In the Torah portion Korach we read how Korach led a band of 250 men in a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. Underlying their revolt against Aharon’s High Priesthood was the charge: “All the people in the community are holy and G-d is in their midst; why are you setting yourselves above G-d’s congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:3.)
From Moshe’s response, (Ibid. verse 10.) “…and you seek priesthood as well,” we readily perceive that Korach and his band desired to become priests. This being so, their argument that “All the people…are holy,” and nobody can set himself above anybody else seems to contradict their desire to be above others by obtaining priesthood.
Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin, zt”l, gives a fascinating explanation of a famous statement on today’s daf. “Our sages say that today the yetzer hara says to do one sin, tomorrow another, until one finally falls to idolatry. This statement does not mean that the yetzer hara increases the sins that one indulges in from day to day. It means that the yetzer hara pushes a person who falls to keep falling in the same manner day after day, time after time. Even this is enough to cause one to worship idolatry eventually, God forbid!
“This can be compared to a sick person whose weakened constitution does not improve. If his system does not overcome what ails it, he gets sicker and sicker and eventually he reaches the point where he is dangerously ill.” Rav Shalom Schwadron, zt”l, offers his own insight here. “It is interesting that the yetzer doesn’t demand that one stop fulfilling mitzvos; it merely pushes one to follow his instructions. He wants to bring a person to a place where he will fulfill only that which interests him. A student in yeshiva will learn Torah until very late at night, missing out on a meaningful shachris. Another person will express his zealousness at the expense of fulfilling his obligations to his fellow human beings.
“The yetzer wants to be in the driver’s seat; that one should only do what interests him in the manner that he prefers. He knows that a person who only acts when he is inclined to do so will eventually stop fulfilling the mitzvos. We need to recall that the main thing is to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah because this is the will of the Creator. We must not be swayed by the compelling-seeming logic of the yetzer hara which causes one to forget God.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“In the Driver’s Seat”
Here’s the key portion of the above-quoted lesson:
He wants to bring a person to a place where he will fulfill only that which interests him.
By the time I finished reading this “story off the Daf,” I found that the conclusion didn’t match up with what I thought it would be at the beginning of the story. I thought fulfilling certain of the mitzvot would be contrasted against overt sin, such as a person who fulfills the mitzvah of feeding the hungry and then turns around and cheats his business partner. I didn’t think it would be focusing on fulfilling one mitzvah, the one that fits your personal desires, at the expense of other equally worthy mitzvot.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. –Matthew 15:1-6 (ESV)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” –Matthew 23:23 (ESV)
In the example from Matthew 15 (yes, I know this passage is typically used to say Jesus did away with man-made traditions and only endorses obeying pure Torah law, but he was perfectly fine with many other aspects of the normative halachah of the Judaism of his day, so I consider his main “rant” against hypocrisy, not tradition) , Jesus turns on his critics and accuses them of neglecting the commandment to honor parents by committing the money that could have been used to support their parents to the Temple. Outwardly, the Pharisees involved may have appeared holy, but in their neglect of their parents, they were reprehensible.
The short quote from Matthew 23:23 shows us something similar. Certain Pharisees were again, outwardly appearing as holy by their tithes but in the process, they completely ignored what Jesus called, “weightier matters of the law” such as the principles of “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” I should note that Jesus did not say one was really better than the other and told his audience that they should have performed their tithes without neglecting the other mitzvot.
But what does that have to do with us? On the one hand, these arguments could support the classic One Law position in the Hebrew Roots movement which states that non-Jewish people, when we become Christians and are “grafted in” (Romans 11) to the Jewish root, are obligated to the identical set of commandments as the Jews are, and we should not pick and choose which ones to obey. It would appear as if Jesus is telling us to not pick and choose as well, but to obey all of the 613 commandments, or at least as many as can be obeyed without the existence of a Temple, a Levitical priesthood, a Sanhedrin court system, and (for most of us), while living outside the Land of Israel.
On the other hand, we could use the same texts to consider just what our (I’m speaking to Gentile Christians now) true obligations are to God and whether, in our performance of the mitzvot, we are doing what God actually wants us to do, or only obeying what we want, what makes us feel righteous, and what makes us look “cool” in the eyes of our peer group. Are we falling into the same trap as Korach, Heaven forbid?
I know that sounds a little harsh, but I’ve encountered more than one non-Jewish person in the Hebrew Roots movement who seems really pleased with his tzitzit, his Hebrew prayers, and how he laid tefillin. OK, I want to be fair and say that there are many who subscribe to the One Law position who sincerely believe this is the one and only way a Gentile can please the God of Heaven, and these folks feel really picked on when people like me say that obeying many of the Torah commandments is a choice and not an obligation (your behavior doesn’t have to change in any way just because it’s voluntary rather than obligatory). But consider this.
