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Greatness Is an Aspiration

This week we read the story about Korah’s rebellion. He, his followers and 250 leaders, gathered against Moses and Aaron. They said: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy.” (Numbers 16)

At first glance their complaint appears legitimate. They seem to say that no person is greater than another. Every Israelite is holy and can have a relationship with God. They appear to suggest that while no one is Moses, every person can aspire to his level of holiness.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the great Israeli philosopher, finds meaning in the words “are holy.” The rebels believe they are holy, that they have already achieved greatness. Leibowitz teaches that holiness is about striving for greatness. Korah and his followers say in effect, “We have achieved everything. Nothing more is demanded of us.”

The Torah teaches the contrary. Holiness must never be a present boast, but instead a future goal. Leibowitz continues to say that there are people like Korah in every generation. In every time and every place, there are people who believe that they are already holy and great. They are convinced that there is nothing more for them to do to improve their lives or the lot of those who surround them or the people they serve or the world, and the earth, they are bequeathed.

The Torah reminds instead. Our task is to become holy.

Look as well at Moses’ humility. When he was first called at the burning bush, he proclaimed his unworthiness. The true measure of someone who wants to serve God, and others, is to always proclaim, and feel, that they are not up to the task. And yet, circumstances (and God’s call) propel them to serve others. They spend their lives striving, but never achieving.

On this July 4th weekend, when we celebrate the gifts, and responsibilities, of American democracy, we would do well to heed the Torah’s message.

Holiness is about becoming.

Greatness is not an achievement. It is instead an aspiration.