Korah

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Our portion of the week begins with one of the darkest moments in our People's history. Korah, a nobleman, incites a revolt against Moses resulting in the tragic death of many. And yet, as in so many such times of pain the Jewish People regroups and continues on. No doubt that is why the end of our reading this Shabbat concerns itself with the reemphasizing of the authority of the Aaronic and Levitic priesthoods and their respective tasks.

A passage that seems to slip by us in this material regarding the Jewish priesthoods however has a far reaching consequence that, from a theological view, affects all Jews in every generation and, from a Jewish perspective, deepens our understanding of our relationship with G‑d.

G‑d states in speaking to Aaron the following, "And thou and thy sons shall keep your priesthood in everything that pertainith to the alter, and to that within the veil, and ye shall serve; I give you the priesthood as a service of gift..." Numbers XVIII, 7

What is G‑d trying to convey to Aaron? Surely Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, who throughout his entire life supported the work of his brother displaying unusual qualities of decency and piety deserved by his life's activity the lofty post of High Priest of Israel. Was it not Aaron who, when Moses could not bring the beginning plagues upon Egypt stepped in for his brother and carried out G‑d's Will? Was it not Aaron who served as a constant support for Moses in his most important task of confronting Pharaoh? Was it not Aaron of whom our Rabbis say that he exemplified "a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace," who made it his daily work to bring calm and harmony among the Jewish People? And finally, was it not Aaron who, when his two sons were put to death by G‑d, some say because of their over zealousness in serving the very G‑d who killed them, who mourned in silence never shirking his responsibilities to his brother his people and his G‑d? How then does the Torah state that his rise to the pinnacle of the Jewish Priesthood was a gift totally ignoring his noble qualities as a human being which surely warranted his being given this position?

This simple statement concerning Aaron's appointment to the priesthood not by merit but by a gift bestowed upon him by G‑d comes to teach us a fundamental point of Jewish religious belief and practice. Judaism does not present our relationship with G‑d as simply cause and effect. Do what G‑d wants and you will be given all the happiness, all the riches you require on earth. Rather Judaism attests to a mystical, unfathomable relationship between G‑d and His creation in which G‑d bestows goodness upon People according to His design.

When Moses was summoned by G‑d to go down to Egypt to confront Pharaoh he responded with a question. "Who shall I say sent me?" Moses was asking the question that each of us asks when things don't seem to go the way we believe they should, don't turn out in a way that justifies our commitment to goodness, religious belief and practice. Seeing the Jews enslaved for hundreds of years, this after one of their own, Joseph, had literally saved the Egyptian empire from starvation and in great measure through his brilliance made it the most powerful country in the then world, he wonders aloud as to how he can represent a G‑d who seemingly does not reward goodness and even at times, as bizarre as it may seem, in the human view, punishes that very goodness.

And what is G‑d's response? "I am what I am," meaning my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways. A profound and deeply troubling message, this denying of a corollary between one doing what is right and receiving reward as a consequence, and replacing it with an absolute Faith in the righteousness of G‑d as He decides who will receive a "Gift" not on any yardstick we can apprehend but on G‑d's yardstick which is beyond our ken, is the major element in the requirement to have faith in G‑d. For if everything we did resulted in simple cause and effect relationship, every time I did what is right G‑d provided me with another "lollypop" so to speak, what real value could be seen in the religious life. It would be a trite self-serving existence based on the assuredness that all good comes directly to us for our good actions.

No, the situation is not as bleak as all that. We know G‑d to be a loving and merciful G‑d always trying to care for His creation. Nevertheless each of us as an individual and as part of the Jewish People plays a role in the destiny of this creation. At times G‑d calls upon us in ways that do not seem just, ways that are hurtful and painful, and it is at these times of bewilderment that our Faith in the ultimate goodness of G‑d must come to the fore.

Rabbi Schneer Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavticher Rebbe and author of the Tanya begins his monumental work by stating that there are five types of people in this world. Firstly there is the righteous person whose life is filled with prosperity and goodness. Then comes the righteous person whose life us filled with pain and poverty. The intermediate or average man comes next whose life is, for lack of a better term "normal." And then we come to the wicked one whose life is marked by joy and prosperity. Bringing up the rear there is the wicked one whose life is filled with pain and poverty. We, each of us, have encountered people in these classical categories in our own lives. And like Moses we ask ourselves how we can fathom what G‑d is doing. The answer is Faith in a good G‑d whose perception of the world extends from the beginning of time to the end of time and belief in our calling as servants of G‑d ready to do His bidding even when all seems dark even when that commitment necessarily brings us pain.

This element of Jewish belief is not an easy one. It requires deep thought and Faith. Yet it is the pillar upon which we can find strength and support in the darkest moments of our lives energizing our hope for a new sunrise and a new day.

As daily we view the happenings in the world, the injustices wrought upon so many, the pain and death visited upon the innocent we may take some solace in knowing that there is a G‑d, a loving G‑d, who watches over His creation and slowly but surely moves it to His Divine purpose.