When you say that non-Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah are obligated to obey the full yoke of Torah, your saying that it is a sin for any Christian to fail to observe the full range of the mitzvot. You are condemning the vast, vast majority of Christians who have lived, loved the Master, observed the “weighter matters of the Torah,” and died, based on your personal interpretation of the Bible. By saying you are obligated to the Torah and that you are fulfilling the Torah, you aren’t equalizing conditions between Christians and Messianic Jews but (whether you mean to or not) elevating yourself above your brothers and sisters in the church.
Let’s continue the Chabad commentary on Korach. I think you’ll see that he and his followers were doing something very similar.
The Kohanim , the priestly class, differed from the rest of the Jewish people in that the Kohanim were wholly dedicated to spiritual matters. This was especially true with regard to the Kohen Gadol , the High Priest, who was commanded “not to leave the Sanctuary.” (Vayikra 21:12.)
Their apartness from the general populace notwithstanding, the Kohanim in general, and the Kohen Gadol in particular, imparted their level of sanctity to all the Jews. Thus we find that Aharon’s service of lighting the Menorah in the Sanctuary imparted sanctity to all Jews, and enabled them to reach Aharon’s level of service and love of G-d. (See Likkutei Torah , beginning of portion Beha’alosecha.)
You may consider this a bit of a stretch, but I think the unique standing and “choseness” of the Jewish people and their obligation Sinai covenant also imparts a “level of sanctity” to we who are grafted in from among the nations. I think there’s a relationship to Israel being a light and to those of us who have seen and been attracted to that light.
I’ve tried talking about this before, especially in blog posts such as Redeeming the Heart of Israel, Part 1 and Part 2, where we see a partnership between the Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master that is complementary and interwoven, and I’ve tried to show that this partnership does not require a fused or homogenous identity between Christians and Jews in the Messianic realm.
Granted, I believe this manner of thinking is still in its formative stages and requires a great deal more research, especially in Scripture, but we see a classic example in the Korach rebellion of how a group desiring to separate themselves from their fellows and assume an identity not their own results in disaster. In the end, Korach and the rebels didn’t really believe that all of Israel had the right to become priests.
Korach and his band’s complaint that “All the people…are holy,” however, did not contradict their own desire for priesthood, for they desired a manner of priesthood totally removed from the rest of the congregation.
This manner of priesthood would not cause them to feel superior to the rest of the Jewish people, a superiority that resulted from their imparting holiness to them, for in their scheme of things they would not impart holiness to other Jews — they would remain totally separate and apart.
But Korach and his band were badly mistaken: It is true that there are different categories of service — Jews who are solely occupied with spiritual matters, and other Jews whose task it is to purify and elevate the physical world through the service of “All your actions should be for the sake of heaven,” (Avos 2:12.) and “In all your ways you shall know Him.” (Mishlei 3:6.)
Putting all this together, we can paint a picture of those Gentiles who want to assume a full “Jewish” identity without having to convert to Judaism as not demonstrating equality between Jews and Gentiles in the covenant, but perhaps setting themselves above their fellow Christians by taking on Jewish identity markers. I’m sure that many One Law proponents aren’t motivated in this direction, but ask yourself if this could be describing you.
If you, as a Christian (non-Jewish disciple of the Jewish Messiah) in the Hebrew Roots movement, choose to take on additional mitzvot that could be considered specific to Jews, please study up on them first, including the relevant halachah for performing the mitzvot. Shooting from the hip probably isn’t as effective way to perform any of the Torah commandments as using the accepted standards established in normative Judaism.
From my personal perspective, a Gentile publicly appearing as a Jew, even with completely pure motives, is like walking into a room full of trapdoors and tripwires. You might be successful in your efforts, but more than likely, once you step outside your local congregations and into the larger world, you could encounter unanticipated conflicts. Be sure whatever you do is actually what God wants and not just something that makes you feel special.
I’m sure no one wants to make Korach’s mistake. Ask yourself who or what is speaking to your heart?
Addendum: This all gets more complicated when you factor in people who claim a Jewish identity without Jewish parents and exist outside of Messianic Judaism, as we see in this Huffington Post article. One person has blogged about her experiences as a “Jewish” non-Jew, and Derek Leman has offered his own commentary. True, it doesn’t have a direct relationship with this week’s Torah portion or the matter of any Christian’s perceived obligation of Torah, but it is very much relevant to the “identity wars” between Jews and non-Jews, so I include these references here.