Quote of the Day

Jun 29, 2010 at 10:53 PM

"I often speak with rabbis from around the country who are frustrated and fed up and feel stuck because they can’t daven in their own shuls, they can’t speak their conscience, they can’t take risks. Fear has become a driving force in the Jewish community. If we get too far ahead of the people, we’ll lose our jobs. So instead we stagnate."

The 17th of Tammuz

at 10:44 AM


Today is the 17th of Tammuz, a "minor fast day" within the Jewish community.

It marks the first breech of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, leading to the violent siege of the city, and its eventual destruction. Today also begins the three week period leading up to Tisha B'Av, the day both Temples were destroyed along with many other tragic events within Jewish history.

The 17th of Tammuz is commemorated with a half-day fast (from sun-up to sundown). However, there are no other prohibitions.

The next "Three Weeks" are a period of mourning. Many observant Jews will refrain from participating in celebrations, especially weddings. And there are many Jews who will also refrain from shaving, cutting their hair, and will observe other mourning customs.

An interesting note regarding the Minor Fast Days is that there is some debate within halakhah as to the observance of these days. An equal argument can be made both for and against fasting on this day (17th of Tammuz). Interestingly, according to many halachic authorities, either choice is actually following "the letter of the law" since there are differing opinions.

The central issue is whether or not we are living in a time where "there is no persecution but not yet peace." This discussion is exemplified from the following Talmudic text:

"Rav Papa replied: What it means is this: When there is peace they [the minor fast days] shall be for joy and gladness; if there is persecution, they shall be fast days; if there is no persecution but not yet peace, then those who desire may fast and those who desire need not fast." (b. Rosh HaShanah 18b)

By "persecution (sh'mad)" the Sages understand this to mean "universal persecution of the Jewish people." And "not yet peace" refers to the ultimate peace that will come in the Messianic Age. So, many authorities believe we are currently in this in-between stage - there is not universal persecution of the Jewish people and not yet complete peace on earth. As such, Rav Papa's position seems to be a valid possibility. As such, halachic figures, like Rabbi David Golinkin and others, have ruled that minor fast days (like today) may be rendered optional.

However, all authorities are in agreement that this machlochet (halachic disagreement) does NOT extend to major fast days, like Tisha B'Av or Yom Kippur. These major fast days are still obligated upon all Jews, unless they are exempt for medical reasons (and as always, minor children are always exempt).

Whether one chooses to fast today or not, what is important is to keep in mind the tragic history of our people. Although there has been an increase in anti-Semitism in recent years, we are still not "universally persecuted." Many of us live in complete freedom without having to worry on a daily basis about pogroms, being lynched, or barred from a local country club. But we are also not yet living in complete peace.

As such, on days like today, we must still identify with the sufferings of our past, while at the same time long for the days of Mashiach.

May that day come speedily and soon!


Babies, bellies, and getting Jews in the pews

Jun 28, 2010 at 1:25 PM


*A Radical Repost (Because the first time around just wasn't good enough! )


Derek Leman kicked off a discussion "on the human need (or lack thereof) for congregation." It got me thinking, once again, about the purpose of Jewish community, and whether we're any closer to meeting the very human need for kehilla within the four walls of our synagogues.


As a movement, we're routinely criticized by fellow Jews for lacking in authenticity, credibility, or a sense of theological maturity. Many of these accusations are (sadly) apt, but none need stand in perpetuity. The only real stumbling block that our Jewish friends and relatives should encounter when stepping into our synagogues is our claim that Yeshua is Mashiach. Not tacky banners, not random shofar blowings, not Powerpoint siddurim, and certainly not "rabbis" who can barely read Hebrew.


I'll submit that if the latter are operative norms in your congregation, and you're scratching your head wondering why more Jews aren't sitting in your pews, that you've just landed on the answer. There's just too much nonsense coming between the average Jewish visitor and the claim that Yeshua is Mashiach.


I also want to submit that the path to "getting Jews in the pews" is not necessarily to look, feel, and smell more like a standard-issue Conservative synagogue. Go to one of those suburban synagogues on a non-Holiday weekend, and count the Jews in the pews. If it isn't Orthodox, and you find more than a smattering of retirees, a confirmation class, and the family whose kid is having a b'nai mitzvah that weekend, I'll personally wire you $50.*


Instead, I want to encourage you to visit some of the experimental communities that are rapidly changing the face of 21st century Judaism and engaging Jews across the spectrum - young and old, committed and unaffiliated. Derek Leman has expressed some hesitation about the long-term impact of these experiments (do they really satisfy the human need for community or are they as ineffective as they are fashionable?). But we've seen genuine value in emerging kehillot that have enjoyed a few years to work out the kinks.


Take a look see. Seriously, take notes! You'll be surprised to find babies and bellies - the most universal indicator of a church or synagogue's potential for long-term growth - all over the place. There's something incredibly compelling about these kehillot, and there's a deep spiritual hunger within our fellow Jews that these communities are satisfying. The really critical distinction between these emerging groups and the traditional suburban shuls dealing with declining membership is the vertical/horizontal divide that we've harped on before.


While traditional shuls (including the average suburban Messianic synagogue) are organized vertically (top down), emerging kehillot are generally a cozy home for the under-40 set, which feels that post-modernism, post-denominationalism, and post-partisanism are comfortable (rather than threatening) paradigms. The "horizontal" generation values collaboration, and seeks a spiritual home where our ideas, talents, and perspectives are valued, put to work, and allowed to transform the community ... not just put on display.


The take home message is that if a congregation wants Jews in the pews (along with their babies and their bellies), it needs to go through a somewhat painful process of self-evaluation. First, a congregation must ask itself

Why, exactly, are we here? What are we trying to build together and who do we need as partners to build it?

I would hope a synagogue would come to the conclusion that it exists to provide a spiritual home for Jews who follow Yeshua, and that it needs a sizeable contingent of young professionals, couples, and families to carry its vision into the next generation. The second question is this:

Just what is it about our community that's alienating to these elusive Jewish 'babies and bellies?'

After landing on the beginnings of an answer, it's time to grasp the idea that when you welcome young people into your community, you welcome their input as well (not just their warm bodies). This is the defining feature of a horizontal community, after all. It's a place where people are more than benchwarmers and less than the owners of carefully guarded turf.


The real challenge comes when a congregation tries to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the young, while simultaneously accommodating the preference for "the way it's always been" among the old. We've seen a few established shuls do this successfully in LA, often by creating a lively monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service led and attended by the young'uns. Of course the necessary changes go deeper than simply propping up an extra service, but Friday night is a nice place to begin.


Maybe I'm incredibly naive, but I really do hold out hope that Messianic synagogues can become vibrant spiritual homes for Jews who follow Yeshua. And I'm still convinced that the way to do that is to embrace and satisfy the spiritual hunger of young Jews ... with babies and bellies galore.


Because really, it's time to stop writing off the next generation as flaky and noncommittal, and time to realize that they're the only next generation we have.


*Void where prohibited at blogger's sole discretion. ;)


A Talking Donkey?

Jun 25, 2010 at 9:22 AM

Parashat Balak

Parashat Balak speaks of a non-Jewish prophet (Bilaam) who was hired to curse the people of Israel. Multiple times Bilaam attempts to curse Israel, and each time G-d causes him to speak a blessing instead of a curse.

In the middle of the parasha, Bilaam sets off on his donkey in another attempt to curse Israel. However, a strange thing happens. On the way, G-d sends an angel to bar the way of Bilaam. Seeing the Malach HaShem, the Angel of HaShem blocking its path, three times the donkey refrains from continuing and each time Bilaam beats the donkey. After the third time, G-d enables the donkey to speak, responding, “What is it I have done to you that you beat me these three times? (Num. 22:28)” It was not until G-d enabled Bilaam to see the Malach HaShem that Bilaam truly realized what was happening.

So what can we learn from this? Often many of us are like Bilaam. For one reason or another we become caught up in our own desires, blind to G-d’s purposes, and to the needs of the community around us. And when anyone or anything attempts to keep us from doing something in pursuit of those desires, we beat them too. So in the end, we are hurting not only ourselves, but those around us without any consideration.

And yet, other times in life we feel like the donkey. We are working so hard to do the right thing, and to avoid the entrapments along life’s path. It seems life just keeps beating us and beating us despite our best attempts. Like the donkey in the parasha, many of us often feel like screaming out, “Why do you continue to beat me?”

In either situation, we are letting our circumstances get the best of us. When we lose faith, lose hope, and lose sight of where G-d is leading us, we end up getting beaten down by the world around us. We need to be people of clear vision. After all, the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) states, “Trust in HaShem with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge G-d, and G-d will make your path straight (3:5-6).”

