somewhere endorsed my struggle and offered me hope.
By the time it came to Chana’s labor, I’d lived his story many times over. Each year during Parshat Korach, he called to me across the desert of my mind…so as my body blended out of contractions and I could remove my focus from the picture and the psalms, while I still could, I’d resume talking about him with a passion to the nursing staff.
On Shabbos, from my room in Mount Sinai, I thought of my Rebbe in a hospital across town. The only way I had of assisting the situation was through doing his “thing”. I went around the maternity ward gathering women for a Shabbat class. I spoke of Korach and Redemption and of how the Rebbe had in everything peeled off the façade of “Reality” and given me access to something of its inner dimension.
Avrem picked me up on Saturday night. On a futon, covered in a foam-green cover, I lay with my daughter. Chana smelled of fresh Life. I rubbed my lips along her neck and through her hair and as I did so, I guess, I moved into a dream space, somewhere between waking and sleeping.
Above me, I saw the underbelly of a bird. Its wingspan was the length of the living room ceiling and from its navel was a thread connected to the fontanel of my skull. The bird heaved a giant flap of its wings, soaring upwards and pulling my soul with it. The rise ran through me like a flip over the crest of a rollercoaster. Yes! Far below, my body lay beside my child. The bird flapped again. And again my soul rose. Before me, I saw a turquoise blue flickering on black the way moonlight shimmers on a dark sea at midnight. “That’s the color of Korach’s tallit”, I thought, “the color that symbolized his rebellion”. My soul shivered. I was out of my depths. Over my head, the bird poised to flap again and I knew that should it do so, my soul would be taken to heights from which it could not return. My bones shivered. And then, the bathroom door slammed. Avrem walked out of the shower.
A wind snapped the door shut. It cut that umbilical cord tying me to the bird. I bent awake, vibrating with confusion.
“Avrem, a bird…” I said. I told him of the wings and the umbilical cord, of the blue and of Korach and the thrill and the fear. He listened in silence. We sat on the sea-green foam and in the distance I heard a noise. Chakka-chakka, chakka-chakka. Birds. Many of them. Helicopters! Sent to ensure Chassidim not riot, not jump from roofs in grief. We sat still in silence, not yet understanding. Minutes passed. Avrem’s beeper bleeped. Baruch Dayan Ha-emes, “Blessed is the True Judge”. My Rebbe! I saw the hospital room across the city and the bird above my head and listened to the chug of the birds in the sky anticipating the outpouring of our grief.
From within my confusion, understanding sprouted like grass overnight. As my Rebbe was rising, he had reached out to me in the vision of a bird and the color of aquamarine. “As I was with you then, I am with you now. You have flown and can soar still. I will be at you your side. Come, fly with me toward Redemption. The world is ripe for Revolution”.