There is nothing so satisfying as learning a new perspective on a story you thought you understood. This week I read Maggid Jhos Singer‘s drash/teaching on the Torah portion Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32). This is the story of Korach and his rebellion against Moses in the Wilderness. I’ve heard it taught many times, but Jhos brought out some new and fascinating points. Here is the teaching he sent to his community, Chochmat HaLev.
This week’s Torah portion, Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) details the first of a series of organizational tests for Moses.
It begins when Korach, a well-heeled Israelite whose pedigree places him in the priestly class, contests Moses and Aaron’s leadership. He gathers 250 other highly regarded men and, with their backing, Korach faces off with Aaron and Moses to delegitimize their authority. He says:
“ ‘Enough of you! Because all the congregation, everyone, is holy and God is amongst them—why then do you lift yourself above the congregation of God?!’ Moses heard this and fell on his face.” (Numbers 16:3-4)
Korach’s words literally flatten Moses and Aaron.
Perhaps it is the realization that their role is in fact daunting—that the project of liberation is much more than escaping abject slavery and that being holy doesn’t assure docility, generosity, or even decency—that knocks the wind out of the leadership. But it isn’t exactly news. It was part of the deal from the onset of the adventure:
God said to Moses… “Now, if you listen and hear my voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be my own treasure from all the peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you will be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
“And God said to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy; because I the Lord, your God, am holy.”
It sounds so pretty, doesn’t it? You are holy!! All you have to do is be a God-Wrestler and voila, insta-holiness!! A kingdom of priests! But like all “too good to be true” claims, you gotta examine the fine print (or in this case, the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Biblical Hebrew Lexicon). There you will find that the word root for “holy” is K.D.Sh (which yields a wealth of words including Kadosh, Kodesh, Kiddush, and Kaddish to name just a few) and can be translated as: set aside, consecrated, hallowed, holy or sacred. In English, the idea of holiness is generally related to superiority, purity, and virtue. But the Hebraic understanding has more to do with something or someone being assigned or designed to serve a unique role or function. These proclamations of holiness aren’t a boast, but rather the simple statement that Judaism recognizes that its members are not interchangeable parts.
In practical terms, this means that Korach is holy, too—his biting attack on Moses and Aaron is his unique way of seeing the world, challenging assumptions, and speaking truth to power. Moses and Aaron respond accordingly, with humility. And resistance. The turn to a higher authority, they turn it over, they ask for help.
This clash with Korach is a distillation of what it means to see our own adversary as holy. Korach is not morally superior or closer to God, he isn’t saintly or even noble, but he is fully present, unlike any other. And he perishes, as we all do, no matter how unique or good, no matter how virtuous or corrupt.
This month is pride month—Jews and Queers have a lot in common (not to mention Jewish Queers!)—we are both marginalized people, we are considered suspect by the dominant paradigm, and we tend to be somewhat clannish. We often gravitate towards the company of other band members. These are ways in which we recognize the holiness of our fellow travelers. We can see each part of the whole as holy, set aside, hallowed by our uniqueness. Does this mean everything is sweetness and light within our tribe? Far from it… But when we meet each other with respect, admiration, and humility, when we remind each other of our holiness, we move the entire community forward. The greatest tragedy that can befall a holy people is to try to act like everyone else. We reject our holiness when we try to pass, when we stay in the closet, when we hide.
Perhaps Korach’s failure was not that he challenged Moses and Aaron, but that he didn’t manifest his own leadership. His instinct was to overpower from outside, not to develop from the inside. He uses the wisdom that “the whole congregation is holy” as a weapon, rather than a tool. He fails to recognize the unique role of others and so cannot accept the unique role he bears. Or perhaps some roles are just tragic, and it is the job of the rest of us to be as compassionate as possible that someone drew that horrible card.
We can claim our holiness with hubris, arrogance, and pride. We can experience our holiness with awe, grace, and humility. But we cannot hide it, run from it, or deny it.
May we find time this Shabbat for reflection to consider: what are we uniquely called to be, to do, to share, to discover? How can we better honor the paths of others? And may we find courage, pride, and delight that again and again the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Being “chosen” means you have a job to do. In fact, everyone is holy; everyone has a job to do. Seeing the holiness, chosen-ness, job-assigned status of the other can help us all to refrain from seeking to overpower them. Instead, can we find a way to work within our community and our relationships to respectfully develop a dialogue in which “we” and “they” can exist peacefully?
In my work with interfaith families and the Jewish community organizations I focus on each of us having a role. Once we acknowledge our own role, we can look for the job that the “other” has. We are all part of the whole. We are all needed.