May all of us be blessed to truly listen and follow G-d’s path for our lives. May we be followers of HaShem’s Torah, and heralds of the message of Messianic redemption. May we no longer kick against the goads, lost and beaten down by our own misguided desires. Rather, may each of us merit a prophetic vision for our unique purpose, and may we all witness the fullness of Israel in Messiah Yeshua.


Helsinki Press Release: Jewish Believers in Jesus

Jun 24, 2010 at 11:10 AM


Ground-Breaking News: The FIRST ecumenical conference of Jewish believers in Jesus in modern times met in Helsinki, Finland June 14-15, 2010 to affirm their Jewish identity, their faith in Yeshua, and their desire for unity.

The term “Jewish Believers in Jesus” is actually a broader category than just Messianic Jews. The former category includes all Jewish people in churches, in Messianic Jewish synagogues, and even unaffiliated who profess faith in and allegiance to Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah.

This conference is ground-breaking because it brought together Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Messianic scholars – all of them Jewish - to discuss the global growth of Jewish believers in Yeshua. This is something that has not been done since the earliest centuries of “the Church.” The conference was jointly organized by the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI) and the Helsinki Studium Catholicum. A statement was issued affirming the significance of Jewish continuity within the Church, as an ongoing link between its historic beginnings, its present life, and its future hope. The full-text of the statement, and greater detail from the conference will be posted later today on the MJTI website (www.mjti.com).

Dr. Mark Kinzer, President of MJTI, said:

“This was an unprecedented conference bringing together Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah from a very wide range of communities and traditions. We met together to discuss the presence of Jews in our respective congregations and the issues we face. The increasing number of Jewish followers of Jesus is a phenomenon of great importance, impacting the worldwide Church as it rediscovers the Jewish roots and character of its faith. The presence of Jews in its midst is a resource and means of blessing that the historic churches can not afford to ignore.”

Father Antoine Lévy, OP, Director of the Helsinki Studium Catholicum, affirmed the continuing identity of Jews in their various Christian congregations and offered his own perspective on the unique condition and calling of Jewish disciples of Christ.

“We exist, and despite 2,000 years where the Church and the Jewish people have been separated and often hostile to each other, we are a living bond that demonstrates the Messiah Jesus’ own solidarity with His people, as much as the richness of the heritage of Israel that has been opened up to the Church made up of Israel and the nations.”

Fifteen scholars and theologians from eight countries met for two days of open conference and two days of working sessions to issue a document, the Helsinki Statement (SEE BELOW). Topics discussed included Jewish identity in the Messiah; responding to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism; the place of Messianic Jewish worship and observance; the Jewishness of Jesus; the biblical, theological and historical background to the present situation of Jewish believers in Jesus; and future plans. The papers delivered at the conference will be published in November/December in Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism (www.kesherjournal.com). A similar event is planned for 2011.


THE HELSINKI STATEMENT

Helsinki Consultation on Jewish Continuity in the Body of Messiah

June 14-15, 2010

Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) from England, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, and the United States met in Helsinki, Finland, on June 14-15, 2010. As scholars belonging to Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Messianic communities, they began a conversation on Jewish continuity in the Body of Jesus the Messiah. They issued the following statement:

We thank God for bringing us as Jews to the knowledge of Jesus the Messiah, and we express a debt of gratitude to those from the Nations who have transmitted the knowledge of Christ from generation to generation. While we seek to speak on behalf of those who share our Jewish identity and faith in Christ, we have no official mandate from our respective communities. In what follows we are expressing our own deeply held convictions.

At this unprecedented event, we have experienced the depth of our bond, and at the same time we have wrestled with the diversity of our ingrained theological and cultural constructs. In spite of church divisions, we have come together as Jews who believe in Jesus. We hope that sharing the fruit of our common efforts will benefit our brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not aim to issue a definitive declaration, but to initiate an ongoing process of discussion.

There are many Jewish people in the body of Christ. We believe that this reality reflects God’s intention that Israel and the Nations live as mutual blessings to one another. In fact, the Church in its essence is the communion of Jews and those from the Nations called to faith in Christ.

