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How to Live Like Ash and Water
It is the most difficult law in the Torah to understand. It defies logic, and it inherently contradicts itself. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, could comprehend every commandment except this one. It is the law of the red heifer.
Yet, all you need to know for your spiritual life lies in this one law.
A Tale of Two Wives
Sue is an idealistic individual who was searching for a path to a meaningful life. Her search led her to many different communities all over the world, where she witnessed many and varying lifestyles, religions, mores and cultures.
She concluded that the lifestyles she had seen could be divided into two basic, contrasting paradigms.
On the one hand, there were holy individuals who lived secluded lives entirely devoid of any worldly gratification. On the other hand, there were the pleasure-seeking, materialistic individuals whose sole pursuit was chasing one luxury after another.
Sue wondered if perhaps there was a third paradigm -- one that successfully combined the physical with the material, the holy with the mundane . . .
This week’s Torah reading relates the story and downfall of Korach and his followers in their rebellion against Moses. The Parshah concludes with the gifts to the priesthood.
Korach the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuben.
They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and G‑d is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above G‑d’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:1–3)
The basis of Korach’s complaint was that the entire nation is holy, and therefore there was no need for Moses to serve as leader and Aaron as the high priest.
The Parshah of Korach follows last week’s episode of the spies. The spies’ mistake was their belief that to attain holiness one must remove oneself from the material sphere and focus exclusively on the spiritual. This is why they did not want to enter the Land of Israel: because doing so would mean meant living a natural existence, consumed by material needs. They viewed material reality as profane, and saw only the realm of the spirit as a path to G‑dliness.
The spies erred in not understanding that even, and especially, within the physical sphere we must find the holy. G‑d wants us to use physical reality and elevate it, rather than withdraw from it. The women of that generation did not sin in the error of the spies, because they were intuitively attuned to this role of using physical reality as a means to creating more holiness in our world.
Korach and his followers took the lesson of the spies to the opposite extreme. Korach contested that there was anything mundane about the mundane. His complaint was “we are all holy” -- all of us, through our regular day-to-day activities are in the service of G‑d. Why is there a need for the hierarchy of priests, and a high priest, when in effect every Jew is a priest and a high priest? Why is the daily hour or two that a Jew devotes to Torah study or prayer any loftier, holier or closer to G‑d than the rest of his day?
Korach was correct in arguing that everyone is holy, and that physical reality has the potential of being elevated for G‑dly purposes. Man’s sanctification of material life is the ultimate objective of creation, since “G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms.”
Korach erred, however, in not realizing that while holiness exists in potential, it must constantly be directed and elevated for it to be holy in practice. Inherently, there is goodness in all people and in all parts of creation; but only when we live a material life in the service of a higher, spiritual goal have we actualized this goodness.
Woman’s role in our world is to work primarily with the physical reality as part of her divine service. To succeed, she must understand that only when we follow a “hierarchy” -- of the material sphere being subservient to the spiritual -- have we ascertained that our goals are true, and are we able to actualize the lofty potential of the material. Only by dedicating the best of our material resources and energies to spirituality do we show that this is what is significant to us -- and that we aren’t merely using the physical reality for the sake of our own personal gratifications or indulgences.
Without these priorities and hierarchy clearly in place, it is easy to err in assuming that one is using physical reality for a G‑dly purpose, when in truth one is using it to advance one’s own self-centered, narcissistic goals and ambitions.
It is no surprise, then, that two women played a prominent role in Korach’s revolt. Their different approaches in dealing with the material reality, however, led to two opposite outcomes -- one brought utter destruction on her household, while the other became a literal savior for her family.
The Midrash relates that Korach often conversed with his wife about his envy of Moses’ and Aaron’s positions.
One day when he returned home from studying, his wife inquired, “Which law did Moses teach you today?”
Korach replied, “He taught us the laws of tzitzit, wearing knotted strings, of which one is techeilet.”
Korach’s wife questioned, “What is techeilet?”
Korach responded, “Moses said, ‘Attach strings to your garments, of which one must be of blue wool, dyed with the blood of the creature chilazon.’”
To this Korach’s wife retorted, “Why should you have only one techeilet string attached to your garment? I can make you a garment that is completely techeilet.”
