DEMOCRACY AND DISTINCTION
Korach’s opening challenge against Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohein – that the entire eidah, assembly, was holy and therefore Moshe and Aharon had no right to place themselves over the kahal Hashem, the Congregation of God1 – immediately may remind one raised within the ethos of Western society of the basic Jeffersonian principle upon which the very concept of democracy is built, that “all men are created equal.” Forging a connection between the position of Korach and the values of democracy would though, for many people, no doubt yield a powerful conflict; to maintain that Korach stood for the principles of democracy, it would seem, must necessarily result in the conclusion that Moshe, Torah and God strongly maintained an opposing perspective. Could this scenario possibly be true? .
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, Shiurei HaRav, The First Rebellion Against Torah Authority, points out that Korach’s argument was not exactly that all Jews are created equal but, rather, that all Jews are chosen equal. The contention of Rashi, Bamidbar 16:32 effectively concluding that the Jews were all equal for they were all chosen to be part of the unique Revelation at Sinai, would seem to support this assertion.3 Is this difference, though, enough to distinguish Korach’s argument from the basic principles of American democracy? Of course, it is not inherently problematic for the Torah to maintain value positions that are contrary to those maintained within the secular world. If Korach indeed is an advocate of Jeffersonian democracy and the Torah, in strongly condemning Korach, is declaring its opposition to this value structure, so be it. We are still, though, called upon to understand and internalize the Torah teaching. If the Torah, as such, seems to be critiquing a value structure which, practically, has had positive consequences for our people and to which we have a positive reaction,4 we cannot ignore the challenge this presents to us. We have a duty either to identify and correct the weaknesses within our internal thought system that led us to look upon this value in a positive light, or to rectify our misunderstandings of Torah that have yielded a conclusion that the Torah looks negatively upon this value (or sometimes, in some measure, both), That is the challenge that is before us.
It may be that Korach’s contention was not simply about equality. Mizrachi, Bamidbar 16:3 is perplexed by Rashi’s reference to Sinai. While there may be a variety of sources that could be used to assert an absolute equality amongst all Jews; the problem is that this event, the Revelation at Sinai, is not really one of them. It actually confirms Moshe’s distinctiveness for, while the people did indeed hear a part of the Divine message, it was only Moshe who heard its entirety. The fact is that there were many episodes in the Desert that clearly showed that Moshe was unique and that, clearly, his relationship with God was unique.6 It is thus difficult to assert that Korach’s argument was solely about equality; Moshe was unquestionably distinct. It may, however, be concerned with how we are to balance equality and distinctiveness. Even within Western democracies, we recognize that there is a limit to the principle that “all men are created equal,” and, indeed, there is much distinctiveness between people even at birth. The question is how we balance and apply the two. It is within this context that Rashi’s reference to Sinai may be most significant. Korach’s argument was that Sinai represented the proper balance.
What occurred at Sinai? God wished to speak to the entire nation and indeed the nation as a whole participated to some extent in this Revelation. The people, though, then felt that they could no longer endure this powerful presence of the Almighty and requested from Moshe that he continue the process. For the nation to have asked Moshe to act for them they must have recognized his distinctiveness – but this may have been precisely Korach’s point. Indeed Korach knew that Moshe was distinct. They all knew of Moshe’s distinctiveness. The question was when and how to manifest this distinctiveness within the nation. At Sinai, it was the nation that called upon Moshe to assume a unique role. This was Korach’s argument. The starting point of Jewish nationhood is that we are all equally chosen. It is then the nation that must determine when the distinct individual has to assume a position within the nation that reflects this distinctiveness. This was Korach’s question. Indeed, Moshe and Aharon were distinct but, given, also, an inherent equality within the nation, what gave Moshe and Aharon the right to impose their distinctiveness upon the nation?
The simple answer to Korach is that it was not Moshe and Aharon who imposed their distinctiveness upon the people but rather it was God. Within a broader context, it is Korach’s assertion that any communal application of individual distinctiveness must emerge from the will of the people that is also being challenged. The nation also has the responsibility to respond to individual distinction, not only by giving authority to distinct individuals but also by allowing such distinct individuals to assume their rightful place of authority. It was this symbiotic relationship between the nation and its leaders that Korach did not understand or, more correctly, did not want to understand. Indeed the collective will of the nation must play a role in any assumption of position due to individual distinction but individual distinction also has a weight in imposing a position of leadership upon the people. We cannot just choose when we want a leader to act for us and which individual of distinction we wish to choose. The very fact of a person’s distinctiveness may demand of us to respond appropriately.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See Bamidbar 16:3.
2 Rashi maintains that Korach’s argument of equality was based on the fact that all Jews heard words at Sinai from the mouth of God.
3 It may be interesting to further note that in presenting this reason, Rashi can also be understood as specifically rejecting, at least in this context, an argument of Jewish equality at birth in that all Jews are born with the unique Jewish soul. See, for example, Kuzari 1:95 and Tanya, Chapter 1. Of course, the introduction of the concept of the Jewish soul also introduces the issue of Jewish distinctiveness which clearly does challenge the idea that all men are created equal. This issue and indeed an investigation of the very concept of a Jewish soul including the differing opinions regarding its nature, even amongst those who maintain its existence, and the divergent opinions on whether there even exists a Jewish soul distinct from other human souls, is clearly beyond the parameters of this Insight. Our issue is specifically equality and distinctiveness within the Jewish People.
4 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,
Iggrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:29, for example, refers to the
5 See Shemot 20:16,
6 Hashem, in fact, in Bamidbar 12:6-8 clearly describes Moshe’s uniqueness yet it could be contended that this was not public knowledge.
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© 2010 NISHMA