In light of this truth, we think that the life of Jews in the body of Christ has theological significance for that body as a whole. Their presence serves as a constant reminder to the body that its existence is rooted in the ongoing story of the people of Israel. This story resounds throughout the celebration of the liturgical life of the community. We believe that this story finds its center in Israel’s Messiah. We believe that Jews within the body are a living bond between the Church and the people of Israel. Accordingly, we would like to explore concrete ways in which Jewish people may live out their distinctive calling in the body of Christ.

Finally, we wish to express to our Jewish brothers and sisters who do not share our faith in Jesus the Messiah that we consider ourselves to be part of the Jewish people and are committed to its welfare.

Signed in a personal capacity by:

Boris Balter (Orthodox - Russia)

Steve Cohen (Lutheran - USA)

Dr. Richard Harvey (Messianic - England)

Rabbi Dr. Mark Kinzer (Messianic - USA)

Father Antoine Levy, OP (Catholic – Finland)

Dr. Iulia Matushanskaja (Orthodox – Russia)

Father David Neuhaus, SJ (Catholic – Jerusalem)

Rabbi Vladimir Pikman (Messianic – Germany)

Jennifer Rosner (Messianic – USA)

Dr. David Rudolph (Messianic – USA)

Dr. Anna Shmain-Velikanova (Orthodox – Russia)

Father Olivier Zalmanski, OP (Catholic – France)


Yeshua, Halachah, and the Sermon on the Mount

Jun 23, 2010 at 10:25 AM

This is a continuation of my previous thoughts on Jewish law and the Halachic process.

As followers of a Jewish Messiah, we are obligated to engage in knowledgeable discussion with Jewish law. At times we may interpret it differently, especially in light of New Testament understandings. Yet, that does not mean we can just “do as we see fit.” We have a responsibility to ourselves and the larger Jewish world to engage in halachah through a knowledgeable and informed process.

As a part of this process it is paramount that we also recognize and incorporate the role of the Brit Chadasha (New Testament).

Mashiach as the Embodiment of Israel

Jewish tradition teaches that Mashiach must be the quintessential Jew. An embodiment of the experience, sufferings, and joys of the entire Jewish people. A number of scholars have recognized that within Yeshua, as the Mashiach, is the embodiment of all Israel. Rabbi Dr. Mark Kinzer often refers to Yeshua as "One Man Israel," as he is the perfect embodiment of Israel, and as such, Yeshua's life parallels Israel's experience.

The Sermon on the Mount as a Reflection of Sinai

Within this embodied pattern as mentioned above is a parallel (of what is often called) the "Sermon on the Mount" with the experience of Sinai. Since Yeshua embodies the existence of Israel, the Sermon on the Mount serves as almost a renewal, or sort of "re-giving," of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. As such, there is clear halachic imagery embedded within.

Halachic Formulas in the Sermon on the Mount

Judaism teaches that when the Mashiach comes, one of his roles will be to clarify ambiguities within halachic matters. Interestingly, this is exactly what Yeshua does within the Sermon on the Mount. Through halachic formulas known from the Second Temple period, Yeshua sets out to clarify and set straight popular misconceptions of specific mitzvot.

Before dealing with each specific mitzvah, Yeshua usually begins with the phrase “You have heard that our fathers were told…” This is actually a halachic formula known from the Second Temple period. It was a way that a Sage would state a particular halachic understanding, and then clarify its "proper" interpretation.

This phrase is actually paralelled in a halachic text discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Known as 4QMMT – "Miksat Ma’aseh Torah" (Some rulings pertaining to the Torah), the text introduces disagreements between the Qumran community and their opponents (namely the Sadducees) with a phrase: “You say … but we think/say.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua was using a halachic formula known at the time to clarify and give proper understanding to certain interpretations of Torah commands.

Weightier Matters of Torah

There are also ethical matters to be explored within the halachic process. In Matthew 23:23, Yeshua addresses a specific group of Pharisees, and reprimands them for violating these ethical considerations:

You pay your tithes of mint, dill, and cumin; but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah - justice, mercy, and trust. These are the things you should have attended to - without neglecting the others! Blind guides! - straining out a gnat, meanwhile swallowing a camel.

Interestingly, Yeshua does not criticize them for adherence to halachic minutae, but for their hypocricy. For in their striving to be oh-so-extra-pious, they missed the mark. These additional tithes of "mint, dill, and cumin” are actually not even required by mitzvah de-oraisa (commanded in the Torah), but rather are supplimental/additional tithes known from the Talmud. Yeshua does not negate this understanding. His reprimand was an issue of weightier matters within Torah. Yeshua was setting up ethical considerations within the halachic process.

