Parashat Korach • Numbers 16:1-18:32

High Noon and Holiness

Inspired by my father’s penchant for citing parallels between narrative themes in Judaism and film, this week’s parashaKorach, brings to mind the climatic conclusion to the iconic Western High Noon. But instead of a dusty Western’s Main Street in which good triumphs over evil, the Torah story occurs before all of Israel. Korach, a leader amongst the Levites, challenges Moses’ authority with a familiar plea to modern ears. Korach asserts that if all Israel is, indeed, holy, why should only Moses lead? The Orthodox sage Rav Soloveitchik sees in this argument echoes of the contemporary emphasis on egalitarianism and democracy, both of which were foreign to most of humanity until the last few centuries. The Rav continues by delineating types of holiness. There is a common holiness which all of Israel possesses. But there is also a singular holiness that only Moses maintains emerging from his special skills, virtues and commitments. Even for contemporary, Reform Jews and Americans ardent in their autonomy, this is a critical insight. We want leaders to whom we can relate, but who transcend our capacities, discipline and self-sacrifice in bearing the burden of leadership. I may want a president with whom I can have a beer—for 20 minutes! Afterward, I want him or her to ramp up their expertise to deal with issues and challenges that far surpass my abilities to respond. Korach’s error is an object lesson in the hollowness of ambition as basis for leadership, and Judaism’s distinct insistence on a counter-intuitive, but nonetheless morally and intellectually superior leadership.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner