Of Populism and Holiness
July 5, 2024

By Ezra Rich

There is nothing like a Buffalo summer. We spend all year longing for it and are eager to savor it during these special months. However, the broader world is a challenging place. Amidst the challenges facing Israel coupled with our presidential election and decisive votes globally, many ponder about the integrity of our leaders. There is concern whether their actions are in the public interest or for selfish reasons.

This week’s parshah (Torah portion) of Korach speaks to this leadership concern. Recently in the Book of Numbers we see Israelite society coming into being. While it is not a modern democracy, as Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb notes in his work The Person in the Parsha, “[It is] designed to be fair and equitable, and to allow for the fullest spiritual expression of every individual within it.”

Korach, a close relative of Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron), challenges their senior roles. As G-d noted earlier, “All of the congregation is holy, and G-d is in their midst” (Num. 16:3). According to Korach’s perspective—perhaps a democratic one from a modern lens—all Jews are equal in holiness and equal in G-d’s eyes, thus the hierarchy by the priests and the elders is a power grab. He wants equality for all members of society.

Here, Rabbi Weinreb clarifies the gap between a perfect world and reality: “The ‘kingdom of priests’ ideal is to be the product of our spiritual endeavors, not a hereditary honor. [Korach] would have been correct to say that we all can achieve holiness. Judaism teaches us that although we are all equally endowed with the capacity for holiness and with the potential for spirituality, the achievement of those objectives is not easy… Jewish spirituality can only be attained by hard work and painful self-sacrifice.”

Rabbi Weinreb closes by noting: “The leadership positions of Moses and Aaron were earned by virtue of their life-long dedication to the Jewish people. Korach is indeed wrong when he says that we are all equally capable of supplanting Moses and Aaron. We are all potential leaders, and we all have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, but we are not automatically leaders just because we are part of the community.”

As we reflect on our leaders and ourselves, let us work toward the holiness and the character traits we want to encounter in our world, be they respect, kindness, constructive criticism, or otherwise. While recharging this summer, may we find the strength to reach upward to our unique and holy potential; while school is out for summer, pursuing holy, leadership-caliber behavior is our lifelong assignment!

Ezra N. Rich serves as the co-chair of Buffalo Jewish Federation’s Israel & Overseas Committee and on its Board. He also is the co-chair of Temple Beth Tzedek’s Youth Education Committee. His Jewish Thought is in honor of Rabbi Sara Rich’s milestone birthday on July 4th!

Of Populism and Holiness - Jewish Thought of the week 2022