Who is Holy?

Korah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 2, 2005 / 5765

This week’s parashah opens with a prideful challenge to the authority of Moses and Aaron as leaders of the Children of Israel. Korah and his cohorts, Datan and Aviram, “rise up against Moses together with two hundred and fifty Israelites.” Their claim against Moses and Aaron: “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). At first glance, Korah’s objection seems reasoned and justified. Perhaps this would-be leader is calling for democratization within the Israelite community. After all, as Rashi writes in his commentary on this verse, “for all of the congregation is holy – they all heard the words of Sinai from the mouth of God.” And so, perhaps the circle of leadership should indeed be expanded. Yet, on closer examination, Korah’s claim becomes altogether unreasonable and troubling. The explanations of two great Israeli commentators dovetail – both arguing that Korah’s challenge was a rebellion against Judaism’s core values.

First, Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that the transgression of Korah was making the claim that the entire Israelite community is already holy. Korah declares to Moses and Aaron, “kulam kedoshim,” everyone is holy. God’s commandment to the Israelites, however, in Leviticus 19:2 is “you will be holy.” That is to say, becoming holy is a difficult and challenging process. It is a journey that takes time – even a lifetime. One must be attentive to sanctifying every moment of one’s life. Therefore, Korah’s claim is categorically absurd according to Leibowitz. While Korah wants to argue that the people have all achieved holiness, in truth, they, as individuals, and as a nation, have only begun their journey.

Second, Rav Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen explains the seriousness of Korah’s charge, “how can it be that the entire nation of Israel is composed only of holy people? The truth is that within any nation, one finds people of all types. There are those who are superlative, those who are average, those who are less than average, and then there are those who are truly evil people. In any mass of people, one finds a spectrum of opinions. This claim that “the entire congregation is holy” is possible only if one neutralizes the value of holiness. When there is no longer a difference between the holy and profane, between that which is pure and that which is impure, between a saint and a criminal – only then can one deem an entire group of individuals equally ‘holy’. When we negate the value of values, one can then claim, the entire congregation is ‘holy'” (Likrat Shabbat, translated from the Hebrew, 156-157). Holiness then becomes emptied of any meaning and value. Accordingly, Korah’s claim is one which seeks to annihilate Judaism’s core system of principles and ethics. Differences exist within a people, and individuals must always strive toward sanctity. It can never be granted on a silver spoon.

A very striking parallel can be made between Korah’s claim and the moral relativism that frequently plagues many of our communities. Often, we are too accepting of unacceptable behavior within our synagogues and larger communities. Rather than articulate the values we hold dear, we embrace Korahite pronouncements that “the entire congregation is holy” – i.e. anything goes and everything is all right. Communities that have expectations of their members and hold fast to those values are congregations with passion and soul. Like Leibowitz’s teaching, we must continually strive toward holiness. And echoing Rav Avigdor Ha-Cohen’s commentary, we can never neutralize the moral and ethical spectrum within our nation. Torah holds us to very specific standards. Only when we strive to fulfill the teachings and commandments of Torah, can we become true leaders within the House of Israel.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.