News from Rabbinate

Dear members and friends.

Dear friends and members of Migwan, we read in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Korach, about a man of prominence from the tribe of Levi, Korach, who sought to challenge Moshe and his leadership, advocating for equality and the abolition of all hierarchies. Korach and his followers "assembled against Moshe and against Aharon and said to them: 'Too much is yours! For the entire community, all of them, are holy, and in their midst is YHWH! Why then do you exalt yourselves over the assembly of YHWH?'" (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3).

When I was younger, I found Korach's statement compelling. It seemed to question the notion of inherent superiority and called for the cessation of exploitation and the just distribution of resources. However, as I matured, I recognized that Korach, like many populist leaders throughout history and even today, employed manipulative and dangerous rhetoric, exploiting the idea of ultimate freedom to orchestrate a coup and ultimately become an oppressive leader himself.

This is the classic populist appeal: the claim that everyone is equally qualified to lead and that leadership does not require foresight, an understanding of the past or knowledge of international relations. The complex work of a leader is reduced to mere arrogance.

The populist appears to empower the weak by advocating for radical equality, but in reality, he or she often tramples them, appealing to the lowest common denominator as if it were the ideal.

I do not believe, like Korach, that every member of the Jewish community is automatically made “Kadosh,” holy, simply by virtue of belonging to the Jewish faith or by their lineage. Holiness is an aspiration, a pursuit that never reaches full satisfaction. We strive to find holiness, to create it, and to preserve its elusive presence in our lives.

Moshe, in contrast to Korach, was not a leader of slogans. This is perhaps why he is described as having a heavy mouth or tongue—'heavy' often meaning 'slow' in the Bible. His speech was not glib or persuasive; he did not rely on smooth talking. He sought to lead the people by an ideal that was complex, difficult to implement, and even challenging to imagine.

God was called upon to judge between the parties—Moshe on one side and Korach and his followers on the other. Korach's punishment is fascinating: "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, all the human beings who belonged to Korach and all their property. So they went down, they and all theirs, alive, to Sheol; the earth covered them, and they vanished from the midst of the assembly. Now all Israel that were around them fled at the sound of their voice, for they said: Lest the earth swallow us up!" (Bamidbar 16:32-34). Korach did not die; he remained alive but was swallowed by the earth. Korach and his wealth disappeared.

In my view, Korach's punishment can also be understood metaphorically. It is not miraculous but profoundly human. He, who promised everyone holiness without teaching its meaning, without recognizing its rarity and the difficulty of achieving it, used the divine as a political tool. Consequently, instead of a piece of heaven, he received a life dominated by earthly concerns. If the earth, in the pair of heaven and earth, symbolizes everything non-divine, then Korach's punishment was a life devoid of inspiration, holiness, and spiritual transcendence. He descended into ‘Sheol,’ the Hebrew term for hell, derived from the word for “temporary,” replacing the pursuit of the eternal with the rule of the ephemeral.

We all know perhaps one or two 'Korachs'—individuals who view holiness as ridiculous or foolish, or who see it as a tool in the political game or a means of gaining status. These individuals, due to their perception, completely lose any sense of holiness in their lives and become consumed by the worldly race for status, property, or ego.

We seek to distance ourselves from this false promise, whether from religious or political leaders. We are cautious of selling holiness to anyone, wary of the belief that holiness comes to us without effort, intention, learning, action, and the constant struggle to maintain it. If we consider everything to be holy, we risk losing the true essence of sanctity altogether.

I feel this Parashah, this Torah portion, can serve as a guiding goal for the path we are beginning together. I am very excited and happy to join you all on this journey. I hope together we will uncover, create, and recognize the many ways to bring holiness into our lives; learning how to invite it and preserve it. I wish you all a beautiful, energizing month, filled with the holiness of this world, this life, and all of God's creations. I look forward to seeing you in Basel in August.

Warm regards, Avigail

Scroll to Top