Are we Holy? (Korach)

Judaism repeatedly reminds us that argument and disagreement are a part of our religion. The backbone of the Talmud is impassioned argument, as rabbis argue with each other across the centuries, trying to figure out the specifics of a commandment ... or the meaning of just one word of a Torah verse. Often, there is not one singular answer. We thread our way through the argumentation, listening to each rabbi's opinion and then deciding for ourselves which opinion is correct.

But even before the rabbis decided to make argumentation part of how we do Judaism, there are examples from the Torah.

  • Abraham argues with God about the pending destruction of Sodom and Gemmorah.
  • Moses argues with God, imploring God that the Israelites will not take Moses seriously as a leader.
  • The Israelites argue with Moses. Constantly.
  • Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites. Constantly.

Disagreement is an important part of Judaism. And because of this, our Torah portion this week is utterly baffling.


A man named Korach gathers 250 people, and they approach Moses. Korach and his men aren't happy.

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them ... Why then do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?

After Korach exchanges some words with Moses, God reacts both suddenly and strongly.

The ground split beneath them; and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men who belonged to Korach, and all their goods.

As I mentioned, argument is nothing new. But, no one has ever been severely punished, let alone swallowed by the earth for disagreeing with Moses' leadership. Yes, Miriam was struck with leprosy for speaking out against her brother, but that's not quite the same as the fate that befalls Korach.

We could read this as a harsh response from a jealous and angry God, and move forward with the portion. But the very nature of argumentation teaches us that we can grapple with this narrative and perhaps glean some meaning from its words and perhaps we may find hat we may find relevant wisdom for our lives.


Let us begin our re-evaluation with another look at Korach's words to Moses.

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them ... Why then do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?

Korach reminds Moses that each Israelite is holy. Interestingly, Korach's words paraphrase none other than God! Earlier in Exodus, as the Israelites stood under Mount Sinai, God says the following.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

If each person indeed is holy, Korach wonders why Moses is above everyone else. It's a harsh criticism of the Israelites' leader, surely, but it also seems appropriate, even if it may not be correct. Certainly Moses is not beyond reproach. Moreover, Korach does not threaten Moses with violence, he does not swear allegiance to another God ... So what does Korach do that warrants his punishment?

To answer, we need to look yet again at Korach's words. Korach says that every one in the congregation is holy. God says that the nation shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Are these statements the same?!


There is one difference between these two utterances. God's statement is in the future tense, and Korach speaks of the Israelites' holiness in the present tense. This distinction is substantive.

When we stood under Mount Sinai and God told us that we would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, God's statement is predicated on our covenantal relationship with God. Holiness does not just happen. We become holy through our deeds. Holiness is not granted simply because we are human. Holiness comes through a life of Torah and Mitzvot.

This discrepancy can teach us a great deal about the nature of holiness. For each of us, yes, we can certainly become holy. But that holiness is conditional on continued behavior - on the studying of Torah, on the integrity of our prayers, and on the performing of Mitzvot. Korach not only misrepresented God's words, Korach distorts the covenantal relationship that we strive to maintain with God. For that he was punished.

I am not suggesting that Korach deserved to be swallowed by the earth. It is entirely fair to suggest that God's action was cruel, unfair and harsh. But I do suggest that we gain insight from Korach's argument ... from his dissent.


Our holiness does not stem from God's words from Exodus. Our holiness is not a gift handed down from the generations, like a family heirloom that passes through our hands. We must constantly strive for holiness. Holiness was not given in the past. It is the result of the present ... of our actions, of our thoughts, of our prayers, and yes ... of our argumentation.

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