Conclusion

If our understanding of, or adherence to, a particular mitzvah violates one of these "weightier matters" of justice, mercy, and trust; then there is a problem and we must defer to the weightier matters. In Yeshua's understanding of Halacha, we must always put people first …"without neglecting the others [commands]!”

As we continue to grapple with halachah, we must take into consideration our Mashiach's teachings. As we develop interpretations of halachah that are guided by tradition, infused with Mashiach, and inspired by the Ruach; let us not forget that there are also "weightier matters" that must be considered.


A Renaissance of a different kind

Jun 21, 2010 at 6:04 PM


Vine of David (a publishing arm of FFOZ) recently re-published a historic title, Love and the Messianic Age, by the great Jewish believer Paul Philip Levertoff.

This publication represents a renewed interest in the great works of Jewish believers from an age long forgotten. Although much lip service is often given to the birth of the Messianic Jewish congregational movement in the late 1960's and early 1970's; what most people overlook is Messianic Judaism's golden age in the 1800's.

During this golden age there were thousands of Jewish believers across Europe, and even a graduate school, the Institutum Judaicum in Germany, founded by the great Franz Delitzsch (best known for his translation of the New Testament into Hebrew which is still one of the most popularly used today).

Some of the greatest thinkers among Jewish believers lived and wrote during this academic period. This is the age of the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, and out of this same milieu in Germany arose the luminaries of Heschel, Buber, Rosenzweig, Soloveitchik, and others.

Among these luminaries were the likes of such great Jewish believers as Paul Philip Levertoff (mentioned above), Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, Chaim Theophilus Lucky, Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, Joseph Rabinowitz, and former Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria, Daniel Zion (among others).

These were a different breed of Jewish believers. Steeped in the traditions of our ancestors, these great minds were raised in some of the greatest yeshivas of Europe, and went on to receive their graduate degrees and doctorates at prestigious Universities. However, their work has largely remained untapped as much of it was published in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German.

With all of the renewed interest in these figures and works in recent years, efforts are being made to make these texts and sources more readily available today. Efforts by those like Jorge Quiñónez, FFOZ, and others are bringing this golden age of Jewish believers back to life.

Happy Father's Day!

Jun 20, 2010 at 12:12 PM


To our own dads' - and all the others out there,

Happy Father's Day!


The Rock of … What?

Jun 18, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Parashat Chukat

Without water, the community began grumbling against Moses and Aaron. Leaving the community, they went to the entrance of the Tabernacle and fell on their faces in the presence of HaShem. Moshe was commanded to take his staff and speak to the rock, which would produce water in response to the cries of the children of Israel.

However, leaving the Tabernacle Moshe went before the people. “You rebels,” he shouted, “Are we supposed to bring you water from this rock?” Moshe raised his staff and struck the rock twice, and water flowed in abundance.

Displeased, G-d said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not trust in Me, so as to cause Me to be regarded as holy by the people of Israel, you will not bring this community into the land I have given them (Num. 20:7-12).”

So what’s the big deal?

G-d’s Name is intimately linked to the people of Israel. So much so that G-d has chosen to associate His Name with the Jewish people – i.e. “the G-d of Israel.” As HaShem’s remnant, the Jewish people have a specific role to play in the cosmos. This role is something called Kiddush HaShem – the Sanctification of the Name of G-d.

We are to be Or L’Goyim - a Light to the Nations. As Israel, we are partners with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. We are the harbingers of a cosmic message with cosmic ramifications.

The real issue is not that Moshe struck the rock. This is supported by Rashi, and other rabbinic commentators. The issue is that Moshe did not sanctify the Name of G-d in the presence of the people. Moshe’s actions were more than an “oops … I was supposed to speak to the rock, not hit it.” This was so serious that Moshe was forbidden to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land. In some way, HaShem was dishonored in front of the entire people. Rather than Kiddush HaShem, Moshe performed a Chilul HaShem (a desecration of the Name of G-d).

The task of the Sanctification of G-d’s Name has been handed down to us. Our job in this world is to bring about glory to HaShem, and prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. May we truly recognize the implications of what is at hand. G-d has chosen each one of us to partner with Him in bringing redemption into the world. We need to rise up, take our staffs in hand, and not only bring water to a parched people and land – but prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. And may our righteous Messiah (who we eagerly await) lead us out of exile and into the Promised Land speedily and soon!


