Holiness: It’s not a given, it’s an aspiration
This week we learn of the conflict between Moses and his fellow Levites, the latter group led by the infamous rebel Korach, which reflects their different understanding of our relationship with God. Korach basis his understanding of the relationship on the story of creation: “God created human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created human; male and female God created them.” This verse teaches the ultimate equality and divinity of each human being. The rabbis learn from that verse that no human being can say to another “my blood is redder than yours”; that each human has equal dignity.
Korach seems to presage the rabbi’s teaching with his words of attack 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?” Yet the challenge of Korach is considered one of the worst rebellions in the Jewish tradition. How can we resolve this apparent problem?
We must acknowledge that Moses and Aaron understood differently our relationship with God. They accepted the notion that from creation each person has equal dignity before God. However, they also understood individual “divinity” as the beginning of our relationship, not the end. Coming out of Egypt, God instructs the people through Moses, “You shall (emphasis added) be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This verse exists within the broader teachings of Torah. Every human soul may be divine, but we only live a holy life through learning Torah and embracing its mitzvot (obligations of doing right and avoiding wrong). Just before we read about the rebellion of Korach, we read the words in Torah that are so important to our values system they have been placed in our liturgy as final paragraph of the Shema. These words hearken back to the beginning of the revelation at Sinai, instructing: “Then you will remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.” Our potential holiness derives from our actions, even if our equal dignity derives from our creation. Korach’s rebellion is considered so damaging because in his conflation of ideas from the Torah he actually undermines essential principles of Judaism. Holiness is an attribute that must be achieved by daily practice of right action. Korach intentionally confuses with misuse of language (itself a violation of Torah and thus a negation of holiness), sounding as if he is defending Torah principles in reality he overturns. This fomenting of rebellion through manipulation of others remains a plague upon humanity to this day.
We must be vigilant in our language and clear in our concepts, open to learning from teachers who exemplify intelligence, integrity, and the application of Torah in daily life. This Shabbat may we learn from Moses, not led astray by Korach.