Understanding Holiness

Parshat Korach – Holiness and the Relationship Between Rebellion and Social Justice

by Rabbi Pam Frydman • July 6, 2019 – 3 Tammuz 5779

         I want to offer these words in honor of Amanda, Andrew and Miriam as they prepare for their journey to their new home.

And I want to begin by speaking about salt. In the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus, it says עַל כָּל קָרְבָּנְךָ תַקְרִיב מֶלַח  “With every sacrifice, bring salt.”[1]

In ancient times, salt was a necessity, because there was no refrigeration and salt was a preservative. Today, salt is a luxury. We add a little to our food to enhance the flavors and yet, for many of us, when we enjoy a bite of challah at Kiddush, we don’t want it to be laced with salt.

Today, we watch our salt intake for good reason, in order to keep our heart healthy.

The Israelites in the wilderness may not have needed salt, because they were eating manna, which was made from a tiny seed that appeared on the ground every morning. On Fridays, a double portion of manna appeared on the ground and the Israelites would collect it and cook and prepare it for eating over two days – Friday and Saturday. As far as we know, manna was vegetarian, so the Israelites may not have needed salt to preserve it.

According to the Torah, when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, they were going to be farmers and ranchers and God told them to bring offerings to the sanctuary, and with every offering to bring salt.[2]

In this week’s Torah portion, God told Moses’ brother Aaron, בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִיא “This is an eternal covenant of salt.”[3] Starting with this week’s Torah portion, salt was not just a condiment, it was a substance that the Jewish people were required to have on hand to add to the offerings that they brought to the sanctuary that were to be offered as sacrifices.

Aaron was a priest and his sons and grandsons continued the priesthood until today when we continue to remember who is a Kohen from the priestly families of the Jewish people. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sages of the Talmud declared that our table on which we eat is a mizbe’ah me’at, a small altar, and the food we serve is the offering, the sacrifice, that we offer to God. The salt that we place on our bread is a commemoration that we are not less than Aaron the High Priest. Each of us is important to our collective Jewish future. The bread we eat and the salt baked into it or sprinkled on it, turns our table from an ordinary piece of furniture to a holy altar.

Something else is also going on in this week’s Torah portion, something gruesome, which is a punishment for rebellion. In this week’s Parsha, a man named Korach, from the Tribe of Levi, organized a rebellion against Moses. Korach and his followers confronted Moses and said, “rav lachem” “you have gone too far. All the people are Holy. Why are you, Moses, acting as though you are our leader?”
Tragically, God had had enough, and in a battle of wits, Moses went back and forth between standing up to Korach and the other rebels on the one hand, and standing up to God to help save the Israelites.

Today’s Torah portion took place after the Israelites had already spent a year at Mount Sinai. Now they were wandering in the wilderness, camping in one place and then moving to another place. In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites learned that they were going to have to wander in the wilderness for forty years until the generation that were adult slaves would die out.

There they were, wandering and contemplating a frightening future, not knowing what to think, not having anywhere to go, except to the next camp site and the next day of gathering manna for food. It was not just Korach and his followers who railed against Moses in this week’s Torah portion; it was the entire Jewish people.

Korach and his followers rebelled and demanded that all the people be treated equally. The rest of the Israelites did not make that demand, but they did express their fear that there was nothing to look forward to, nothing to be excited about. Their world was shrinking.

Egypt and slavery and a predictable, albeit difficult life, was now behind them. In front of them was camping in one place only to move to another place from time to time, knowing they would be camping for a total of forty years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated if we thought that was going to be our fate?

Many of us were raised on the notion that the Israelites did a lot of kvetching in the wilderness, but in fact, if we look at their predicament, I think we can see that there was a good reason for them to complain and question their collective future.

Today the tables are turned, literally. For the past 1900 years, rabbinic Judaism has been based on the notion of majority rule. As it says in the Talmud, God gave us the Torah at Sinai, but now we follow the majority.

In this week’s Torah portion, God caused the earth to open and swallow Korach and his people and all of their possessions. Then a fire broke out and the fire took the lives of another 250 rebels. Then God brought a plague that caused the death of another 14,700 Israelites. After all that death, the Israelites were frightened about their future. Today we may also be frightened about our future. We may be concerned about the direction of our society here in the United States or in Israel, and some of us may be concerned about the fate of humanity around the entire globe.

But for us as Jews, there is a difference, a turning of the tables, from the way of Judaism described in the Torah to the way of Judaism defined by our present-day life. In the Torah, every Israelite was required to bring offerings, and with every offering, they were expected to bring salt so the priests would have salt. Today, we are the priests of the Jewish future and our tables are the altars of our people.

In this week’s Torah portion, those who challenged Moses’ authority lost their lives. Today, we have a responsibility to stand up to injustice and unfairness. We do not have a Jewish mandate to stand up to our leaders with whom we disagree. But we do have a mandate to stand up to tyranny and injustice when we see it.

We may choose to say, “no, thank you” to a bit of salt for our bread, but we cannot afford the luxury of silence. Whether through donating or lending our name to a statement or other ways of reaching out to those who are suffering today, we must raise our voices and make a difference.

According to this week’s parsha, only the priests were allowed to officiate at the sacrifices in the sanctuary. But later this summer, in Parshat Va’Etchanan, Moses will tell us that the entire Jewish people are am kadosh and an am segulah — a holy people and a chosen people. (Deuteronomy 7:6)

How do we understand this in light of the punishment of Korach and his followers who were killed after declaring that all the Israelites are holy and not just Moses? How do we understand our own chosen-ness while remaining humble?

Rabbi Dov Linzer reminds us that holiness is a state of becoming and not a state in which we live.[4] In his Dvar Torah on this week’s parsha, Rabbi Linzer said that holiness is a state of becoming and an elusive destination, always to be reached for, yet never to be achieved. Rabbi Linzer said that it is our task to reject Korach’s assertion that we are all holy, and to instead, embrace the Torah’s mandate to become holy without ever saying, or even thinking, that we have arrived at that holiness.

When we immerse in the mikveh, the ritual waters, whether for conversion or for purity and healing, we literally say kasher, meaning kosher. We declare a newly mint convert as kosher and our own immersion in the mikveh as placing us in a state of being kosher. But we are not to declare ourselves to be holy.

Holiness is a goal toward which we rise, literally, on our toes as we emulate the angels during Shacharit and Musaf as we declare Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with God’s glory.  But as long as we live in this world, we may never acknowledge our own holiness, or our own chosen-ness, as being completely fulfilled.

Instead, we must strive toward our goals, inviting everyone to join us at our human table for bread and salt and other delicacies. We cannot rest when others are suffering. We cannot be complacent when injustice is carrying the day, and yet, as Rabbi Tarfon reminds us, and as I mentioned just last week, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin le’hibatayl mimenu. It is not incumbent upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Leviticus 2:13

[2] Leviticus 2:13

[3] Numbers 18:19

[4] “Being Holy or Becoming Holy,“ by Rabbi Dov Linzer, President, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. http://files.ctctcdn.com/49c02d16001/e453fd96-f8f3-482d-80aa-cc2ab0d140f7.pdf