Interfaith Marriages Rising ... and Failing Fast

Jun 15, 2010 at 7:59 PM


The debate still rages across the Jewish world, and especially within Messianic Jewish circles over the issue of intermarriage. Recent studies have placed the intermarriage rate within the Jewish community well over the 50% mark. And the numbers are even higher within the Messianic Jewish movement.

Of course there is debate over whether or not this is a good thing - for kids of mixed marriages, for the future of the Jewish people, for Messianic Judaism, etc. But one thing seems to be clear ... interfaith marriages have a higher tendency to fail.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, interfaith couples face "particular hardships and a poor track record of interfaith marriages: They fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages. But couples don't want to hear that, and no one really wants to tell them."

Here are some findings published in the article:

  • According to the General Social Survey, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing.
  • According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.
  • Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it's important to marry someone of the same faith.
  • In 1993, Professor Evelyn Lehrer, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, reported findings showing that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.
Many interfaith couples have found in Messianic Judaism answers to the interfaith dilemma. In fact, Messianic Judaism can be uniquely situated to address the specific needs each partner brings into a marriage. I am one advocate who feels we need to do even more to reach out to interfaith couples and families, and empower those already in our midst.

However, at the same time we need to be advocating for fellow Jews to marry other Jews. Not only for the myriad of continuity reasons being discussed - but it also seems for the benefit of the couple and their marriage, as well.

What do you think?


New Blog: Living Torah

at 1:23 PM

A good friend of ours, Benjamin E., has created a new blog that now appears on our own blog roll. Titled Living Torah, Ben writes on a number of different issues relevant to a mature Messianic Jewish life.

His most recent post, Mussar, Middot, and a re-Minder, is an excellent approach to Yeshua and personal character (middot).

We highly recommend his new blog ... so check it out!

Rebellion and Selfishness ... or a Message of Hope?

Jun 11, 2010 at 11:20 AM

Parashat Korach

Unlike earlier occasions in the Torah where the people of Israel complained about specific problems – i.e. no food or water – this week’s parasha begins with an outright rebellion against Moses and Aaron. So what do we learn from this?

Korach, a first cousin of Moses (and also a Levite), and those with him are presented in the parasha as having selfish motivations for their rebellion, as exemplified in their accusation:

“You take too much upon yourselves! After all, the entire community is holy … So why do you exalt yourselves above HaShem’s community?” (Numbers 16:3)

It seems Korach felt he could do a better job leading the people of Israel than Moses and Aaron. So he set out to overthrow them, and usurp their authority by assembling a group of people to follow him.

Pirkei Avot teaches:

“Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not have a constructive outcome … And what sort of dispute was not for the sake of heaven? – The dispute of Korach and his entire community (Avot 5:20).”

In the end, Korach and his family were swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 people with him were consumed by fire. What is even more unbelievable is that the very next day the people started grumbling against Moses again – after just having witnessed the fate of Korach and those with him. So G-d sent a plague that ended up killing another 14,700 people in addition to those who died along with Korach.

We learn from Parashat Korach that G-d takes selfishness very seriously. Because whenever we think we can “do it better,” we need to be careful. There are times when it is true – maybe we can do it better. But the real question is our motivation. Is our motivation to do a great job? Or, is it a matter of a selfish ambition based on jealousy, insecurity, or rebelliousness?

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that G-d has assigned.” (Romans 12:3)

We are supposed to be confident in our abilities. But a mature confidence is not arrogance. Paul warns that we should never take ourselves too seriously. For if we do, and begin grumbling against those around us, we risk the fate of Korach.

To be clear, the message of Korach is not one of utter hopelessness. For interwoven in the story is also a message of redemption. Although Korach himself chose to rebel against G-d, Moses, and Aaron; his descendants chose to follow in the ways of HaShem. How do we know this? There are eleven Psalms all written by “the Sons of Korach.” As G-d so often does, He took a negative experience and turned it into a story of hope.

The descendants of Korach deliberately chose not to walk in the ways of their ancestor. Rather, they took upon themselves the burden to walk in the ways of HaShem. We are instructed elsewhere in the Torah to be holy just as G-d is holy. Holiness is a choice. We can either choose our own selfish ambitions, or we can be like the sons of Korach, and (despite any negative reputation and associations) choose righteousness, holiness, and the way of our Messiah. I hope we choose wisely.