The long road to the goal

We must remember that we have not yet reached our destination.

THE PUNISHMENT of Korah, a detail from the fresco ‘Punishment of the Rebels’ by Sandro Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE PUNISHMENT of Korah, a detail from the fresco ‘Punishment of the Rebels’ by Sandro Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the rebellion led by Korah, one of the respected members of the tribe of Levi, against Moses and Aaron. This rebellion, led under the guise of ideology, was quickly revealed to be motivated by the desire for power and rule. It ended when a miracle occurred in front of the entire nation: The earth opened up and swallowed the leaders of the rebellion.
People did not bring about this horrific end; God did. For the rebellion was not against one man or another but was actually against God’s determination regarding the nation’s leadership on its way to the Land of Israel. The appointment of Moses as leader was not made by man, and certainly not by Moses himself. The same goes for the appointment of Aaron to the priesthood. The leaders of the rebellion were fully aware of this. Their intent was to break free of Moses’s leadership while breaking free of God’s purpose – having them enter the Land of Israel, where they were to establish a Jewish state built on values of morality and Torah.
How do we know this? Korah, a veteran politician, used ideological terminology. But two other Jews stood alongside him in leading the rebellion – namely, Dathan and Abiram. They did not try to hide their agenda and spoke to Moses shamelessly: “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey.... Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards....” (Numbers 16:13-14).
Notice the use made by Dathan and Abiram of the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” – the term God uses to describe the Promised Land of Israel. But Dathan and Abiram used it to describe Egypt! Yes, the land where the Children of Israel were degraded slaves and from which God liberated them, now became, in the words of the rebels, the land for which they yearned.
Thus, Dathan and Abiram revealed their motivation openly. Though Korah, who was shrewd, used fundamental claims to get the rebellion going, his goal was the same.
But Korah erred even in his basic claim. When he and his supporters approached Moses and Aaron, they claimed the following, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy.... So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (ibid. 16:3). These words sound positive, but they contain a basic error. At the end of the previous portion, which we read last Shabbat, similar words were written but were said by God. To understand Korah’s mistake, we must discern the differences between the two statements.
God’s words were: “so that you shall remember and perform all My commandments, and you shall be holy to your God” (ibid. 15:40).
The difference between “are all holy” and “you shall be holy” is conveyed by the question “Have we reached our goal?” Korah claimed that the Jewish nation had already reached the goal it was expected to attain, and thus “the entire congregation are all holy,” but God revealed to us that we are still on the way to the goal and therefore must make the effort to become holy.
The difference between someone who in his consciousness is on the way to the goal and someone who thinks he has already attained the goal is very significant. The consciousness of the road carries an obligation that motivates the person to make every effort to reach the goal; the consciousness of having attained one’s goal causes a person to rest on his laurels and allow himself to degenerate morally.
Moses teaches us that on Mount Sinai, we didn’t get an automatic “promotion” but a mission to be accomplished, a destination to strive for. But Korah tries to convince us that the destination has already been reached and that we have time to deal in politics.
The Jewish nation has been walking a long road for thousands of years. The road has been tortuous and intricate, but our forefathers walked it with devotion and left us a heritage and a command to continue on it. A famous slogan says, “The eternal nation does not fear a long road.” Indeed, we must be proud of the many generations who walked this road courageously.
At the same time, we must remember that we have not yet reached our destination. The command “and you shall be holy” still echoes and obligates us to strive to accomplish the mission that every Jew shares – to continue courageously walking the road our forefathers walked, with the hope that the goal of being a holy nation can be achieved.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.