Sermon: Korach The Hole in the ‘Hei’
Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 19 June 2023
What does it take to transform a germ of an idea, the very beginning of something, into something truly worthy of praise?
What is the difference between an activity ‘for the sake of heaven’ (le-shem shamayim), and its opposite – behaviour which desecrates, gives a bad name to everything associated with it – as is so often said of Korah’s rebellion?
If you happen to be a Hebrew nerd like me, the answer is: not very much. The Hebrew word for ‘beginning’ is Tekhilla. The word for ‘praise’ is Tehilla (as in ‘psalms’ – Tehillim). The only difference between them is one small part of one letter. (Now you see it , now you don’t – that little window, ‘the hole in the hei’)
The same is true of the difference between Hallel – psalms of praise to God, Halleluiah and do on – and the exact opposite: chillul…desecration. Hallel with a hei; Chillul with a chet.
Should that amuse us, or terrify us – that something so small can make such a difference to the meaning of a word? Does it have any bearing on real life?
In a way, I think it can – and I think it can have special significance for us, here at Alyth, this 90th birthday weekend. I am intrigued by some ideas arising from the first few verses we read this morning:
We didn’t read the first part of the Korah story today, but where we started, in chapter 17, we are in the aftermath of something ‘mega’, cataclysmic. The most serious challenge yet to the leadership of Moses and Aaron, led and stirred up by their uncle/cousin Korach and others, has just ended in the most dramatic fashion, with all the troublemakers apparently being swallowed up by an earthquake…
Whatever the substance of their grievances may have been – a massive number of tribal leaders has just disappeared. The people are frightened and restless, and the future is looking decidedly shaky. We read in verse that God tells Moses:
Order Elazar… to gather up the firepans….because they have become ‘kadosh’ – scatter the ‘fire’ (maybe the ashes) ….and arrange for the pans to be hammered out into thin plates as a covering for the altar…..
First of all, what on earth is a firepan? ( A ‘makhteh’) Apparently it is very much a real thing, and examples have been found all over the Near East, made of clay, or stone, or various kinds of metal – including as here, bronze/copper – linked to all sorts of religious practices. Think of a glorified coal scuttle, which you can use for scraping up ashes, or for carrying hot coals, or a smouldering mixture containing aromatic incense….
We have heard about firepans before – in the instructions for making the desert sanctuary and all its equipment; clearly essential to the way Israelite sacrifice and worship were intended to happen at that time. More ominously, we saw firepans in the hands of Nadav & Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, (Elazar’s brothers) before they died for some unexplained fatal flaw in how they performed the ritual….
And firepans feature heavily throughout this week’s parasha Korach: not only were the 250 rebels each supposedly holding one,… but in the later part of the chapter, it is a firepan held by Aaron, with which he is able to stay the plague….
A glorified shovel… a ritual object….a symbol of service and priesthood, that comes to signify first rebellion then destruction – and we are told it has become ‘kadosh’.
Kadosh – means both ‘holy’ and ‘taboo’…special, dangerous. Something Kadosh – cannot just be ‘thrown away’ or used for secular purposes…but must be transformed into something completely different. Yes, supposedly a reminder of the disaster, but also part of the beautification and protection of the altar for the future. And symbolically, in the hands of Aaron, to stand between the living and the dead, to halt the plague.
Ninety years ago, in the early 1930s, the Jewish population here in North London was joined by fellow Jews who had managed to get away from the dreadful situation in Germany. They had the vision of creating a new community here – and we are all the beneficiaries of that commitment and vision.
Not only that, but this building, dedicated just 3 years later, is on land which had originally been set aside as part of the burial ground of the West London Synagogue. How much more powerful a symbol could we find of transformation, of commitment to life, of ‘seeing through the hole in the hei’.
Many of us Zoomed in on Thursday evening to the special guest lecture by Michael Meyer about Leo Baeck – that remarkable rabbi whose name is so much a part of Alyth. Leo Baeck taught about the ‘thought that obligates’ – that there must be no gap between ideals and their practical implementation; that Judaism is not just about commandment but about kindness and mutual concern and responsibility…that (as we love to sing here) ‘kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh’…..
Leo Baeck committed himself to his community in Germany, survived a concentration camp, and after the war became part of the Alyth vision for the future. It was in Leo Baeck’s honour that the second phase of this building was named – where we learned, and ate, and played and prayed for over 6 decades of the life of this community.
And our vision now is that that building site outside with its clay and its rubble – will become part of our future – hopefully for generations to come when we ourselves are no longer around..
What is the difference between the horrors of Europe in the 1930s and 40s – and the vibrant community we are blessed to be part of today; between a cemetery and the best type of construction site; between a beginning, an idea – and its fruition? Between chillul and Hallel, between tekhilla and tehilla?
It is the ‘hole in the hei’, between ‘ch..’ and ‘h….’, the little window through which we can breathe and see a vision of something better, between a firepan used for challenge and disruption – and the same material hammered out, transformed into something beautiful and protective….
My hope for each of you is that you will find the ‘hole in the hei’ – to see and breathe through the little difference which makes all the difference; that you will find it in yourselves to contribute to this, or another Jewish community, and that by doing so, you will find that you gain so much more than you give, as has been the experience of many of us here today.
 See Mishna Avot 5:17
 Numbers 17: 2-3