Anyone who has served in the leadership of a Jewish organization will immediately recognize the claim of Korach and his group of rebels that begins this week’s Torah portion: “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” We hear the voice of the disgruntled or disenfranchised who come to our leadership saying, “You know, I hear a lot of people talking about how unhappy they are with (fill in the blank). Of course, I’m not only speaking for myself, but manypeople feel the way I do.”
Now, as a Jewish people, we can be a bit fractious. The old line “two Jews, three opinions” seems current in every generation. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Understanding multiple viewpoints, including ones with which we disagree, is a healthy, constructive skill. The Talmud enshrines debate, alternate opinions and even ambiguity as a foundation of mature faith.
On the face of it, Korach’s assertion seems fair. Would we doubt that the whole community is holy, that the Divine rests among the people?
The previous chapters of Numbers recall the construction of the Mishkan — the Tabernacle, the very place where God will “dwell among them.” The verses that close last week’s parshaconcern the tzitzit, which are in part to remind the Israelite “to be holy to your God.” Not to mention Leviticus 19, which instructs Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.’”
It would seem that Korach has solid Torah verses to rely upon.
And yet, there is a fatal flaw in his claim, one that is revealed in a single, seemingly extraneous word. Korach and his group contend that the whole community — each and every one — is holy. This subtle detail reveals the source of Korach’s discontent — the assertion that he, as an individual, is every bit as special, important or holy as Aaron and Moses. While that question can be debated, it misses the point. It is the community, not the individual, that aspires to holiness. It is the united entity of the Jewish people that causes, through their collective actions, God’s presence to reside in their midst. Holiness is not the realm of the individual.
From this account, the rabbis of the Talmud derive part of the concept of minyan, the minimal grouping of 10 necessary for particular prayers and acts. God’s holiness rests upon the people of Israel in a minyan or more. All members of the minyan need not agree with one another (and when does that ever happen?). In fact, the very act of joining together with those we disagree with for the common cause of bringing holiness into the world may be the route to a higher level of holiness.
Rav Kook put it this way: “Genuine holiness is an altruistic striving for good for its own sake, not out of self-interest.”
As we continue to love this fractious people, may we be reminded of the genuine holiness that comes from being part of the whole of the community of Israel.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.