Archive for July, 2000

Matot/Masei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Matot/Masei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

OVERVIEW

Two parshiot are read together this week. In Matot, laws pertaining to vows and oaths start off the portion, which then has a long report on Israel’s terrible battle with the nation Midian and its aftermath. After the problems pertaining to the war are finished, two tribes, Ruven and Gad, ask to be apportioned some land on the east side of the Jordan River; this annoys Moshe, but he agrees as long as they stay part of the united army.

In the final parasha of the book of Numbers, Masei (ch. 33:1 till the end), Israel stands just outside the Land, ready to start the settlement. First, all their travels and detours are reviewed; then laws pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of the Land are given. The boundaries of the Land of Israel are described, with special cities of refuge for accidental manslayers are to be set up. Finally, the book of Numbers ends with a review of prohibitions against intermarriage and an affirmation of the claim of the daughters of Zelophechad. (See parshat Pinchas.)

IN FOCUS

“Then the LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, designate some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee.They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly.’ ” (Numbers 35:9-12)

PSHAT

The subject of chapter 35 is the ir miklat, or city of refuge, to which people accused of killing could flee; they could not be harmed by the family members of the victim once they had reached these cities. If they were found to be guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder, they were then punished accordingly; if it was some kind of accident or crime of heated emotion, the slayer was assured of protection as long as he stayed in the city of refuge. These cities were part of the system of cities set up for the Levites, who as a tribe did not receive any regular portion of the Land, because of their role as ritual assistants to the priests.

DRASH

Rabbi Meier Levi, a chaplain and psychologist, writes movingly about the tremendous, paralysing guilt that can torment someone who may have some responsibility in another’s death. The doctor who made a mistake, the careless driver, the person who didn’t take the warning signs of suicide or depression seriously enough, the family member who has to make a terrible decision to end life support- in such a situation, one can easily imagine feeling that one’s life is utterly destroyed, that one deserves to be rejected by both people and God. R. Levi then draws a parallel between the designation of a city of refuge with the building of God’s Sanctuary in the centre of the people:

    The most significant aspect of a City of Refuge was that it was, in every meaning of the word, a sanctuary. A sanctuary is, of course, a place of protection. But a sanctuary is also a temple to God- designed and built according to God’s instructions and cared for by priests.

    [Earlier], we discussed God’s instructions to Moshe to build a symbol of His presence among the Israelites: “And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) We learned that the sanctuary was not meant as a house for God. God had not said “And build for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in it” but “And build Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” Here, at the very end of the Book of Numbers, we are again reminded what a sanctuary is.

    A sanctuary- be it a temple of marble and gold or a City of Refuge to which criminals flee- is a powerful, concrete symbol of God’s constant presence among people. God dwells with people, whoever they are, whatever they have done. His covenant with them is unshakable: His love is unconditional. No matter who you are and what you have done, God does not abandon you. God recognizes that people make mistakes. He always gives us another chance. And this is what the hapless offender- ridden with guilt and remorse- was to learn in the City of Refuge. (From Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve our Everyday Lives, p. 198-199.)

One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community. They might have come to the city of refuge in a panic, feeling utterly lost, and found there others in the same situation, people who could truly understand their feelings. These were Levite cities; perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped these “refugees” understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions.

Notice that the accidental criminal didn’t get off “scot-free;” he had to stay in the city of refuge until the current High Priest died, which could have been many years. Actions do have consequences, and reconcilation is not automatic; it proceeds on its own schedule, which can’t be predicted.

What makes the lesson of the cities of refuge so powerful is that accidental manslaughter is an extreme case- if someone who killed is not rejected by God, but can in fact still find empathy, safety, and the possibility of reconnection to the wider community, how much more does that apply to the everyday mistakes we all make! Nothing puts us beyond the reach of the Divine; there is no rift that can’t be at least partially healed, at least in theory.

How do we nurture such healing? By finding people who have “been there,” or at least who can listen without judgement; by letting go of old wounds (remember that the “blood-avenger” was no longer excused for his anger after a certain amount of time); by finding a place where we can be accepted with all of our imperfections, and by remembering that God understands that everybody makes mistakes, sometimes even terrible ones. The lesson of the ir miklat is that the process of healing takes time, space, community, and spirituality; with these elements, we can build Sanctuaries wherever we are.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Pinchas 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

OVERVIEW

At the end of the previous parasha, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas killed two blasphemers in an act of (very problematic) religious zealotry. At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Pinchas and his descendants are apparently rewarded with a special priestly covenant. Israel then struggles with the Midianites. and another census is taken, in order to prepare for battle. The daughters of a man named Zelophechad complain about the sexism of the inheritance laws, so Moshe checks with the Holy One, Who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Joshua is appointed as Moshe’s successor, and all the special sacrifices of the holidays are listed.

