Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism, 1698–1760) would often say to his disciples: “Everything a Jew sees or hears should serve him as a lesson in his service of his Creator.”

One winter day, the Baal Shem Tov’s students witnessed a group of peasants who had gathered on the surface of a frozen river, from which they carved a block of ice in the shape of a cross to use in a religious procession. They asked their master what lesson they could possibly derive from such an “un-Jewish” scene. The Baal Shem Tov replied, “In the Torah, water has spiritually cleansing properties; but when it is frozen, even the purest substance can be made into an icon of heresy.”

A Jew must be passionate about G‑d. Every morning we begin our day yearning for G‑d in prayer. We patiently fan the spark of this yearning until it is transformed into flames of passion and desire that are expressed throughout the day by the passionate observance of His commandments.

A Jew who is religiously “cold”—who prays by rote, who is dispassionate about the rituals and who is unmoved by Torah—might quickly slide into irreverence and even, G‑d forbid, heresy. Hence the chassidic adage, “A narrow divide separates coldness from heresy.”1

Korach

Our Torah reading this week tells the story of a Levite named Korach, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron in a bid for the leadership of the Jewish people. The Torah begins this story with the words “And Korach took,”2 but doesn’t specify what Korach took.

What did Korach take? The early commentators understood that Korach took himself and his co-conspirators out of the congregation. Korach had no wish to be a part of the group, of being a follower. He wanted to separate.3

The name Korach alludes to a character of divisiveness. The Midrash links the name Korach with the Hebrew word which means “baldness,” as in the verse containing the prohibition “You shall not tear out a bald spot (korchah) . . . as a sign of mourning for the dead.”4 Tearing the hair from one’s head leaves an unnatural emptiness where there should be hair; tearing Jews away from one another, as implied by the name Korach, leaves an unnatural emptiness where there should be unity.5

Korach wanted to be a leader, and no price was too steep for him. If becoming a leader required him to break with the nation and start a new following, then he was prepared to do so. If it required the fracturing of Jewish unity, he was prepared to do that too.

A Block of Ice

Why was Korach so callous about Jewish unity? Why was he rebellious against Moses and Aaron, the leaders appointed by G‑d? Once again we turn to his name for insight. The name Korach is spelled with the very Hebrew letters that spell the word kerach, “ice.” Korach, as his name implies, was cold and apathetic by nature.6

Korach pursued his selfish desire for leadership with no regard for anything else. Jewish unity was expendable for him. Divine appointees were replaceable. He viewed the negative fallout with dispassion, the damaging effects with apathy. Nothing would stand in the way of his singleminded pursuit.

Separating the Waters

As recounted in the first chater of the book of Genesis, on the second day of creation G‑d made a “firmament” whose function is “to separate between the water that is below the firmament and the water that is above the firmament.” This was the first division in history, and the spiritual root of all future divisiveness, including that of Korach.7

The “upper waters” represent sanctity. The “lower waters” represent secularism. G‑d separated the two at creation, but intended man to reunify them through living in the secular world by the sacred code of the Torah and mitzvot.

Korach sought to sow divisiveness between G‑d and the secular world by perpetuating this separation. He rebelled against Moses and Aaron because they were the medium through which the Torah was being disseminated. Korach rejected the very concept of reunification, and thus rejected the medium that brought it about.8

The Frozen Mikvah

In the Soviet Union, the Communist regime forced the closure of all indoor mikvaot (ritual baths), leaving the Jewish community with no alternative but to immerse themselves in outdoor pools of natural water.9

These pools were accessible in warm weather, but during the winter the rivers would freeze over and block access to the waters beneath the surface of the ice. During these frigid months, many Jews were forced to abandon the sacred mikvah ritual. But even this weather failed to deter many chassidim, who actually broke the ice and entered the frigid waters. These fervent Jews were held in great esteem by their brethren.

It is easy to immerse in the mikvah before the ice has formed; but once the ice has hardened over the water’s surface, it requires a great deal of motivation and energy to break through the ice and reach the water below. The same holds true for immersion into Torah and mitzvot. Once the ice of disinterest and apathy has formed, it becomes very difficult to break through.

Difficult, yet possible. It requires a great deal of energy, but it is an achievable goal. We can break through our inner ice, our apathy, and reach for the flames of passion and religious fervor that are always present within.