Korach: being alongside each other signifies the presence of God. Standing over each other to dominate signifies the end of our purpose

The story of Korach is, at one level, the story of the tension between the individual and the community. Korach gathers together a group of interested parties in order to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron saying “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of the Eternal?” (Numbers 16:3)

Two phrases are used in this verse to describe community – kol ha’eidah, and kehal Adonai.  The community is both eidah: a group of people who share the same ‘witnessing’ or belief systems, and kehillah a group of people who assemble together in an organised fashion in order to share certain functions for mutual benefit.

Community has always been of critical importance to us Jews. Isaiah tells us “Ameich kulam tzadikim” and continues “They shall inherit the land for all time.” (Isaiah 60:21) We can read this verse as either “the people are all tzadikim (righteous) ” or that “the people when together, are tzadikim, and will inherit the land….

The former seems unlikely to say the least – indeed in our High Holy Day liturgy right before the vidui (confessional prayer) we actually remind God that we don’t have the right to say we are all tzadikim but ask for God’s mercy in the light of the zechut Avot, the relationship God had with our forebears. The latter – the idea that together we become better than we are individually, is a much more resonant idea for us and is one of the reasons for the obligation for communal prayer in a minyan. We are taught that when we pray together we will be heard, while our individual prayers may not have the power to reach the heavens.

There is a folk story that a young child on first learning the Hebrew alphabet pointed to the letter yod which is much smaller than the other letters, and asked her teacher ‘What is this small mark?’ to be told ‘It is the letter yod.’

Then she pointed to two yods written together and asked what they signified to be told that when the two small letters were written together, it was to indicate the reader must understand the particular name of God was being pointed to.

Fascinated, the child looked very carefully in the Chumash to find other examples of these two marks together, to see again the name of God, and then found that occasionally the two letters yod could be found one on top of the other. The teacher told her “this is a sign to mark the end of the sentence” “But they look so similar” said the child, “how do I know which is which?” And she was told “no, they are very different. For when the two sit next to each other as equals, they are the Name of God. When one stands over the other and dominates it, then they are not the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Isaiah speaks of a collective righteousness that depends on us being alongside each other, maintaining our equality and creating community. The folk story reminds us that if we don’t do this, but instead put ourselves over the other, dominate or suppress or even just not notice them as being people too, then the logical conclusion is that our history and being will come to an end.

Interestingly it is clear that Korach knows at some level the importance of communal activity. The two phrases he uses here for community – kol ha’eidah – the shared nature of our beliefs, and kehal Adonai – the shared nature of our activities which bring mutual benefit, remind us that we create community together based on shared purpose and values and that we must organise so that all of us are part of something greater than our individual desires. Korach failed because he wanted something more for himself than for the good of the community. He did what he had accused Moses of doing and set himself above the community rather than alongside it. We create community by working with each other, not through a set of top down policies. And if we address the needs of each other with compassion and care, we create a community that will last. Otherwise, when one stands over the other and dominates it, then we no longer represent the Name of God and everything comes to an end.’

Parashat Vayakhel: how do you make a community?

How do you make a community?

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: eidah, tzibbur and kehillah, and they each describe a different way of being a group together.

Eidah is the political body, the whole group of people with like minds and values, who have a shared sense of identity and purpose. It comes from the root to witness and in bible it is used to describe the whole Israelite people who travelling together having had, and continuing to have, a shared experience and a shared destiny.

Tzibbur, a later post biblical word for community, comes from a root that is to do with heaping up or piling up, and is generally used to describe the praying community. It is the descriptor of the organising principle of the Jewish religious community, the minyan, the group within which prayer is shared and heard. The word tzibbur implies that there are diverse individuals who are joined together for a particular purpose and time – normally understood to be communal worship activities. The laws of the tzibbur form the conceptual framework of community living; they are predicated on and sustain the spiritual life of the community.

The third word used to describe community – ‘Kehillah’ is something that contains both the meanings of Eidah and Tzibbur and more. It goes beyond being a community of shared prayer and shared mission, and looks towards caring for the health, educational, social and welfare needs of individual Jews. It is what we now think of if asked to define what a community should be, providing not just for our practical and functional needs, not just for our spiritual needs, but for our social activities, our diverse interests, our wellbeing.

The sidra vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the people, causing them to become a ‘kehillah’. From having led them out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, from having caused them to be fed and given water, from having been the stern Lawgiver to the people, approaching God on their behalf, and bringing rules and judgments, Moses now does something quite different for them. He brings together the whole ‘edah’ as a ‘kehilla’ (Vayakel Moshe et col adat bnei Yisrael vayomer alei’hem: eleh hadevarim asher tziva Adonai la’sot otam” – Moses brought together as a kehillah all the eida of the bnei Yisrael and said to them, these are the things which the Eternal has commanded to do them)

He then instructs them about two things – firstly about Shabbat, a day of rest to follow six days of work, a day when no fire shall be seen in their homes. And secondly about the mishkan, telling them that col nediv libo – everyone whose heart was willing, (ie everyone who wanted to do so) should bring offerings to God, and then he lists an extraordinary number of objects and materials – gold, silver, acacia wood, rams skins, onyx stones…..

The people go and then come back laden with offerings. There is a strange phrase here – ve’ya’vo’u ha’anashim al ha’nashim – literally the men came upon the women. – and midrash tells us that this phrase tells us that the women came to make their donations first, and the men followed them, a lovely inversion of the story that the women had not wished to give their gold and jewellery for the building of the golden calf, demonstrating that they understood the importance of the mishkan and the abhorrence of the golden calf as a worship focus.

Whether this gloss on the verse is a good one is a moot point. I personally do not like it but I find hard to make any other sense of it. But what it does do is draw attention to the individuality of the givers – both men and women, each bringing what they have, what they can do, what they can make. They each use their skills and their materials to the best use of the mishkan. The focal point for the community is being made of the diverse skill sets and abilities of the entire community, freely giving above and beyond what was needed. The creation of the mishkan is a collective act, a symbol of the diverse community, a representation of its shared beliefs. Building it is an event that creates more than a powerful and beautiful edifice – it is an act that organises a people into a community.

How does one build a community? One recognises that a community is different things at different times, and it is different things to different people, and yet there is a golden thread that holds it together through time and space. Moses uses two different techniques to cause the community to come together – he creates sacred time and sacred space – or rather he brings the community to come together to create sacred time and sacred space. From being an eidah – a body of people with shared experience and destiny who may have nothing else in common, Moses used time and space to make a kehillah – an eidah that encompasses individuality and diversity and shapes it into shared and sustaining community.

Dedicating time and space to something one values is always the only way to develop it, to learn about it, to grow it. Making sacred space and making sacred time are the lynchpins of making sacred community. But doing in such a way that everyone who wants to can be involved, can give their skills, their time, their interests, their knowledge, their labour – this is the lesson we learn from the ultimate community building project of the book of Exodus, the building of the mishkan, the place where God did not dwell per se, but which reminded the people that God was among them.