IN FOCUS

“After the plague the LORD said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest : ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by families- all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel.’ So on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, Moses and Elazar the priest spoke with them and said, ‘Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the LORD commanded Moses and the Israelites who are coming out of Egypt.’ ” (Numbers 26:1-4)

PSHAT

It’s been about 38 years since the last census of the people; now that they are about to cross the Jordan river, they need to count and organize the various tribes and clans. Some commentators think this is to prepare for the battles of the settlement; others think the census is primarily for purposes of dividing and distributing the Land when they get there.

DRASH

As noted above, commentators aren’t sure exactly what this counting is for, although support for the idea that the census is for military purposes comes from the fact that it’s primarily the adult males who are counted- in other words, the very people who are eligible for conscription. This is the way the first official census was done, in the first chapter of Numbers; each man old enough to serve in the army was counted, along with heads of clans and tribes.

On the other hand, compare this passage to an earlier “counting” in Exodus:

    Then the LORD said to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. . . All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD. (Exodus 30:11-14)

In Exodus, the adult males are counted for “taxation” purposes; this could be support for the view that the Israelites were being counted and organized for the sake of equitable dividing up the Land for settlement. (Ibn Ezra holds this view, among others.)

Rashi picks up on a different part of our passage: instead of focussing on the “head of household” idea (still part of our census today, albeit in a more inclusive form), he pays attention to the phrase “after the plague.” In chapter 25, the Israelites start to worhip a deity called Baal-Peor, and are punished with a plague (among other things). Rashi says that God commanded this census the way a shepherd would count her sheep after they had been attacked by wolves.

Although Rashi’s midrash is somewhat problematic, given that it was apparently (from ch. 25) God who sent the plague in the first place, one could say that the community needed a chance to regroup and re-organize itself after suffering loss. Perhaps the survivors would have felt that the Israelites had suffered such losses that they could not survive as a whole; taking a census might have, in this view, given them confidence and consolation that they could carry on as a community. (We even have an English idiom, to “take stock” of a situation, meaning to assess things before proceeding.)

Another interesting aspect of our passage is that when Moshe and Elazar remind the people that this census is supposed to be done the same way that the earlier counting was done (either the counting in Exodus or in Numbers), they use a present tense verb:

    “Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the LORD commanded Moses and the Israelites who are coming out of Egypt. “

Notice it doesn’t say “who came out of Egpyt,” but “who are coming out of Egypt.” An academic Bible scholar would say this is basically an ancient typo; if we amend the text to put the verb in the past tense, the sentence makes perfect sense. Even Rashi says something similar: the present tense refers to the current population to be counted, it just means that they are to be counted in exactly the same way as the previous generation was.

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra says that those who “are coming” out of Egypt means that many of those who are being counted now were actually alive as young children at the time of the Exodus; they weren’t counted before, because they weren’t twenty yet, but they are still part of the generation who left Egypt.

Perhaps we can make another midrash from these various interpretations. It seems to me that at any point in the life of the Jewish people, individual Jews are in different stages of “leaving Egypt.” Egypt is often understood not only as a physical place but as a psychological stage as well: in “Egypt”, the “Narrow Place,” we feel overwhelmed, far from our sacred centre, far from God, unable to accomplish our proper spiritual tasks. In any given community, there are people who are on different stages of the journey: some who are ready to take their place, as Ibn Ezra would have it, and some who need strengthening and consolation, as Rashi understand the purpose of assessing the people.

Some people are ready to enter the Land (understood as “settled” self-confidence about their Jewishness), some people are just leaving Egypt- every Jewish community contains individuals all along the spectrum, and of course, the challenge is to figure out how to all travel together. Sometimes even as individuals, we go back and forth in our spiritual energy; sometimes it feels like we’ve just escaped Pharoah, and sometimes it feels like we’re ready to join with others and build a strong Jewish community. The taking of a census reminds us of the importance of periodically assessing where we are on the journey, so that we can be ready for the next step. Whether as individuals or as a community, we can only go forward if we know who and where we are.

