Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
In this week’s Torah portion a man named Korach, from the tribe of Levi, a first cousin to Aaron and Moses leads a rebellion. His name means frozen. He roused 250 men to join him in a challenge to the authority of both Moses and Aaron. His claim: Are we not all Holy unto God?
"You take too much upon yourself, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. The whole community is holy -- all of them! Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourselves above them?" (Num. 16: 1-3.)
To understand this challenge a little better we need to understand what Korach means by holy and what God intends for the people when they are told they are to be a holy nation. At the very end of last week’s portion, just before we are introduced to Korach, Moses relates to the Israelites the mitzvah of wearing Tzitzit. This section is selected for the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. It says the following:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them that to make fringes at the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put within the fringe a thread of blue; …that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; …That you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.(Num. 15: 37-40)
According to Rabbi Shai Held, herein lies the difference in God’s view and Korach’s view of holiness. Quoting Yeshayahu Leibowitz: a highly respected contemporary Bible scholar and brother of groundbreaking Bible scholar Nechamah Leibowitz, Shai Held explains that the critical difference is between the indicative and imperative. The High Priest, Aaron, wears a golden head band on which is engraved the words: Holy unto God. He has been set apart from the people for holy service and the entire garment and headdress he wears indicates this. The Israelites on the other hand wear Tzizit- to remind us to aspire to holiness. (Num. 15:39-40) As it says in the Torah “And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that you may remember, and do all my commandments, and become holy to your God.
In other words, you are not holy because you were chosen. You must work at this. Holiness is a perpetual aspiration, not an established fact. You might think you can do whatever you want because you are holy. This is not so. This is the thinking of Korach. It is frozen thinking. It bears no life.
So too, with Democracy. It is not static. It is a process. America is in a 200 year old process (some say experiment) with a goal to give dignity to all people. A totalitarian gov’t on the other hand is not interested in this. It is interested instead in enriching those in power. Our constitution gives us the aspirations to create the conditions for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every individual. We have certainly not attained these goals but we had been moving in that direction as evidenced by the civil rights movement, anti-discrimination laws, the passage of the ERA, DOMA, laws against sexual harassment, the #metoo movement and more.
But tragically, we seem now to be moving far astray from these democratic aspirations. The images in recent weeks of children, separated from their parents, locked up in cages and detention centers should keep us all awake at night and rouse us to demand change. We are being called, at this moment to stand up for what is morally and ethically right. We are being called upon to exercise our compassion, to understand that these children are our children, that these parents are us. We are being called to act upon our values and our legacy to love the stranger and protect the weakest among us.
In our Torah portion, Korach speaks from a place of pure self-interest, entitlement and self-indulgence. He makes claim to the inherent holiness of the people regardless of their behavior; to a kind of chosen-ness, a supremacy devoid of any responsibility. This view is profoundly dangerous and ultimately doomed. It cannot lead anywhere except to sink the entire ship. It is ungrounded and cannot support community. In our narrative, the ground literally opens her mouth and swallows Korach and his family. The other 250 men are consumed in a fire.
This catastrophe however is not the end of the story of Korach and his lineage. Within the longer biblical narrative of our people, the line of Korach will emerge in the future as the finest musicians of the First Temple days- the B’nei Korach. In the book of Psalms we see 24 psalms attributed to the Sons of Korach. They are love songs of devotion to God, of seeking and longing for God, of finding the Divine in even the darkest places. They speak as witnesses to the existence of the beauty and power of the Divine.
What can we learn from this outcome? What is our tradition trying to teach us here about holiness and about redemption?
Arthur Waskow points out that true holiness is like a seed, for a seed carries potentiality. Holiness is not an end in itself or a pre-condition. It is an eternal aspiration. Korach, the frozen one, inevitably returns to the womb of the earth, to thaw and become like a seed from which holiness will sprout forth in future generations.
And so we ask, what is the work that lies before us? As we face the current challenges in our society, let us remember that our democracy was built on holy aspirations. Democracy, like holiness is a process. It is a verb. It is our task to remember, to engage and to strive to fulfill that vision of dignity, liberty and justice for all. Sadly, it is not self-evident to all. The democratic process requires constant vigilance and engagement.
May we find the strength to continue the work of bringing holiness into the world. May we be aligned with Your will. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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