"All the Community is Holy" vs. "You Shall be Holy to God"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"All the Community is Holy" vs. "You Shall be Holy to God"

Adapted by Dov Karoll


The commandment of tzitzit, which appears at the end of Parashat Shelach (15:35-41), is connected in several ways with the parasha of Korach. Rashi (16:1, s.v. ve-Datan), citing the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 18:3), brings one of these. Korach and his two hundred fifty men approached Moshe dressed in tallitot, cloaks, made completely of tekhelet, the blue thread required to be attached to four-cornered garments as tzitzit. They asked Moshe if these garments require the blue tekhelet thread attached to their corners. Moshe responded that they do require tekhelet, and the men began to scoff at Moshe. They reasoned that if one string of tekhelet suffices for an entire garment, then a garment made entirely of tekhelet should certainly not require an additional thread.

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1, section 9) explains that Korach and his men assumed that Moshe would say that such a tallit does not require tekhelet. They would then use this response to make a different assertion. Just as a tallit that is entirely tekhelet does not require a thread of tekhelet, they would claim, so too "All of the community are holy" (16:3), and a community that is entirely holy does not require a kohen gadol, a high priest.

Korach was sure that he understood the underlying principle behind the mitzva, and he further assumed that the mitzva is binding only in cases where the application of that principle is relevant. He then followed through on this principle, arriving at the corresponding halakhic conclusions. He did not understand that this is not how the Torah works.

The Rambam (Guide 3:26), in his discussion of whether reasons or explanations can be given for mitzvot, cites a Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 44:1):

Rav said: The mitzvot were given only in order that man might be refined by them. For what does God care whether a man kills an animal by the throat or by the nape of its neck? Hence, its purpose is to refine man.

The Rambam explains that while there are rational explanations that can be offered for the general principles of mitzvot, taken broadly, the specifics of mitzvot are not subject to rationalization. If so, what is the purpose of these details? "To refine man" - a Jew needs to observe the details of mitzvot simply because God has told him to do so, not because he understands the mitzvot.

Korach did not appreciate the importance of being commanded, subservient, of following the word of God simply because it is the word of God, even though one does not understand the reason for it. If one relates to the Torah by recognizing that he is commanded, he fulfills mitzvot out of a commitment to follow the will of God, not out of a personal and subjective decision about the value of the act.

There is a second connection between the parasha of tzitzit and Korach. After detailing the laws of tzitzit, the verses continue:

You shall not stray after your heart and your eyes, after which you go astray in your lustful urge, so that you may remember and perform ALL My commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.

First of all, there is an issue of "not straying" - you must not blindly follow your heart or your eyes. Secondly, note what is necessary to attain "And you shall be holy to your God." You need to fulfill "ALL My commandments," all of the mitzvot. That is quite a task, and requires a great deal of work. While God does refer to the Jewish people as becoming a "holy nation" with the receiving of the Torah (Shemot 19:6), this status does not come automatically. It requires tremendous effort, and, as the Ramban explains (Vayikra 19:2 s.v. kedoshim), holiness requires going beyond the letter of the law in observance of Halakha, so as to not be "a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah."

Korach comes out very clearly against this: "All of the community are holy." We have already attained the status of "holy;" we do not need to work hard on this; it comes to us automatically from God. He thinks that the great challenges that constitute true service of God are as easy as reciting a slogan, and this is his mistake. He thinks one can summarize his service of God in a slogan, that it can be encapsulated in a bumper sticker. The lesson we are to learn in rejecting Korach is that proper worship of God requires tremendous effort, and cannot be captured in simplistic catchphrases.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Korach, 5762 (2002).]



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