“For the entire community – they are all holy!” It is with these words that Korach challenges the leadership of Moshe. These are words that on the face of them express a lofty and noble sentiment. But they are words which ultimately belie an understanding of kedushah and an understanding of leadership that is limited, self-serving, and destructive.
Korach coveted Moshe’s position. He saw leadership as a lofty status, a rank, a privilege, and was envious that others should have it and not he. Not once do we hear from Korach how he would serve the people better. No. His complaint was: why do you deserve it? Why don’t I?
A true leader, however, sees leadership as an obligation, a responsibility, as a sacred duty. Moshe’s only goal was to serve God and to serve the people. This humblest of all men, never wanted the honor: “God, send someone else. Anyone but me.” Of course, too much humility is also not a good thing. Had Moshe had his way, he never would have become leader, and a leader who does not recognize his role and his status will ultimately fall short of leading and serving the people properly. “If you are small in your own eyes” – says Shmuel to King Shaul – you do not have the luxury for this humility, for “you are the head of all the tribes of Israel.” Status is important. But one who leads for the sake of the honor serves no one but himself. If leadership comes with status it does so for a purpose: to serve and to lead others.
As it is with leadership, so it is with kedushah. For Korach, holiness was a status, a static state of being – we are all holy, we are all already holy. It was a status that implied privilege and entitlement. True kedushah, however, does not reassure us that we are better. True kedushah calls upon us to become better: kedoshim ti’hiyu, Holy you shall become, for I the Lord your God am holy. It points us upwards and outwards. Each day, strive to become more God-like. Strive to transform yourself, to transform the world.
At YCT, our semikha students devote much time to studying Hilkhot Kashrut and Hilkhot Shabbat. These two areas of halakha represent two distinct types of kedusha. Kashrut is an inner-focused kedushah: it is concerned with what goes into our bodies, with keeping ourselves pure. Observing the laws of kashrut makes us different, it separates us from the larger world. This is the kedushah of status. It makes us distinct and special, but like the status that comes with leadership, it does so for a purpose. Not for the purpose of our finding satisfaction in our own uniqueness, but to demand of us to devote ourselves to a higher calling.
Shabbat exemplifies this. Shabbat is a kedushah that is ultimately outer-focused. It starts with our being distinct – the covenant between ourselves and God – but its end is to bring holiness into larger world – the universal message of God as creator, of human dignity, of the right to rest and to be free. The holiness of Shabbat spreads into the week, making our work holy as well, pointing us towards a higher purpose, towards tikkun olam, and finally towards a world that is mei’eyn olam ha’bah – a more perfect world, a messianic world: “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Shabbat to another, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord.” (Isa. 66:23).
Four years ago our newly-minted musmakhim started their path to become rabbis for Klal Yisrael. They understood that to be a leader is not to desire for oneself to have status, but to dedicate oneself to service. They spent these last four years growing in learning, pushing themselves to become more learned, more skilled, more inspiring than the day before. Rather than settling for the complacency of being, they devoted themselves to a life of becoming.
As they now go out to serve, they may encounter communities who know only of the kedushah of status, the kedushah of being. This kedushah is important and necessary, and they must and will protect and sustain it, the treasured holiness and distinctiveness of their communities. Much of their work will be devoted to exactly this: carefully tending to their communities’ religious needs, making sure that there are daily minyanim, that the eruv is up, and that the restaurants have the necessary hechsheirim. But while important and necessary, such a kedushah, by itself, is dangerous – dangerous to those outside the community and dangerous to the religious and moral health of the community.
A kedushah that is concerned just about its existing status inevitably cultivates complacency and self-satisfaction. It produces a community – be it a neighborhood, a synagogue or a school – that is monolithic that is concerned solely with reinforcing its sense of itself, one that is will push out those who are different, those who may threaten its narrowly-defined identity. People of lesser observance or of different beliefs, people in non-traditional families, gay men and women, people with disabilities- be they physical, psychological, leaning, or social-emotional: all of these will be perceived of as threats to this kedushah, a kedushah that must be preserved at all costs.
This kedushah alone may not be allowed to define a community. The Torah that our musmakhim will teach will be one that inspires people to think not that they are already holy, but that they must strive every day to become holy. They will teach their communities and their students not only the kedushah of kashrut, but also the kedushah of Shabbat, of service, of li’takein olam bi’malkhut Sha-dai. They will teach them that the kedushah of becoming holy is not a starting point, but a destination, a destination always to be reached for, yet never to be grasped.
This is a kedusha not of haughtiness, but of humility; not of wariness, but of welcome. It is a kedushah that does not tell us that we are better than the rest of the world, but that asks us what it is that we can do to make the world a better place.
The students that we are blessed to have at YCT have come to us because it was this type of kedushah that spoke to them. They come with a vision that drives them to serve the Modern Orthodox community and all of Klal Yisrael, to serve observant and non-observant, those in the center and those at the margins. This vision rejects complacency, it forces them to leave their comfort zones, it pushes them to make Orthodoxy better, to make Klal Yisrael better, to make the world better. It is a belief in a kedusha that sanctifies the world and that inspires us to become a better person today than they were the day before. And it is belief in a leadership that teaches that a life of “the entire community is all holy,” can only truly find purpose when it translates into a life of “you shall become holy,” a life of bringing ourselves, and the entire world, closer to God, closer to perfection.
based on Semikha Remarks, 2013