Torah from Around the World #224

By Rabbi Nathan M. Landman.

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘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)

The above challenge to Moses’s leadership of Israel, voiced by his rebellious cousin Korach and his band, on the surface is an appeal for a more democratic order of authority. However, it is more reminiscent of the slogan “power to the people” (what people?) and an attempt to put into practice something like the Communist Manifesto!

Korach conveniently forgot that Moses came to his leadership role and earned his credentials by overcoming challenges to life and limb in Egypt and by taking resolute action when the situation demanded in order to bring the Israelites out from Egyptian bondage and to lead them through the wilderness to the threshold of the Promised Land. His status was further buttressed by his willingness to delegate authority on the advice of his father-in-law Jethro (Exod. 18). While Aaron and the Levites had specialized roles, they achieved “holiness” (or denigrated it) because of the manner in which they tackled their responsibilities, not merely as a consequence of the titles they bore.

Korach blithely ignored the command “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev. 19:1). Holiness is clearly the consequence of exemplary behavior (i.e., you shall be holy, not you are holy). It is a goal to be pursued, not a state of being.

Generations later, the prophet Amos reminded Israel, “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth—that is why I shall call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).

By arguing that holiness was an innate endowment, no accountability is demanded. With such a perspective, worshiping a golden calf or indulging in aggressive wars or exercising

sinaat chinam

—senseless hatred—need never be confronted or uprooted from the people’s character. The pursuit of holiness is an eternal quest. Had Korach triumphed, it is not hard to imagine the people of Israel becoming indistinguishable from those nations it dispossessed. And like them, Israel would have been swept away in the maelstrom of Middle East chaos.

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