Sign In Forgot Password

Shelach Lecha 5782        June 25, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     We like to think that the entire Jewish world is always on the same page in the Torah. We can look on a calendar and know what the parsha will be anywhere in the world. That is usually true, but not always. There are times when, due to a glitch in the Jewish calendar, Israel can move one parsha ahead of the rest of the world. It does not happen frequently, but it does happen often, and one of those times is now. Ever since the end of Pesach, Israel has been one parsha ahead of us. It will not be until Tisha B’Av that we catch up. There have already been many opportunities for us to catch up; there have been several double parshiyot that could have been used for this purpose, but it seems that having Israel and the Diaspora on the same parsha at the same time, is not deemed important. In the days when travel was difficult, most Jews never knew when Israel got ahead and when we caught up.

     The problem this year started when the seventh day of Pesach fell on a Friday. Outside of Israel we had an eighth day of Pesach and read the Torah reading that was special for that day. Israel only has seven days of Pesach, so they reverted to the regular parsha of the week. The Talmud calls on all Jews to read Parshat Ve’etchanan right after Tisha B’Av which means we need to read Parshat Devarim the Shabbat before the fast day. Since the week before Devarim is the double parsha Matot-Maasey, we in the diaspora will read a double portion that day while in Israel they will read them separated so we will both get to Tisha b’Av reading the same parsha. There are several parshiyot that must be read at certain times of the year. Traditionally we always make the correction just before the required Shabbat. Apparently catching up is not a priority, only being in the right place at the right time.

     All this means that while we are reading Shelach Lecha, in Israel, they will read, today, parshat Korach. I mention this because these two parshiyot, while not ever doubled, do have a connection between them. It is to this connection that I want to call to our attention.

     Our parsha ends with a famous passage. Our text at the end of Shelach Lecha is about tzitzit, the fringes that can be found on the corners of our tallitot. We know this passage very well; we read it twice a day as the third paragraph of the Shema. We are commanded to wear the tzitzit so we can remember the commandments that God has given us. We see the fringes and think of the Mitzvot. How does that work? Well, the word tzitzit, in Hebrew is spelled with two tzaddis, a tav and two yods. The numerical value of a tzaddi is 90, a tav is 400 and a yod is 10. 400+90+90+10+10=600. You then add the eight strings in the fringe and the five knots, and you get 613, the number of commandments. So, you can look at the fringe and see all the mitzvot in one place. Since you must “see” the fringes, you do not wear the tallit at night when it is dark, and you cannot see them.

     The fact that this section is right before the great rebellion on Korah is not lost on the rabbis of the Talmud. Korach and his associates are responsible for an attempted coup against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. According to the Midrash, Korah tried to make Moses look foolish. He asked Moses if a garment that was made of entirely blue thread required a fringe with a blue thread in it. Moses ruled that it did indeed require a blue thread. Korah then announced that an entire blue garment did not fulfill the requirement but just one thread fulfilled the commandment. The whole law of tziztit was therefore foolish.

     Rabbi David Frankel from the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, in his comments on this parsha, noted something that I think is not about foolishness, but about the very essence of the difference between the leadership of Moses and the leadership of Korach. Moses teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, and our passage declares that wearing tzitzit and remembering and obeying the mitzvot will lead us to a holy life. Korach notices this theme and announces that since the entire people are holy, why do Moses and Aaron place themselves above the rest of the Israelites as rulers and priests. It is a serious accusation. Are some of the Israelites to be considered holier than others?

     We see this kind of accusation often in religious circles. There are often some people who think that they are holier than others because of their special activities. It is not enough to keep kosher; you have to keep Glatt Kosher. It is not enough to pray, but you have to spend more time praying than anyone else. It is not enough to rest on Shabbat; real Jews study on Shabbat to make the day even holier. Some Jews go so far as to claim that our ancestors in Eastern Europe were the most pious Jews we can imagine so to this day, some Jews proclaim their holiness by dressing as if they lived in Poland two hundred years ago.

     I apply, what I call, the “gunfighter” rule to such people. When one was a gunfighter in the old west, there was only one rule that you could safely make. No matter how fast on the draw a gunfighter could be, eventually, he would meet someone who would be faster. Usually this would be the last person he would meet. In a comparable way, no matter how faithful we might be to the mitzvot, we will eventually find someone who is more meticulous about the mitzvot than we are. There will always be someone who is “more Kosher’ who is “a better Jew” then we are, proved by how stringent they are with the mitzvot. But being more stringent with the mitzvot is not a sign of greater holiness. While some people are careful in how they perform mitzvot and how many mitzvot they perform, this misses the point of what makes us holy. It is not how many mitzvot we do, it is what the mitzvot do to us. There will always be people who do MORE than we do, but that is not an indication of being better.

     Rabbi Frankel notes that this difference in our understanding of “holiness” is the essence of the rebellion of Korah. Rabbi Frankel writes, “I would suggest that there is a fundamental difference between the two conceptions of holiness. The holiness that our parasha (Shelach Lecha) teaches us is holiness as a goal, holiness as a destination which is always beyond reach. It is our job to strive for holiness but never to think that we have achieved it. True holiness is only held by God and it is our attempt to emulate God which is encapsulated in the Jewish way, the striving for holiness. The mistake of Korach in next week’s parasha is the assumption that the Jewish people have attained that, that we are there, that we are by nature a holy people. That is a dangerous concept in which we can feel privileged and somehow spiritually superior and therefore entitled to something which is not the entitlement of other people. The combination of this week’s parasha and next week’s parasha teaches us an essential and important lesson; we must always strive for holiness and we must never feel that it is in our pocket. We must always judge ourselves with harshness and with expectance for greater levels of spiritual attainment that are always beyond our final reach.”

     Tzitzit do not make us holy; they are a reminder to be holy. When we wear a tallit with tzitzit, we look on those fringes and think about what we can do to make our lives more spiritual. Holiness is aspirational. It is what we seek in life. It is not something that we attain and then show everyone else how holy we are. In the end, Korah is wrong. We are not all a holy people; we are a people who strive in our actions to bring ourselves closer to God. We are not like gunfighters, trying to outperform others. Our concern is for our own lives, our own actions, our own souls.

     We human beings are created in a material world. We live in a world where things are important, where time is important, where status is important. The point of the mitzvot is to infuse all the things that we do with more than a dose of practicality, functionality, or profit. Our actions can also lead us to bring about a better world, a more peaceful world, a world where everyone has an opportunity to draw closer to God.

     A man once told his Rabbi that he had been all the way through the Talmud three times. The Rabbi responded asking, “But how much of the Talmud has been through you?” Doing mitzvot does not give us license to be vain, to be cruel or to brag. What mitzvot do for us is to help us see who we are deep inside and to help bring us to a place where we can become more. As the Hasidic master, Nachman of Bratzlav taught, “If we are not better tomorrow than we are today, why have a tomorrow?” When we remember the mitzvot, we remember to strive for a better tomorrow.

     The end of our parsha this week, the final paragraph of the Shema that we recite twice a day, reminds us to keep our focus on our quest for holiness. We may not ever become a holy person; we will always have Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to address the moments where we do not live up to our potential. We still need to direct our eyes to our tzitzit, to the fringes on our tallit to remember what we should do, what we can do, what God expects us to do. We remain a work in progress and our fringes remind us to keep progressing.

     Korach was wrong; we Jews are not a holy people. We do not have any insight or abilities that other people do not have. We are not better or worse than any other person in this world. But as a religious community, we have a purpose. We perform mitzvot, like wearing garments with special fringes so we can aspire to live a life of holiness, living in the shadow of God.

     May God give us the insight to see the meaning behind the mitzvot so our actions will always be for heaven’s sake. May God strengthen our resolve to live in holiness as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783