Parashat Korah

The Ultimate Self-Help Guide

Amidst seemingly mundane laws, valuable lessons emerge.

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A colleague and friend who shares my fascination with golf as well as my plague of performing poorly, recently gifted me with a book entitled, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.

It is another one of the ever-expanding genre of self-help books in sheep's clothing in which the subject, in this case, golf, is viewed as a microcosm of life. Accordingly, the sport is given a philosophical reach that outdistances any drive from the tee. It is filled with pithy moral teachings such as "Golfers must learn to love the challenge when they hit a ball into the rough ... the alternatives--anger, fear, whining, and cheating--do no good." Through tangible advice on the game, it subtly links such challenges as hitting a 40-foot putt to reaching for personal and professional goals. Books like this one and others of this ilk by sports personalities like George Forman and Michael Jordan tend to see an ecumenical relevance in seemingly mundane activities.

Our culture is filled with such moral tomes. And while I am sure I can learn a lot from George Forman's lesson of picking yourself up off the canvas when you're down, the aisles of Barnes and Noble are not necessarily the first place we should go in search of ethical teachings. There is much our own tradition teaches us about living life morally, beyond our expected ritual obligations.

self-help guidesThe gift of Judaism is that within the nuanced discussions of ritual obligations, moral lessons emerge. They are, in fact, inextricably connected and should be viewed as a whole--each dependent on and enhancing the other. In the latter half of our parashah this week, after the famous earthly consumption of Korah and his followers, the focus shifts to the laws, rights, and obligations of the priestly class. Their ritual obligation is to perform the sacrifices and engage in holy activities of the Temple--work that is replete with measurement and detail, and seemingly devoid of moral lesson.

However, we read in Number 18:7, "I make your service a service of a gift ... " This gift can be given either by the priests to God or by God to the priests. The giver and receiver are ambiguous. Reading ritual obligations as a gift to God seems itself a bit contradictory, and many medieval commentators attempted to rectify this seeming contradiction. For example, Rashi and Ramban, in an unusual instance of concurrence, define the gift that God has given to the Jewish people as the priesthood. This view is also expressed by the commentators Ibn Ezra and Sforno.

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Rabbi Marc Wolf

Rabbi Marc Wolf is assistant vice-chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary