This week, my seminary’s online alumni group has been grappling with two important initially seemingly unrelated, but then quite connected questions… The first question: What does it means to be holy or to become holy? This comes from Korach’s seeming best argument as he tries to depose Moses.
The second question was about how to handle the following situation: a family who wanted their two sons, 15 months apart, to celebrate a shared bar mitzvah, primarily for financial reasons – for the nuclear family and for people who might come. The older brother did not want to be so much older than his peers when he became bar mitzvah. One of my colleagues objected to doing the bar mitzvah before the younger boy’s 13th birthday. Judaism, he argued, is not a religion of convenience (a whole other topic, not for today). Another rabbi noted that since we try to achieve gender equality these days, maybe we should consider that girls too should be 13. (Why not that everyone could be 12? I wondered.) Obviously, we want to be sure that the youth is ready to take on the responsibilities, but is 12 or 13 really a magic number? Opinions ranged from the “Not until the youngest was 13!” to something a little strict. You could hear Hillel and Shammai in the argument.
Which is particularly appropriate, because this week’s torah portion is often linked with these two teachers. In the Mishnah, a question is asked: What is an argument for the sake of heaven: The arguments of Hillel and Shammai, who always sought to increase holiness, in very opposing ways.
Then the question is asked: What is an argument NOT for the sake of heaven? And the response is: Korach.
Korach, the leader of one or two rebellions taking place in this week’s portion is Moses’ cousin. He argues that we are all holy, so what need have we for a priesthood with Moses and Aaron at the top? His argument is considered the paradigm of an argument not for the sake of heaven, but for self-aggrandizement. He wants power. He wants to run things. He is not looking out for what’s best for the community, only for himself.
God offers the rebels several opportunities to turn back, to rejoin the fold, to recognize that being equally holy, equally worthy is not the same thing as being the same, having the same skills or qualities. Toward the end of the parasha, the Holy One devises a visual, physical, miraculous demonstration of whom God has chosen to lead the priesthood. A chief from each of the 12 tribes is told to bring the staff of the tribe to the Tent of the Covenant, with his name engraved on it. Aaron, as the representative of the tribe of Levi, is told to bring his. Moses stands it in the center of the ring of staffs.
When they go back the next morning to check, Aaron’s staff has blossomed with almond flowers, while the others remain plain sticks, representing graphically, forcefully, unmistakably, whose staff, whose tribe, whose leadership is favored by God.
And what is it about Aaron that makes him God’s choice? Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi notes that Aaron, the first Kohen (priest), possessed the power to draw down Rav Chesed (abundant lovingkindness). He is known to have transformed enmity between people into love, and also to confer the aura of love over a group or even the nation. He wasn’t perfect – after all, he did build the Golden Calf. But he strove to do God’s will, he worked to promote the well-being of his community, he did what he needed to do to keep things together.
This brings us back to the first question: what makes us holy? Is it that we are made in the divine image, tzelem elohim? Or that we are observant? Or that we do good in the world? That we are mindful, self-reflective and self-correcting? Is it that we strive (which I think is part of mindfulness)? One of my favorite colleagues noted that mindfulness and intent make us holy, and observance is only one way up the mountain. One said that it is about dedication: that when we say the brucha over wine for shabbat, we are taking a moment to step out of the realm of the regular and into the home of the holy. Or that when we dedicate our time to be holy time, we are doing Godly acts. Social justice, tikkun olam, gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness… or resting on shabbat.
What do you think?
There is a prayer in the morning liturgy that is really a piece of talmud: Eilu devarim ayn hecher… these are the duties whose worth cannot be measured:
Honoring mother and father;
Act of loving kindness (gemilut chasadim);
Attending to our study, early and late;
Bikur cholim, visiting the sick;
Hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger;
Hachnasat challah, celebrating with the bridal couple;
Valyat ha-met, accompanying the dead for burial, comforting the mourner;
Iyun tefilah, praying with sincerity;
Oseh shalom bein adam l’chavero – making peace among people.
And then the final one of these 10 duties whose worth cannot be measured, is the study of torah: we are told it is k’neged kulam. K’neged is one of those interesting words with a variety of meanings – next to, against, opposite… which can mean, that the study of torah leads to them all, or equals them all, or assists us to head that way.
The point I want to make is that doing these things, or things like them, are those Godly acts that sanctify us, make us holy… This is a pretty comprehensive list, at least a great starting place. I am sure we can think of some more. After all, also in our morning liturgy, these reminders are embedded on a daily basis.
We bless and thank God for redeeming the captive, clothing the naked, lifting the fallen, meeting our needs, giving us strength when we are weary, helping the blind to see, keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust… These can be read as spiritual assistance or sustenance as well as physical sustenance… or even collective responsibility: as God does, so should we.
And this is the work of North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation and of each one of us: doing all that we can to promote the well-being of our community. May the work of our hands blossom like Aaron’s staff, with the beautiful, quick growing, annual flowers of the almond tree, and may they bear fruit like the fertile, copious almonds themselves.