Korach and The Incredibles

In the original Incredibles, the villain is Syndrome. As a child, he had been a superhero fanatic, but Mr. Incredible rejected him as his sidekick. As he has no superpowers of his own, he now uses his scientific knowledge and ability to create advanced technology that gives himself equivalent superhero abilities. Towards the end of the film, he holds the Incredibles hostage threatens them, “I’ll sell my invention, so that everyone can be superheroes… everyone can be Super!” It sounds lovely.  We can all be superheroes.

Until we recognize what his real intentions were — intentions that have been shared by tyrants forever.  The ancient Greek historian Herodotus writes about Periander, who had just become tyrant of Corinth and sent an assistant to Thrasybulus, longtime tyrant of Miletus, to seek advice on how to rule.

“Thrasybulus invited the man to walk with him from the city to a field where corn was growing. As he passed through this cornfield, continually asking questions about why the messenger had come to him from Corinth, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until the finest and best-grown part of the crop was ruined. In this way he went right through the field, and then sent the messenger away without a word. On his return to Corinth, Periander was eager to hear what advice Thrasybulus had given, and the man replied that he had not given any at all, adding that he was surprised at being sent to visit such a person, who was evidently mad and a wanton destroyer of his own property — and then described what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander seized the point at once; it was perfectly plain to him that Thrasybulus recommended the murder of all the people in the city who were outstanding in influence or ability. Moreover, he took the advice, and from that time forward there was no crime against the Corinthians that he did not commit.”

At first glance, it might seem as though Syndrome’s scheme and what these ancient Greek rulers did are opposites — Syndrome wishes to raise everyone up to being “Super,” whereas Thrasybulus and then later Periander bring down those who stand out. But Syndrome himself continues his statement, and adds the practical effect of the scheme: “Everyone can be super.  And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”  If each and every average Joe has a superpower, it’s no longer special. There’s not much super about it, it’s normal. Syndrome, Periander, Thrasybulus, they all wanted the same thing.  And it’s the same thing Korach wanted too.

            וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם. וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה’ וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה’.

Revolutionary words from Korach that bring to mind calls of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” music to our modern ears. Why are you rising up above us? We were always together through all our trials and tribulations; we suffered slavery in Egypt together, we escaped together, we received the Torah together.  What makes you special? We are all kedoshim, we are all holy.

But if we consider what Kedoshim really means, we can immediately realize the fallacy in Korach’s thinking.  What is called “kadosh” in the Torah?  What is Holy?  God is holy, ki kadosh ani; Nazir is called holy – kadosh hu lashem, Prophets are holy, Shabbat is a holy day, Shabbat Kodesh; holidays are holy, mikraei kodesh, the sacrifices are holy – the order of Mishna about them is called Seder Kodashim, and B’nei Yisrael are holy, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  If we synthesize the data, we see that Kadosh literally means “separate, and elevated.” Taking something apart, and raising it, lifting it up through our actions – through what we do with that which is Kadosh.  But Syndrome hit the nail on the head: if everything is Kadosh – if everything is separated and lifted up, then nothing is Kadosh.  If every day were a sacred day, if there were only Shabbat and no Chol, then Shabbat would be insignificant.  There would be nothing to render it Kadosh, separate and elevated from the rest of the week.

So what is the alternative to Korach’s suggestion?  Were Moshe and Aharon truly just being arrogant, saying “We are Kodesh, you are Chol; we are sacred, you are profane?!”  That’s the image Korach would like for us to have – that’s how Syndrome sees the superheroes.  They think they’re so super.

However, it’s not what Moshe said.  Just a few weeks ago, Moshe gave us his, and really God’s, perspective.  It involves just a small grammatical change in the tense, but it makes a world of difference.  While Korach speaks in the simple present tense, כל העדה כלם קדושים, Moshe spoke in the imperative: קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני- “You shall be Holy.”  Through Moshe, God commands us to make ourselves holy.  We can grow, nurture, and develop our holiness.  And immediately he goes into the detail: the immediately following verse is איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתתי תשמרו.  Honor your parents, and keep Shabbat.  Those are the markers of what makes us holy.  How do we treat our parents? How do we honor Shabbat? We have opportunities to increase our Holiness.  Korach sees holiness as a stagnant state; Moshe sees holiness as something we must strive for.  For Korach it’s something you are, for Moshe it’s something you do. For Korach, Holiness is a given state of affairs, for Moshe, Holiness is an exhortation.

And it requires constant striving.  The only absolute Kadosh- the most separated, most elevated, is God.  As R’ Levi Yitzcah of Berditchev writes in his Hasidic commentary on the Torah, that’s why the verse says Kedoshim tihyu כי ‏קדוש אני‎, “for I am holy.” It serves as a reminder ‎that only God is truly holy.  God’s holiness transcends ‎anyone else’s holiness. Anyone who endeavors to ‎sincerely sanctify himself discovers that in spite of all ‎the progress he makes in this direction that he is still ‎far removed from his objective. We are always growing.

We all have the capacity to be holy.  Some more than others – that’s something we accept.  God is holiest, and Moshe had a higher capacity for holiness than we do, and so on.  But what we do with it determines whether or not we face Korach’s ultimate fate.  Are we stagnant, do we have a fixed mindset about our spiritual capabilities, as Korach did? In that worldview, Syndrome would be right: When everyone is super, no one will be. If that’s everyone’s “holiness level,” then no one is holy. But Syndrome missed the point.  What differentiates superheroes from villains is what they do with those powers.  What made Mr. Incredible a superhero was how he used his powers to improve the world.  It’s about taking whatever gifts we do have, and using them for a positive outcome.

And that’s what holiness is about, using our unique capabilities and constantly striving to raise ourselves up higher.  Higher in our observance of Mitzvot, in our ethical behavior and acts of Chesed, in our Tefilah, and in our study of Torah.  If our “holiness level” is stagnant, if we’re like Korach, כל העדה כלם קדושים, well, that’s not holy at all.  But if we follow Moshe’s imperative of holiness, kedoshim tiyhyu, and we keep striving, trying, and improving, that’s as holy as it gets.

About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.
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