A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat Korach, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5784

For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  -Bamidbar / Numbers 16:3

Our parasha opens with a challenge to the authority of Moses and Aaron as leaders of the Israelites. 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?”

At first glance, Korah seems to be calling for democratization within the Israelite community. Rashi comments on the phrase, “for all of the congregation is holy” staying, “They all heard the words of Sinai from the mouth of God” and were all elevated as a result. Two modern Israeli commentators expose how, on closer examination, Korah’s contention fails to understand the nature of holiness and God’s expectations of the people.

Rav Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen asks, “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’.” (Likrat Shabbat, translated from the Hebrew, 156-157). While each person possesses an inherent holiness, this is not the same as the holiness which is a product of personal conduct.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz focuses on Korach’s claim that the entire Israelite community is already holy, “kulam kedoshim,” “everyone is holy” negates God’s commandment to the Israelites, in Leviticus 19:2, “You will be holy.” Leibowitz writes, “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.” Korah’s assertion completely misunderstands the holiness expected of the Israelites. 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. We, as their descendants, continue on the journey of aspiring to holiness; a long and winding road into the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg