Letter and Spirit

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Korach and his followers attack Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of misappropriating the leadership for themselves, when in reality, “the entire community, all of them are holy.” Here, in proclaiming a rebellion against the appointment of the sons of Aharon as Kohanim, Korach also challenged something much broader — the Divine origins of Moshe’s mission and of the Torah itself. Korach sought to replace the Torah with the subjectivity of the individual: Every man is holy! We don’t need restrictions, commands, and appointments teaching us how to relate to and serve G-d! Each of us holy men need only to follow the inner stirrings of holiness he feels in his heart in order to attain G-d’s closeness and approval.

His argument had appeal. Novel and spontaneous worship feels connected. But the Torah has a different view of subjective spiritual impulses of piety and devoutness. Only he whom G-d chooses will come near to Him. (Bamidbar 17:5). Only those acts which G-d chooses bring man near to Him. G-d has already told man what is good, what brings closeness.

Following the demise of Korach and his cohorts, Elazar is instructed to remove the copper pans, but to “throw away the fire.” The pans were to be made into a thin plate as an overlay for the altar. This was to serve as an eternal reminder to the people that the fire — the offering not ordained by G-d — is not acceptable.

Next, the Torah presents rules about the Kohanim and Leviim regarding the Temple service, so that its holiness would be appropriately guarded. It is in this context that the Torah characterizes the priestly service as being a G-d given avodat matanah — G-d “gives” the Kohanim the“service of free-willed giving.”

This is a most significant statement, and its principle applies beyond the priestly service. G-d wants to give us our giving. The giving of ourselves and of our possessions to G-d emanates from the deepest wellsprings of our free will. But this giving must not be guided by personal whim — the giving itself is “given.” It conforms to G-d’s standards — the given code as set forth in the Torah. Not only are the things we give — our possessions — nothing but giving back to G-d what we received from Him, but the very fact of our giving — the nature and quality of our gifts, and the very motivation to give — is also merely the fulfillment of His will. In this way, “the service of free-willed giving” is realized: through our own free-willed obedience, we realize G-d’s Will and achieve nearness.

This is a direct response to Korach’s challenge. The Jew’s divine service consists not of the gratification of self-devised practices that give him a spiritual lift, but of free-willed, faithful obedience to G-d’s expressed Will.

  • Source: Commentary, Bamidbar 18:6-7

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