Leave a Comment

Chukat 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

OVERVIEW

The overall theme of parshat Chukkat might be encounters with danger and death. First we have the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have become impure because of contact with a corpse; then there are more laws about this severe form of ritual impurity. Miriam dies; the people complain about deadly thirst, and Moshe is sentenced not to enter the Land because he did not follow God’s instructions in providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.

IN FOCUS

“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by way of Atarim, he fought with Israel and made some of them captives.” (Numbers 21:1)

PSHAT

When the Israelites were somewhere in the Negev desert (south of the main populated areas of the contemporary state of Israel), a Canaanite king heard that they were on the way, and decided to attack them. According to the Plaut commentary, this king engaged the Israelites south of his kingdom, in the middle of the desert. After this battle they headed East again, to continue their wandering.

DRASH

The book of Numbers is full of concise stories, only a few lines long: stories of the complaints of the Israelites, stories of their travels, even stories of their battles. The story in Numbers 21, above, doesn’t tell us much about this king of Arad, other than that he obviously didn’t want the Israelites passing through or near his territory.

That might indeed have been enough to spark a battle in ancient days, but many traditional Torah commentators see here more than just a skirmish over territory. They identify the unnamed king of Arad with the evil nation Amalek, which attacked Israel from behind as they left Egypt (see Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25.) One midrash imagines this as another instance of Amalek attacking at a moment of weakness:

    When Aharon died, and the cloud of [God’s] Presence departed on the first of the month of Av, the entire community saw that Moshe came down from the mountain, his clothes torn, crying out: “My woe is upon you! Aharon my brother, the pillar of the prayers of Israel!” They also cried for Aharon thirty days, both men and women of Israel. Amalek heard that the Israelites were encamped in the south of the land, and so they came and disguised themselves and ruled in Arad. Thus, when Aharon died and the cloud of the Presence, which would lead the people because of the merit of Aharon, departed, and when Israel came by way of Hatarim, which was a place that they rebelled against the Master of the Universe [by believing the spies]. . . .Amalek came and fought with Israel and took many captives.
    (from Yalkut Israel, a collection of midrashim from Talmudic times; translation mine.)

This interpretation is more or less followed by several of the classic commentators, including Rashi and Chizkuni. This midrash makes three connections: first, that the story of the king of Arad and the death of Aharon are side by side for a reason; second, that both Amalek and the king of Arad are described as dwelling in the Negev (see Numbers 13:29); and third, that Amalek has a particularly nasty streak, preferring to pick a fight when Israel is distracted and demoralized after Aharon’s death (compare Deut. 25).

The ancient rabbis had several sources in the Bible which described Amalek at the eternal enemy of Israel; it thus makes sense, from their perspective, that Amalek would be the one who attacks Israel for no apparent reason. Yet we can turn the midrash around: not only is Amalek known for taking advantage of Israel’s weak points, but by associating such behavior with the “super-villain” of the Torah, the rabbis are making an extremely strong moral statement. In other words, if Amalek are the kind of people who would attack Israel while they are in mourning for Aharon, then anybody who would take advantage of another in a moment of weakness is like Amalek- considered reprehensible by both humans and God, representing the worst side of human behavior.

Now, one doesn’t have to go as far as the rules of desert warfare to apply this principle to daily life. One could compare Amalek in this midrash to those who defraud gullible people, or use a tragedy to inappropriately sell their services, or even those leaders in society who stir up resentment and prejudice among different groups in order to consolidate power.

Maybe we even sometimes find the spirit of Amalek closer to home, in those moments of anger when we fire off a “cheap shot” at a loved one, using their fears or vulnerabilities against them. After all, in the midrash above, Israel was not only mourning Aharon, but doing so in a place that reminded them of their past mistakes; they were low both spiritually and emotionally.

To me, Amalek not an enemy “out there,” but representative of our most selfish and destructive urges. When we see opportunities for advantage rather than human beings in pain- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start regarding the people around us as competitors, rather than manifestations of the Divine Image- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start believing it’s a “dog eat dog” world- then we’re worse than animals, we’re back to Amalek again.

Our midrash this week is especially poignant for its comparison of Amalek to Aharon- the “pillar of the prayers of Israel,” described in the Talmud as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving other people and drawing them close to Torah.” (Pirke Avot 1:12) In this image, Aharon is a worthy role model because he not only did he love the people around him, but helped them grow spiritually (understood by the rabbis as growing in Torah). As the Talmud portrays him, Aharon reached out to those in need with a hand of giving, and as our midrash this week implies, losing such a compassionate person is a loss like the Divine Presence itself departing from the community.

Leave a Comment

Balak 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9)

OVERVIEW

This week’s parasha is almost all one long story, of Balak, the king of the nation Moav, and his hired prophet Bilaam (plus a rather unusual donkey.) Balak decides that Israel is a threat to his kingdom, so he hires Bilaam to curse them; Bilaam then discovers that the power of blessing and cursing comes is God’s alone. On his way to curse Israel, his donkey stops, for an angel blocks the way, but Bilaam can’t perceive what his animal does. Finally, Bilaam blesses Israel with a famous blessing. At the end of the parasha, the Israelites get in trouble by worshipping a foreign deity.

IN FOCUS

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from their buckets; their seed will have abundant water. . . . ” (Numbers 24:5-7)

PSHAT

Bilaam, the hired prophet, tries to curse Israel, but a blessing comes out of his mouth instead, for all blessings come from God, and nobody can bless or curse except if God wishes it. Standing on a mountain over the Israelite camp, Bilaam praises Israel before predicting that Israel will prevail over its enemies. The words of Bilaam’s blessing, beginning with Ma Tovu [How goodly. . .], are a beloved part of the synagogue liturgy.

DRASH

Even though Bilaam’s blessing of Israel was apparently God’s direct wish, some later commentators are still suspicious of Bilaam’s motives. A Chasidic commentator, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, goes so far as to compare Bilaam, the “non-Jewish” prophet, with the more famous prophets of the Bible, like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so on. “Our” prophets didn’t praise Israel very much- they were constantly reproving the people and challenging them to improve their behavior! So Yaakov Yosef asks:

    What is the difference between a true prophet and a false one? the true prophet can be identified in most cases by their scoldings. They point out the blemishes and defects and want to break the measure. The false prophet flatters the people with sweet talk and sees none of the low land. “Peace, peace, everything’s fine, and there’s no need for correction.” [Cf. Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11] 

    But true prophets, genuine lovers of the people, they scold. Bilaam, however, does not sing from any great love of Israel, even though he has many songs and praises for Israel. On the contrary, he intends to entice Israel so that they will not do anything, so that they will no longer yearn to ascend higher and higher up the ladder. [He wants them to think that] they are absolutely perfect; they are blessed with every good quality. And just this is the difference between him and the prophets of Israel.

This interpretation of Bilaam’s blessing is found in Sparks Beneath the Surface, a collection of Chasidic teachings on the weekly Torah portion with a commentary from the contemporary liberal rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Kerry Olitsky. They point out what the essence of prophecy is for Yaakov Yosef:

    . . . the key is in the nature of the message itself. Tough love. If a prophet merely bestows compliments on Israel, we can know that such a prophet is false for he does not encourage Israel to reach higher. To do so, a true prophet scolds. He wants the people to reach higher, to ascend the rungs of the ladder toward heaven.

Note, please, that this discussion of prophecy does not have anything to do with predicting the future, as the contemporary slang use of the word would have it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, prophecy is not about predicting the future, it’s about speaking the word of God, no matter what the consequences. From this perspective, we understand the mission of the prophets is helping the people reach their true potential; someone like Bilaam, the “false prophet,” encourages the people to be self-satisfied and complacent.

Now, one could legitimately object that perhaps scolding and rebuking isn’t the best way to get someone to strive harder for improvement. One could also point out that it’s not always so obvious what other people need to do for their personal growth and self-improvement; in fact, part of anybody’s maturation process is learning to become less judgmental and presumptuous in relationships!

However, for the purposes of understanding the nature of Bilaam’s “blessing,” let’s merely propose that someone who offers only blessings, with no challenge to “ascend the rungs” ever higher, is not necessarily acting in the most loving way. The contemporary psychologist M. Scott Peck, in his famous work on the psychology of spiritual growth called The Road Less Traveled, explicitly connected the very definition of love with the idea of being attentive to the growth of others:

    I have defined love as the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth. Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. . . . True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision. (The Road Less Traveled, p. 119.)

Extending oneself for the purpose of nurturing the spiritual growth of others is about as concise a characterization of the Hebrew prophets as I can imagine. Loving others in this manner isn’t always comfortable or easy, but this was the difference between the saccharine words of Bilaam* and the constant pleadings of Moshe, urging the people to become the faithful partners with God he knew they could be.

*in this interpretation-there are others who see Bilaam’s words as true reflections of God’s blessing.

Leave a Comment

Korach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

OVERVIEW

The Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart in this parasha, as a man named Korach leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. Korach has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.

IN FOCUS

“Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near to God to do the work at the LORD’s Sanctuary and to stand before the community and minister to them? God has brought you and all your fellow Levites near to God, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too!” (Numbers 16:8-10)

PSHAT

Korach and his followers challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority to lead the people by claiming that the entire Israelite community was equally holy. Korach’s claim seems to be that nobody is on a higher spiritual level than anybody else, so why should Moshe and Aharon be in charge? Moshe responds by inviting Korach to a public test, to see whom God has chosen, and also by rebuking Korach for not being satisfied with the ritual role the Levites have already been given as ritual assistants in the Mishkan.

DRASH

One of the great questions of Torah study is the motivation behind Korach’s rebellion. How is it that a Levite, a member of the “inner circle” of Israelite religion, and obviously an articulate and intelligent man, could or would not see that Moshe had Divine support for his leadership? One merely has to think of the plagues in Egypt, or the miracles of the manna or the water, or the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, or the fact that only Moshe went up on Mount Sinai. . . .clearly, the Torah wants to communicate that Moshe has a unique role and a special relationship with God. Why did Korach challenge Moshe? What did he think he could gain?

There are various explanations of Korach’s behavior: he wanted wealth, or power, or perhaps he felt that Moshe was making up the commandments himself. A more psychological explanation is offered by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (d. 1747- also known as the Ramchal), the author of many important philosophical, mystical, and theological works. His most famous work, the Mesillat Yesharim [Path of the Upright], is an extended treatise on the improvement of human character traits. One character trait found in almost all people is the desire for honor and acclaim; the Ramchal believes that this was what motivated Korach to challenge Moshe:

    What caused the destruction of Korach and his whole company if not the lust for honor, as we may infer from the fact that Moshe said to them, “And you want the priesthood as well? ” (Numbers 16:10) And our Sages tell us that Korach rebelled because Elizaphan, the son of Uziel, had been made prince, an appointment which he had coveted for himself.* (Mesillat Yesharim 11; translation by Mordecai Kaplan, slightly modified)

For Luzzato, the desire for honor is a form of greed, an insatiable, non-rational desire for recognition and popularity:

    Even worse than [the lust for money] is the desire for honor. A person may control his craving for wealth and for pleasure, but the craving for honor is irresistible because it is almost impossible to endure seeing oneself in an inferior position to another. This is why so many people stumble and perish. (ibid.)

Note the Ramchal’s insight that the desire for honor is relative, not absolute: what really gets under the skin is seeing someone else “above” you, not a lack of status per se. After giving a whole list of people besides Korach who got themselves into trouble because of this desire for honor, Luzzato explains that this inability to tolerate life’s inevitable inequalities is what makes so many people dissatisfied and unhappy, driven to constantly change their standing among others in outward, material ways.

Now, I don’t think the Ramchal is condoning major structural inequalities in society, or advocating that one should blindly submit to unfair or arbitrary authorities. I think he’s talking about a sense of personal insecurity, or doubting of one’s self worth, based on outward criteria like titles, possessions, or status. This is made worse in contemporary North American society, when the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” are held up as an impossible standard by which everybody else is measured.

Returning to our midrash, we note that Moshe tries to point out to Korach that he already has a wonderful role in the life of the nation- he is a Levite, dedicated to the service of God in the Sanctuary. Yet his ego and insecurity wouldn’t let him be satisfied; rather than be thankful for the opportunity to serve God in his own way, he ended up losing everything in his attempt to “make it to the top.” The lesson here is not that we shouldn’t try to improve ourselves, but that gratitude and a recognition of our gifts can reduce the importance we place on outward status.

Perhaps the story of Korach helps us to understand a saying of R. Elazar HaKappar in Pirke Avot (4:28): “Envy, irrational cravings, and honor take a person out of the world.” Sometimes we can be so obsessed with our relative status that we are unable to live our lives as they really are, always thinking about the next “step up” rather than finding joy in the present moment- this is being “taken out of the world” in a psychological sense. As Moshe implored Korach in the verses above, the challenge is to fully realize just how God has already brought us all “near to God” for the contribution of our unique gifts in the making of a better world.

*The midrash that Luzzato quotes is found in Numbers Rabbah 18.2.

Leave a Comment