The Boundaries of Holiness

Parashat Korach 5781
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week, we read about the dispute of Korach, for whom the parasha is named.  We read that a large and admired group within the Jewish nation, headed by Korach, led a rebellion against Moses’ leadership and Aaron’s family’s exclusive hold on the priesthood and sacrifices in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
The Boundaries of Holiness

Moses was horrified by the rebellion since its essence was not only against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, but was also a rebellion against the leadership of G-d.  Time after time, the nation had seen that all of Moses’ actions were commanded by G-d and that he was chosen by Divine choice to lead the Jewish nation.  Furthermore, Moses was appalled by the rebels since this leadership did not carry any special privileges.  He had not so much as requested a donkey to ride on.  On the contrary, Moses, as leader, carried the burden of leadership, worried about the nation’s needs, and mediated their complaints with G-d.

Moses wanted to solve the dispute in a divine manner.  He invited the rebels to come the following day to the Mishkan and bring an incense offering, ketoret, before G-d, along with Aaron.  Whoever’s ketoret would be accepted by G-d would be proven to be the priest, the kohen, G-d wanted. The group of rebels, despite knowing the severity of offering unwanted ketoret in the Mishkan, arrived to offer it anyway.  The rebellion ended tragically: those who offered the ketoret were burned in fire, the ground opened under the tents of Korach and the other rebellion leaders, swallowing them.

In the parasha, we read some of the claims of Korach and his people:

They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
(Numbers 16, 3)

Korach and his companions challenged the religious and leadership hierarchy, claiming that the entire nation is holy and G-d resides in their midst, so therefore there is no reason for authority to be held by one person, and there is no reason to limit the work in the Mishkan to one family.  Rather, the entire nation can serve as kohanim.

In the midrash, our sages reveal another claim raised by Korach and his people.  This claim is hinted at by the proximity of the rebellion’s description to the commandment of tzitzit and techelet at the end of the previous parasha, Shelach.

What is written above the matter? “Speak unto the Children of Israel and tell them to make tassels (tzizit) for themselves.’” Korah quickly said to Moses, “In the case of a prayer shawl (tallit) which is all blue, what is the rule about it being exempt from [having] the tassel?” Moses said to him, “[Such a prayer shawl] is required to have the tassels.” Korah said to him, “Would not a prayer shawl which is all blue exempt itself, when four [blue] threads exempt it? In the case of a house which is full of [scriptural] books, what is the rule about it being exempt it from [having] the mezuzah?” [Moses] said to him, “[Such a house] is required to have the mezuzah.” [Korah] said to him, “Since the whole Torah has two hundred and seventy-five parashiot in it, and they do not exempt the house [from having the mezuzah], would the one parasha which is in the mezuzah exempt the house?” [He also] said to him, “These are things about which you have not been commanded. Rather you are inventing them [by taking them] out of your own heart.”
(Numbers Rabbah 18, 3)

In Parashat Shelach, we are commanded to tie fringes to the corners of clothing, some of which should be techelet, a shade of blue.  According to the sages of the midrash, Korach argued with Moses regarding a tallit which is all blue: Korach thought it should be exempt from the commandment of techelet, since it is entirely blue anyway, but Moses thought it still needed to have techelet strings tied to it.  A similar argument ensued regarding the commandment of the mezuzah, writing two parshiot from the Torah and affixing it to the door frame.  Korach claimed that if there is a house full of Torah scrolls, there is no point in affixing a mezuzah to the doorframe, while Moses thought that even in a home like that, we are still commanded to put up a mezuzah.

We should delve deeper to understand the crux of the argument between Moses and Korach: What is Korach’s basic claim and why did the sages of the midrash see it as the foundation of his rebellion against Moses’ leadership and Aaron’s priesthood?

It seems that Korach’s claim in this argument about the mezuzah is similar to his claim mentioned in the Torah that “the entire congregation are all holy.” According to Korach, G-d’s greatness fills and rules over the entire earthly space, and therefore, holiness can not be restricted to specific people or to a specific space.  Based on Korach’s concept, an item of clothing that is entirely blue – representing the heavens – expresses godliness in the world much better than a few threads tied to its corners.  And a home filled with Torah scrolls does not need one small mezuzah affixed to its doorframe.

However, G-d’s will is completely different. G-d wants the world to be the kingdom of humans, as we say in Hallel: “The heavens are heavens of the Lord, but the earth He gave to the children of men” (Psalms 115, 16). But even within the kingdom of humans, G-d wants there to be special people whose job it is to worship G-d and express His presence: the kohanim in the ancient world, and religious authorities today; as well as touches of G-d’s presence with every person: at the entrances of their homes, on the corners of their clothes, in the Mishkan, in synagogues, and in moral interactions between people.


Today October 26, 2021

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The Boundaries of Holiness

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The Boundaries of Holiness

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