Parashat Korah

The Ultimate Self-Help Guide

Amidst seemingly mundane laws, valuable lessons emerge.

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This is not the case, however, when we reach the commentary of the Zaddik Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (circa:1740-1810). In his commentary, Kedushat Levi (p. 311 Mesamchei Lev ed.), he states, "When we serve God, it is not a gift, because it is our obligation. However, when we work to return the Divine sparks to God, this is the gift we give to God. Applying a concept that originated with gnostics in the early part of this century and continued with some early kabbalists, Levi Yitzhak believed that there was a service we could perform in addition to ritual responsibilities, which would return the fragments of God in exile in our world to the Godly realm. Continuing, he says this higher service is our responsibility to act ethically in business. His definition of the verse as a gift we give to God extends ritual law to include a moral dimension. Thus, avodah, service of God, can be simple ritual observance without any moral dimension, or, when the ethical dimension is included, our service becomes a gift to God.

This concept is supported by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) in his Nineteen Letters. In letter 14, (p.88: Feldheim trans.), Hirsch defines avodah as "striving to regain the eternal values of life if we should have lost sight of them through the deceptions, errors, conflicts and temptations of living." He adds, "Our sages call true devotion avodat ha-lev--the service of the heart; that is, the fulfillment of God's will toward our own inner person by purifying and ennobling our character."

Rabbi Hirsch's service is truly more than ritual observance and contains elements that are consonant with tikkun olam, repair of the world, also incorporated in Levi Yitzhak's definition.

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed, (3:32) talks about the deeper meaning of sacrifices and asserts that if the ritual detail is of paramount importance to the avodah, then there would be more leniency about where they can be held instead of restricting them to the Temple. Thus, there must be a more profound meaning imparted to the sacrifices. Moreover, he adds, the prophets--the champions of ethics and morality--frequently spoke out against observing ritual law that does not include a corresponding moral code.

All this is to say that rather than consult the self-help aisles of the local book store, our religion can serve as a moral and ethical compass. Our commentators bring law and ritual to life and instill it with a meaning relevant to our daily lives. Looking within our tradition for inherent moral structure will provide guidance with context and depth that is relevant to us as Jews--it just may be a little more challenging to find our moral guidance here than in a book by Michael Jordan.

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Rabbi Marc Wolf

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