The heart of jerusalem

A kingdom of priests: of the world, and apart


Sometimes, the most powerful experiences are the ones you least expect. Such was the case on a recent trip to Poland. Tucked in between our visits to the Lodz Ghetto in the morning and the Warsaw Ghetto in the afternoon, we made a brief stop in a town called Czestochowa where we found ourselves on an innocuous city street off a town square.

There were 30,000 Jews in Czestochowa before the war; today it is Judenrein; no Jews are left. 

We entered an apartment building and walked into the basement where we found ourselves squeezed into a cellar that had been dug as a bunker under the street. The walls were raw rocks and mud, and the musty smell of damp and rot was overpowering.

When the last Jews of Czestochowa were being deported to Treblinka in the summer of 1943 a man named Fishman, realizing what was coming, broke through the basement wall and dug this bunker beneath the street. When the Nazis announced that all Jews must report to the Umshtagplatz for deportation he took his family and neighbors — 35 of them — down there and they hid for 12 days. We were claustrophobic after 12 minutes.

Mr. Fishman himself had to lock the bunker from outside and pile furniture in front, so people would not see it or would at least think there could not be anyone in there as it was locked from the outside. He himself hid in a crawl space in the attic. When they ran out of food, he managed to forage for food in homes that had been emptied of Jews.

For nearly two weeks while they remained in Czestochowa they were completely hidden from the town and thus began a life of being separate, apart and unseen. They would hide in sewer drains and forests for the better part of two years until they were liberated. Sometimes it is good to be apart. 

This week we read of Korach, whom Jewish tradition excoriates as a wicked man who was looking out for himself at the expense of the wider Jewish community. 

Korach was put off by the fact that Aaron was designated as Kohein Gadol.

Apparently, Korach felt he should have been chosen for this position. So he mounted a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron, ultimately resulting in his untimely demise as G-d created an earthquake which swallowed him whole.

Korach was perceived as a wicked man who was out for himself, and although he did contend that “all the members of the congregation (of Israel) are holy” (Bamidbar 16:3) and asked why the priests should be on a higher level, he nonetheless desired the high priesthood for himself. 

Which makes one wonder why the parsha was named after him. Especially as the Talmud (Yoma 38b, based on the verse in Proverbs, Mishlei 10:7 — “the name of the wicked shall rot”) teaches that we should not even mention the name of the wicked. There must be some redeeming message hidden in his name and in what he did. 

The parsha of Korach is all about division and separation. Korach’s rebellion was about the feeling (or at least the public contention) that the Jewish leadership of Moshe and Aaron was too separate from the people, holding themselves to be above the people (ibid. 16: 3). Even the name Korach means a bald spot (Sanhedrin 109b) describing two sections of hair on a person’s head that are separated or divided. 

Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation of the first words of the parsha (“and Korach took…” (ibid. 16:1) actually translates it as “ve’itpeleig,” which means to divide. Korach divided the people, trying to cut a wedge between them and the leadership. 

Perhaps even as we decry Korach’s actions as well as his methodology, the Torah, by naming the portion after him, wants us to remember that division, being set apart, is not always a bad thing.

Rabbi Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk (quoted here by the Lubavitcher Rebbe) actually compares Korach’s actions to the second day of creation when G-d divided the waters above and below. That second day (Bereishit 1: 6-8) is the only day of creation which does not contain the words “and it was good.” Rashi (ibid. 1:7) explains that this is because the second day was when the waters separated, and separation is not good. That is also why on the third day when the waters come back together, the phrase “and it was good” is actually mentioned twice (ibid. v. 9-13) the first being for the completion (reuniting of the waters) of the division of the second day.

But if separation is not good, why did G-d separate the waters at all? And why wasn’t the re-uniting of the waters done on the same second day? Why wait till the third day? 

Perhaps separation can be a good thing, as long as it is not the goal. 

There is an inherent paradox within the role of the Kohein Gadol: on the one hand he is meant to completely separate himself from the people, even confining himself to the temple and its environs (see Rambam Hilchot Klei haMikdash 5:7, and Biat ha’Mikdash 1:10). And yet he was also meant to be the lover and pursuer of peace, and Jewish tradition is replete with the legends of how Aaron would connect with the people and help them to resolve their differences and make peace amongst themselves. Indeed, it is Aaron who remains below Mount Sinai with and amongst the people, leading to the debacle of the golden calf.

It seems there are times we need to separate ourselves from unhealthy environments. Indeed, the Rambam (Deot 6:1) suggests that if one lives in a wicked place he is obligated to remove himself and separate from such an environment. 

Ultimately, however, the goal is to return, better than before, ready to re-engage society and impact the environment (rather than have the environment simply impact us). 

Perhaps this is why there needs to be a separate day in creation for valuing…separation. And perhaps this is why our portion is named after Korach, the separator, so that we recall that sometimes it is good to be apart, if only to prepare to one day come back together. 

Seventy five years after the Jewish people — in bunkers, forests, ghettos, and gas chambers — were forced to acknowledge just how separate and “other” we had become, we have with Hashem’s help built a state in fulfillment of the verse (ibid 23:9) that we are meant to be a “People that dwell apart.” After 2,000 years we have become a nation apart — with our own army and economy, judiciary and government.

We would do well to remember the lesson of Korach: as a “kingdom of priests,” we are meant to be apart from the world, but a part of it as well.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem