“Be Holy” versus “We Are Holy”:
Korah’s Misunderstanding of the Concept of Holiness
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah begins telling us that Korah, with a group of people, confronted Moses and Aron publicly.
It is written in the Torah: “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben— to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 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?” (B’midvar 16:1-3).
Korah, with a group of people, came to Moses and questioned his leadership: “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?”.
They affirmed that all members of the community are holy, are equal in God’s eyes, and that none could be above them. Is this argument correct? Don’t we agree that all of us are equal? Is it wrong?
Apparently, Korah’s argument sounds reasonable. Did not God speak to all of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? Did they not all enter into covenant with God at the mountain? Did not the Divine Presence dwell amongst them all?
In fact, in the last part of the last parashah, the paragraph which deals with the commandment of the Tzizit (fringes), it is written: “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God” (B’midvar 15:40).
You may think that Korah’s argument was correct. However, the Torah indicates that something was not correct in his argument and in his behavior. Something was wrong with him; therefore, he was punished for this rebellion.
The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) offers an interesting explanation to this question. According to Leibowitz, Korah fails to understand the difference between the indicative and the imperative, between a fact and an inspiration.
In the paragraph which describes the commandment of the Tzizit it is written: “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God” (B’midvar 15:40). It means that the people are not holy per se, they need to do something and make an effort to become holy. Holiness is not an essence but an aspiration.
In contrast to this paragraph, Korah says: “All the community are holy, all of them” (B’midbar 16:3). Korah implies that all the people are holy since they were born. He believes that holiness is an essence of the people, already given, established, and residing in the people as they are.
Following Yeshayahu Leibowitz interpretation, I agree that Korah misunderstood the concept of holiness. Holiness is not an established fact. In Judaism we don’t have holy people but rather, a people who try to become holy through good deeds, the fulfilling of the mitzvot and behaving in an ethical way. We can understand holiness as a challenge and an aspiration to achieve. Holiness is a constant goal to achieve but not an essence we already have.
Maybe this interpretation explains Korah’s mistake. He failed to understand the imperative “be holy”, “ִוִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים “(B’midvar 15:40) with the idea that “All members of the community are holy”, “ כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים” (B’midbar 16:3).
May we be able to learn from this week’s parashah about the concept of holiness, and look for ways to achieve holiness in our lives.