Americans are fond of the concept of equality. Indeed, the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence proudly proclaims “that all men are created equal.” But, is this really true? What does the Torah have to say about this subject?
Most would agree that the concept of equality found in the Declaration of Independence means equal treatment under the law. However, many in contemporary society wish to extend the famous quote above to denote that all human beings are the same. Those of this school of thought mistakenly believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there should be no differences in regards to opinions, religion, financial statuses, or societal roles. In short, in order for all of us to get along we must all be the same. People who think this way cannot reconcile diversity with unity. All divisions are barriers to be broken and all differences keep human beings from achieving universal peace and harmony. This is not a new idea. In fact a wealthy and brilliant man once fought for such ideals over 3,300 years ago. His name was Korach and this week’s parsha bears his name.
Last week the spies angered G-d and caused a tragedy to befall the Children of Israel. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more exciting, Korach leads a rebellion against Moshe, which leads to conflict, numerous strange deaths and strife. Why did Korach rebel?
The great Torah commentators teach us that Korach’s intentions were actually noble and something to be emulated. Korach wanted to be the High Priest. In this way he could enjoy a very close connection with G-d. It is indeed a wonderful thing for a Jew to desire a close relationship with G-d. For having such good intentions Korach’s name was immortalized as the title of this week’s Torah portion.
What are some other reasons for Korach’s protest? At Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and the Rabbis interpret ‘priest,’ in this case, to mean High Priest. Furthermore every single Jew has this lofty potential within him/herself (In the Garden of the Torah, 56). Korach reasoned that since the entire congregation is holy and every Jew possesses a spark of G-dliness, there should be no division of labor within the service of G-d. He also internalized the lesson of last week’s parsha, which teaches that action – serving G-d through mitzvot in the physical world – is more important than intention. If we must all do mitzvot, why should Moshe be held in any higher esteem than anyone else? Furthermore, Moshe only appointed members of his own tribe (Levi) to services in the Holy Tabernacle (later the Temple). Moshe’s own brother, Aaron, was designated High Priest. To Korach and his cronies, these details not only smacked of nepotism, but the choice of who should work in the Temple suspiciously seemed to have come from Moshe rather than the Holy One Blessed is He. All of this led Korach to protest Moshe saying: “Why have you made yourselves elite over G-d’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3).
Korach’s intention was admirable. His error lay in how he went about pursuing his ambitions. Korach’s rebellion resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Not only in deed was Korach evil, but his very essence was rooted in divisiveness. In Hebrew the root of the name Korach (kuf, resh, chet) means ‘division or ‘split.’ Causing division and strife contradicts the purpose of the Torah which was given in order to bring about peace in the world (In the Garden of the Torah, 57). So why was he honored by having a Torah portion named after him?
To answer this question we must first define unity. Absolute oneness is not possible or desirable in our physical world. Rashi points out that G-d created differences such as morning and evening. Our world is made up of a multiplicity of divisions – hot and cold, darkness and light, big and small, male and female, and a variety of plant and animal species. However, this inherent diversity in the world need not be an obstacle to the kind of unity the Torah desires. A true unity is one in which divergent entities are able to work together in perfect harmony without compromising their own individual natures (ibid., 58). Differences are not to be feared and eradicated. Rather, they are to be embraced. In fact it is the variety and diversity in our world, which makes life so special and interesting.
The Torah is endorsing pluralism. It is ok for men and women or Jews and non-Jews to have separate roles and different ways of achieving the ultimate purpose of unifying the spiritual with the material. G-d left it up to each of us to utilize our own unique talents, intelligence, and creativity to figure out our place in the grand scheme of things. When every individual plays the note they were meant to play, we can all make some beautiful music together.