To Serve With Distinction

Korach's rebellion was based on his inability to appreciate the value of diversity and distinctiveness.

Commentary on Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1 - 18:32

The rebellion of Korach against Moses and Aaron is painful to most Jews who read it, precisely because it is so complex and so timeless.  While we are trained to sympathize with Moses and his supporters by our upbringing and by Jewish tradition, it is difficult for anyone who is passionate about democracy not to become stirred by Korach’s powerful message.  Our Jewish loyalty seems pitted against our democratic commitments.  That conflict hurts.

Moses and Aaron have successfully led the Jewish tribes out of slavery in Egypt and through the dangers of the wilderness.  The life of the tribes is now relatively secure and comfortable.  God regularly speaks, through Moses, to the Jewish people, and the families live out their lives waiting to move into the Promised Land.

In the midst of this idyllic serenity, Korach rebels.  He resents having to follow Moses in all matters, and challenges him with the moving line: “All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”

Korach’s challenge strikes to the heart of the democratic values so cherished by both our Jewish and our American traditions: If all people are created equal, then why should any one person have any authority over another?  Why should one person ever have access to power, wealth or prestige in a way that another person does not?

Korach’s challenge echoes in the words of Samuel and Amos, Jefferson and Lincoln, Marx and Trotsky.  Great leaders in every age, these people fought for the assertion that each person has intrinsic worth, that all people have equal value.

Few in America would challenge that claim. But, we can still ask whether or not equality has to mean uniformity?  All people are indeed equal (in comparison to the infinite God who created us), but we are not all the same.  Equal in worth is not the same as identical in skills. Korach’s flaw was to confuse those two traits — equal worth and identical characteristics.

The fact is that people are not all the same. The most rudimentary glance around a crowded room confirms various degrees of intelligence and strength, different personalities and health.  Great athletes are different than the rest of us, and Nobel laureates do, in the words of the Wizard of Oz, “think deep thoughts with no more brains than you have.” There is a difference.

Korach was threatened by diversity, by specialization, by distinction. Yet Judaism is based precisely on the celebration of diversity, the importance of distinction.  One can be different and still be equal. The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah articulates that insight when it says, “God divided the light from the darkness in order that it might be of service to the world.” Korach’s position would be to try to blend the two, to say that light and darkness are basically the same. Korach would be threatened by their remaining distinct, each contributing in different ways to the maintenance of the world.

But we need distinct periods of night and day.  Both must retain their unique integrity for life to continue. Similarly, the midrash continues, “just as God distinguished the light from the darkness in order that that it might be of service to the world, so God made Israel distinct from the other nations… and in the same manner distinguished Aaron (and Moses).” For Jews to be able to contribute to the world — by living the values and practices that make for a society of sacred learning, divine service, and deeds of love — 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 the world needs Jews and Judaism — as part of humanity, yet also distinct.

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.


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