This week’s Torah portion is about Korach and the rebellion he leads. Korach and his followers rebel against Moses and his leadership, claiming: “You have gone too far! For 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) Korach is severely punished for questioning Moses.
There is a debate regarding Korach’s sin. What was his terrible wrong? Most agree that he should not have questioned Moses during such a difficult period. The people were wandering through the wilderness. They required decisive leadership. The community needed to be unified. Korach sought to sow divisiveness when unity was demanded.
But there appears more to Korach’s words. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli scientist and Jewish philosopher, offers an intriguing interpretation. Korach’s sin is revealed in his claim that “all the community are holy.” Korach implies that the people have already achieved their goal of holiness and nothing more is demanded of them. (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary)
The Torah challenges us, however, to become holy. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” the Holiness Code admonishes us. (Leviticus 19). What follows then are primarily a list of ethical demands. The intention is clear. What makes us holy are our every day actions. “Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich… Love your neighbor… You shall have an honest balance and honest weights…”
But there are people who believe that just by virtue of their being Jewish they are already as close to God as they need to be. They do not see the challenge in the Torah’s command. They see it only as privilege. Chosenness in this worldview is not the call to improve the world that it must be for the Jewish people to realize its birthright but instead only a blessing conferring privilege.
Holiness is a goal that we must strive to achieve each and every day. It must forever remain a future goal not a present day boast. The sin of Korach was not that he sowed dissent, but instead that he thought the work was already finished. He believed that there was nothing more he needed to do. There were no improvements to be made. His world was already holy, he appeared to believe.
Holiness must not be a claim of privilege. It is a demand of us made each and every day, each and every hour, each and every moment. We become holy by what we do. Our birthright only acquires holiness through our actions.