5756 - #20


The Motivation of Torah

While there is some controversy among the commentators as to the exact focus of Korach's rebellion,[1] it is clear that the issue revolved around the limitations that were being placed on the service of G-d. The episode, in fact, concludes most significantly with the verse, v'hazar hakareiv yoomat,[2] that the one who is not permitted by birthright to perform a designated service of G-d yet performs such a service, is deserving of death. On the surface, though, Korach's desires seem noble -- we should all wish, to the utmost, to serve G-d, approach G-d, come close to G-d -- is this not the very purpose of Torah? Korach's challenge would seem to have merit; how dare Moshe and Aharon limit this service, this very essence of religion, to a select few as determined by birthright? The commentators generally point to alternate motivations for Korach - power, jealousy - to explain the harshness of his punishment and, perhaps, to deflect the intensity of this challenge. While Korach's motivations may not have been sincere, the problem remains. Even those motivated solely by the desire to approach G-d would still be wrong, and punishable by death, if they would perform a designated service for which they are barred. We must wonder: why are there limitations on our avodat Hashem, our service of G-d?

There are actually, throughout Torah, many parameters on our ability to approach G-d. There are physical limitations; even the Kohain Gadol may only enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. There are limitations on our use of G-d's Name. It should really not be surprising that there are also limitations on our activities in the service of G-d. As the Chinuch points out,[3] we must develop reverence and honour toward G-d as well. The drive to relate and come close to G-d, as with all drives to connect and bond, can also lead to a familiarity that would be inappropriate; our relationship with Hashem must maintain a balance between removed respect and attached love. The parameters on avodat Hashem maintain this equilibrium.

Yet in the case of the avodah, the Chinuch's reason seems problematic. The difficulty lies in the explanation presented for the Torah's choice: that it is more honourable when those who perform the service are drawn from a known select group, i.e. the kohanim or levi'im as determined by birthright. Yet is this true? Is this the method of selection that ensures the greatest honour to Hashem? The Chinuch himself points to the need for those who do the service to be honourable in their own right. Indeed, at the simchat beit ha'shoeva, it was the righteous, of all Israel, who specifically participated in the festivity.[4] Granted not everyone should be allowed to do the avodah, but, to ensure a reverence toward G-d, should it not be the most distinguished members of the community, chosen by merit and not simply by birth, who serve Him?

T.B. Shabbat 31a relates a story about a non-Jew who wished to convert on the condition that he could become the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest. Shammai dismissed him; afterall for a ger, as a non-kohain, this is an impossibility. On the surface, this ger would actually seem comparable to Korach's rebellious party; no wonder for Shammai's dismissal. Yet Hillel accepted the ger.[5] It is only when the ger studied the verse v'hazar hakareiv yoomat that he finally realized that he could not become a kohain and accepted this fact. Why? Why does the ger not challenge Hillel for misleading him? Why, in the first place, did Hillel accept this ger with this condition? Somehow Hillel knew that this person was worth his efforts; that, though, the ger would have walked away if Hillel would have told him immediately about the impossibility of his being Kohain Gadol; but that when the ger finally learned this, everything would be fine. How did Hillel know this? More significantly for us, how did Hillel understand the ger's drive?

When the ger asked about the parameters on those who did the avodah, Hillel answered that even Dovid HaMelech was so prohibited. This would actually seem to imply, with all respect to the Chinuch, that the choice of who performs the service is not solely tied to honour. Would not the service of a king project the greatest reverence? Hillel, in fact, seems to be telling the ger the exact opposite: if a king may not perform the avodah, certainly a ger may not do so. It is specifically the province of the kohanim. But, at the same time, Hillel is also telling the ger that if the king cannot do the avodah, this service of G-d is also not an exclusion that should bother him.[6] Yet, why did Hillel not present this lesson to the ger in the first place?

Mesillat Yesharim points out that at different stages of one's life, as one grows in Torah, one should have different goals in his/her avodat Hashem, service of G-d. It may be that, at different times, we are also supposed to have different motivations. The ger's desire to be Kohain Gadol could be understood as representinga drive for the spiritual -- a drive to serve and come close to G-d.[7] This, perhaps, is the most basic drive that we would expect someone entering the world of Torah to have. If Hillel would have told the ger that he could not reach the heights of spirituality, that ultimately service of G-d in the Temple was limited only to a select few forever excluding him, this would have immediately thwarted this drive, pushing the ger away. Hillel did not wish to do this. The drive for spirituality at this point in time indicated to Hillel that this individual would be a worthy ger. At the onset of one's trip into Torah, all an individual has is personal desires - and the personal desire for spirituality is worthy to begin the process. Yet, ultimately even the drive for spirituality, is only a personal drive - a self-centred manifestation of the internal desires of the individual. As noble as it may seem -- to desire a relationship with G-d -- it is still only one serving oneself. To advance in Torah, to grow, one's motivations have to change. Oseh retzono k'rtzonecha, adopt His wishes as your wishes.[8] Ultimately one has to recognize that in the service of Hashem, our desire must be to fulfil, not our personal desires, even for spirituality, but His Ratzon. After learning, and it is only after learning that one can achieve this understanding, the ger recognized that the purpose of the human being, even a king, is ultimately not predicated on the fulfilment of personal emotional motivations, but on the intellectually developed drive to do Hashem's Will -- and if that Will means that the ger could not be Kohain Gadol, so be it.

As with the desire to have meat,[9] the story of Korach is also ultimately a story of desire. In this case, though, the problem was not physical hedonism but, an even greater concern, spiritual hedonism. The people wanted to get closer to Hashem, what greater wish could an individual have? Should it not be that the holier the person, the greater this desire? Korach's supporters perceived themselves as correct - look how they wished to fulfil this desire, even at the expense of challenging Moshe. They perceived Moshe and Aharon as simply also wishing to fulfil this desire -- so strong in these holy men that it led Moshe and Aharon to become selfish. But Korach's party missed the lesson, a lesson that somehow Hillel knew that his ger would learn. The drive for spirituality can be a foundation, a necessary foundation, at one's entry into the path of Torah. But, ultimately, one must recognize that the purpose of Torah is not spirituality, not the fulfilment of any one personal drive -- but that our drive must be simply, and uniquely in the world of religion, to fulfil His Will.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] See, further, R. Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagot B'Parshiot HaTorah, Korach I.

[2] Bamidbar 18:7. See also Bamidbar 1:51.

[3] See, for example, Mitzvot 30, 184, 362, and especially for our purposes 394.

[4] See T.B. Succah 51a and, specifically, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Lulav 8:14.

[5] See, however, Maharsha, T.B. Shabbat 31a whose implicit comments about the motivation are further illuminating. Significantly, though, especially for our purposes, Hillel still felt this ger was worth his efforts.

[6] See Spark of the Week 5753 - #3. In regard to the comparison with Dovid HaMelech, see also, from a different perspective although with some similarity, Chiddushei Chatam Sofer, Shabbat 31a.

[7] See Torah Temima, Bamidbar 1:51, note "bet".

[8] Mishna Avot 2:4.

[9] Bamidbar 11:4

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