No advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer. (George Orwell)
Please stop reading this. You rebel! No doubt you are someone who actually enjoys reading about Korah's revolt, which is found in our Torah portion, Korach, this week. The rebellion ends in failure, but it is fundamentally quite painful to most Jews who read it, largely because it is complex, timeless, and timely. Jewish tradition trained us to sympathize with Moses and his supporters. For the Rabbis of the Midrash, Korah represented all that was evil in the community and all that was wrong with human character. Still, it is difficult for anyone passionate about democracy not to be stirred by Korah's powerful message. It is almost as if our Jewish loyalties are pitted against our democratic allegiances. And for those of us who take both the Torah and the Declaration of Independence seriously, that conflict hurts.
Let's review: Moses and Aaron have successfully led the tribes out of slavery in Egypt, through the threats of the wilderness, and they are now relatively safe, secure, and comfortable. As the families of the Israelites are living out their lives, waiting to arrive in the Promised Land, God continues to speak through Moses to the people. In the midst of this idyllic serenity, in the hills outside of the Land of Israel, Korah rebels! Resenting having to follow Moses in all matters, Korah challenges him with these profound words:
You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation? (Numbers 16:3)
Korah's defiant words strike at the heart of the democratic values so cherished by American sensibilities. If all people are created equal, then why would any one person have authority over another? Why should one person have access to power, wealth, or prestige in a way that another person does not? Korah's challenge echoes the words of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But these sentiments also are found in the prophetic voices of the Torah. In fact, in every generation there are leaders who fight for the assertion that each person has intrinsic worth and that all people have equal value. And since few of us would challenge this claim, Korah's disobedience strikes a chord within us.
What does equality really mean? "Whatever Rabbi Yochanan had to eat, he would give the same to his slave, about whom he would quote the verse, 'Did not the God that made me in the womb also make him? And did not the One fashion us both in the womb?' (Job 31:15) " (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubbot 5:5, 30a). All people are equal in the eyes of God who created us, but that does not mean we are all the same. To be equal in worth does not mean we all have the same God-given abilities. Korah's flaw was that he confused equal worth with equal skills. In this world there are people with differing degrees of intelligence, strength, size, and even health. Great athletes are unlike the rest of us, as are talented musicians. If you were to hear me lead a service, you would agree that there is a difference between my singing and that of a cantor. Korah misunderstood equality and holiness. He was threatened by diversity. And Judaism is based precisely on the celebration of diversity, the importance of distinction. So one can certainly be different and still be equal.
The Rabbis offer an explanation for Moses's instruction, "Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Eternal. Then the man, whom the Eternal chooses, he shall be the holy one . . ." (Numbers 16:6-7). Regarding the showdown of incense at twenty paces, the Rabbis ask the following question: "What did Moses have in mind in speaking thus? He meant: in the religions of idolaters, there are many false divinities, many evil rites, and many would-be priests. . . . We, on the other hand, have only God, one Torah, one law, one altar, and one high priest. Yet you, all two hundred and fifty of you, are seeking the one high priesthood" (Tanchuma B, Korach 11; B'midbar Rabbah 18:8).
The goal for us as Jews and partners of Jews is to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). By contributing our talents to the world, each of us is able to improve humanity by living the values and practices that make for a society of sacred learning, divine service, and deeds of love. Not all of us are cut out to be leaders, but as a people we must remain distinct. Not better, not isolated, but distinct. Just as we needed Moses to function as a leader, a part of the people, yet distinct from them, so too the world needs Jews and Judaism, with its distinct role to play in the participatory drama of human life.
Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice.