God wants us to establish a nation-state and to take responsibility to perfect an imperfect world, with all the challenges that entails.

In this week’s story, we discern two ideological positions. Both were antithetical to everything Moses stood for.

Keep these two things in mind:. First, the commandment to wear ritual fringes on four-cornered garments (tzitzit), serves as an introduction to and eventual rebuttal of the movements that Korach, and Datan and Aviram represent.

Secondly, Moses’ announcement that the entire generation, except for Joshua and Caleb, was condemned to die in the desert made the Hebrews ripe for rebellion.

Korach uses the argument of “equality in holiness” against Moses and Aaron: “Why must you set yourselves up to be on a higher plane than the congregation of the Lord?”

Korach rejects the unique status of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim. He would also deny any distinction in holiness between different lands, refusing to recognize the special sanctity of the Land of Israel.

Korach rejects the priesthood and the idea that the entire “desert-generation” must be punished for their refusal to conquer the Land of Israel. Korach’s view: These are false claims instituted by Moses rather than reflections of the true will and word of God. Korach justifies the Israelites’ desire to remain in the desert precisely because of the desert’s holiness.   

Moses is willing to call Korach’s bluff. He instructs him to take 250 men the next day and to provide each of them with a firepan and incense for a special “priestly” offering to see whose offering would be acceptable to God. The Divine decision was not long in coming: “A fire came down from God and it consumed the men who were offering the incense,” including Korach himself.

God wants us to establish a nation-state and to take responsibility to perfect an imperfect world, with all the challenges that entails. This is the message of the ritual fringes. When we gaze upon them, we must remember our true mission: to enter history, to risk impurity by taking up the challenges of the real world and to assume our responsibility to become a “sacred nation and kingdom of priest-teachers” to the world.

Datan and Aviram had a different agenda. They never wanted to leave Egypt in the first place; but unlike Korach, the last thing they want is to remain behind in the desert. They would love to assimilate. They believe that this desert fiasco justifies their earlier opposition.

They, too, are punished by God, who causes the earth for which their materialistic spirits yearned so mightily to swallow them up alive. Because of their passion for physical pleasures, they never learn to look properly upon the ritual fringes. They saw neither the royal blue of their majestic ancestry nor the sapphire blue of the Divine presence in the world summoning us to His service.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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