The tzitzit strings are supposed to contain one blue (techeilet) thread, to resemble the sky and thus remind us constantly to direct all of our endeavors to the One above us.
Korach’s wife was instigating him by asking: If a garment is entirely blue, would it still need tzitzit with techeilet? She was implying that the entire congregation is all holy, and physical reality is all holy -- it is all techeilet; so why would this individual string of techeilet -- the positions of Moses and Aaron, and the hierarchy of the spiritual above the material they represent -- be necessary?
Korach’s wife was arguing if everything and everyone is implicitly holy, and everyone and everything can be used for G‑dly pursuits, then there was no need for the one “holy” representative string.
She failed to see that the end result of a life not held in check by the constant reminder of directing our wants and needs for a G‑dly purpose is a life in which the material wants and needs become the ultimate goal. Eventually, the personal goals and ambitions get out of hand and lead to personal ruin -- and, like Korach’s unchecked ambitions, spell his destruction.
Korach assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the L‑rd appeared before the entire congregation.
The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korach, and all the property.
They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly. (Numbers 16:19, 32–33)
The Midrash relates that another follower of Korach, On ben Pelet, was also guided by his wife -- but to a very different conclusion.
On, a neighbor of Korach’s family, was drawn into the rebellion. When he returned home and related to his wife that he was taking part in the revolt, she argued, “What do you gain by it? Your position will be the same, whether Aaron or Korach is the high priest.”
On conceded to the logic of her words, but explained that he couldn’t disengage from Korach, since he had sworn to join their rebellion the following morning. To save her husband, On’s wife mixed a strong drink to put him to sleep, and then she uncovered her hair and sat at the entrance of the tent. When Korach sent messengers to summon On, they turned back at the immodest sight of On’s wife.
When death struck Korach and his followers, On’s bed began to move. On’s wife gripped it and prayed to G‑d for her husband’s forgiveness.
After On was spared, his wife urged him, “Now go apologize to Moses!”
When On refused due to his embarrassment, his wife approached Moses, weeping and begging for his forgiveness. Moses then personally went to On’s tent and encouraged him, saying, “Come out! May the Almighty forgive you!”
For the remainder of his life, On mourned and repented for his sin, thankful for the miracle of being spared, due to his wife’s wisdom.
On’s wife convinced her husband not to join Korach by explaining to him that he was not a high priest and would never become one. She understood that despite our best intentions in using physical reality for a higher service, we need the hierarchy of the high priest in order to remind us of our priorities. Only when we understand that the best of one’s material existence must be offered to G‑d are we able to properly use and elevate our material blessings.
This is the connection of Korach’s rebellion to the gifts of priesthood recorded at the end of the our Parshah.
G‑d said to Aaron: Behold I have given you the charge of My gift offerings . . .
The choicest of the oil and the choicest of the wine and grain, the first of which they give to G‑d, to you I have given them.
The first fruit of all that grows in their land, which they shall bring to G‑d, shall be yours . . .
Any devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.
Every first issue of the womb of any creature, which they present to G‑d, whether of man or beast, shall be yours. (Numbers 18:8–15)
The gifts given to the priests remind us to constantly be aware of our priorities. Only by putting forth the “choicest of the oil, wine and grain” and the “first fruit and firstborn creatures” -- the first and best of our time, energy and resources, the things most precious to us -- for holy pursuits, can we ensure that our motives are not self-serving, like Korach’s, in advancing personal ambitions. Only by using the best of our material blessings as “gift offerings” to G‑d have we ensured that we are aligned with G‑d’s will of making our physical world a home for G‑d.
The Parshah tells us how Moses selected twelve emissaries and sent them on a mission to ascertain the strength and weaknesses of the Canaanites, preparatory to fulfilling G‑d’s command to conquer Canaan. Caleb and Joshua were true to their mission, but the other ten brought back distorted reports in an attempt to discourage the Jews from proceeding to the Holy Land. They raised three basic objections to the attempt to conquer the land.
The first was a general objection: the overwhelming strength of the Canaanites. Though G‑d had shown them miracles in the past, would divine aid be powerful enough to overcome these mighty nations?