I was blessed with the good fortune of having been born as a Jew in the United States of America. I have often reflected upon the meaning of that good fortune.
I was born just months after the outbreak of World War II and have often been haunted by the fact that my young cousins living in Eastern Europe did not benefit from my good fortune. Quite the contrary: they were being tortured and killed at the hands of the Nazis at the precise moment that my parents and grandparents were joyously celebrating my birth.
My good fortune has continued over the course of my life in many ways. It has resulted in both material and spiritual blessings, and I am profoundly thankful that I have lived most of my life in the world’s greatest democracy.
Living in a democratic society, however, does present potentially conflictful issues for a faithful Jew. Long ago, I began to grapple with the question of whether or not the principles of democracy were entirely consistent with the principles of Judaism. Is the Jewish ideal society really one in which all people are created equal, and in which there is true freedom of religious practice and religious expression?
These questions of course have pervaded the discourse concerning the political nature of the State of Israel since before its inception. To what extent can a modern government be both Jewish and democratic? For Israel, this is not merely a hypothetical question. Rather, it cuts to the core of so many contemporary problems and has already required painfully difficult decisions.
Issues concerning democracy are front and center in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32). Korach’s rebellious stance against Moses can be understood as his protest against Moses’ autocratic leadership. Korach pleads the case for the equality of all the people of Israel: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them… Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Does not Korach’s opinion sound strikingly familiar to the quotations that every American child who attended school when I did knew by heart: Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…;” Lincoln’s “…Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal;” and, as my third grade teacher Mrs. Eisner insisted we include in our memorizations, Elizabeth Stanton’s “…That all men and women are created equal.”
The theme of the Korach story presents a different perspective, that persons for whom the fundamentals of democracy are ingrained find very difficult to accept. That perspective asserts that we are not all equal, but rather have different roles to play in life, that these roles are sometimes assigned to us at birth, and that some of these roles carry special privileges and distinct benefits.
This week’s Torah portion concentrates on the one example of such a role: the position of the descendents of Aaron, the kohanim. We are not all equal to Aaron’s seed. They have the privileges of Temple service which are prohibited to the rest of us. They have material benefits that we non-kohanim are obligated to provide to them.
The Torah’s lesson here seems to be contrary to the concept of the total equality that many feel is a cornerstone of a true democracy. Yet, the Torah’s lesson is consistent with a very profound insight of which every thoughtful person is aware. This insight is conveyed so succinctly, and so humorously, by of all people, W. S. Gilbert:
“When everybody is somebody, then no one’s anybody.” (Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers)
For society to succeed there must be some recognition of the fact that we are endowed with differential talents, skills and strengths. We are not all members of one homogeneous mob, from which any of us can be drawn to perform any task or selected to achieve any goal. A democratic society grants us political equality but recognizes how unrealistic it is to assume that we are totally equivalent to each other in every respect.
There is another profound and sobering idea upon which to reflect when one thinks of the equality of all mankind. For despite the inequalities which characterize human existence, there is, in fact, one way in which we are indeed all equal: we are all mortal. Sooner or later, we will all encounter death.
This discouraging but unavoidable truth is taught to us not by Korach in this week’s Torah portion, but by the sons of Korach, in the Torah portion of Pinchas, which will be read in the synagogue in several weeks: “The sons of Korach, however, did not die.” (Numbers 26:11)
Are we to understand this verse to simply mean that Korach’s sons did not die at the time and in the manner that he did? Or, are we to assume, as some of the rabbis in the Midrash maintain, that Korach’s sons never died, that they were somehow immortal?
It is instructive in regard to these questions to read the Psalm which is the heritage of Korach’s sons, Psalm 49:
Lamnatze’ach livnei Korach mizmor.
A Psalm of the sons of Korach.
Hear this, all you peoples;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Men of all estates, rich and poor alike…
Shall he live eternally, and never see the grave?
For one sees that the wise die, that the foolish and ignorant both perish…
Man does not abide in honor; he is like the beasts that perish…
Sheeplike they head for the grave, with Death as their shepherd.
Korach’s sons survived their father’s ignominious fate. They learned that their father’s belief in the equality of all the people of Israel was not true with respect to life, and was not a helpful perspective for the formation of a successful society. Total equality, they learned, was true, but only in that we are all equal in the eyes the Angel of Death. A morbid lesson, perhaps. And one about which we often choose to delude ourselves, at our own ultimate risk.
Personally, I believe that the ultimate lesson of democracy is not that we are all equal. Wisdom, particularly the wisdom of our Torah, teaches us that we are all different. The ultimate lesson of democracy is that we must respect those differences and must come to realize that it is those very differences which make us strong and which ultimately will bring about a perfect society. Perhaps that is the society that only the Messiah himself can bring.