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Korach - A Companion of Equal Human Rights?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Torah reading focuses on the rebellion of Korach against Moses and Aaron.

Rashi cites the Midrashic teaching of our sages that Korach’s coup was motivated by jealousy. His cousin was appointed to a position of authority that he felt should have gone to him. This message of the destructive power of jealousy is often emphasized when discussing this Torah portion.

However the written law makes no mention of this motivation. There must be another message contained in the simple meaning of the text. The Torah states Korach’s argument in the following straightforward way “The congregation are all holy, why do you elevate yourselves above the congregation of God?” Whilst Korach’s claim was motivated by jealousy, his claim was essentially the claim of a human rights and equality activist. His argument was so convincing that it resulted in many others joining the cause.

His argument is a strong one. If all human beings are equal then all human beings should be afforded the same spiritual benefits and opportunities. Why should Aaron alone stand out as the high priest, be afforded the unique opportunity of entering the holy of holies on Yom Kippur and be involved in general temple service. If all human beings are equal then all should be afforded every opportunity in service of God. This is a compelling claim and one that is strikingly contemporary.

What is the response of Moses and Aaron to this claim? The simple reading of the text indicates that the thrust of their response is as follows ‘Aaron and I never chose our positions of authority and tribal privileges. The delegation of authorities and service privileges given to us were dictated by God. The following test will prove the veracity of my claim. I say that God commanded only the Kohen (priest) to bring incense offerings. Your claim is that everyone should be equal in the service of God and that the group delineations made in the Torah are unjust and not of divine origin. Tomorrow morning your party should bring the incense offering and see if it finds favor in God’s eyes.’ Korach and his supporters took up the challenge and were consumed by a divinely sent fire. Moses thereby proves the authenticity of his claim.

It is therefore apparent that there are times when God’s decreed societal distinctions seem to fly in the face of our natural instinct for equal and uniform spiritual service opportunity. A Kohen has certain duties not afforded to a Levite. The Levites in turn have certain duties not afforded to other Jews etc.

As Jews believing in the divinity of the Torah and yet so proud of our history of championing causes of human rights and equality activism, we find ourselves on the wrong end of a human rights issue. This is extremely uncomfortable. How are we to negotiate this conflict? Do we give up on human equality and rights activism?

In my humble opinion the Jewish resolution to this conflict is as follows. We believe both in the divinity of the Torah and in God being a just God. Therefore when God has decreed that certain groups have defined spiritual rights, privileges and duties, we believe that although the justice behind such a distinction is not understood by us, God knows better. We submit our ethical judgment to the divine will. However, in areas where God has made no such distinctions we are obligated to be advocates for equality and justice for all. A great example of this is the area of prejudice based on skin color. God made no distinctions whatsoever as to a person’s value and privileges based on skin color. Therefore no such distinction exists and as part of our spiritual mandate we are to seek justice and equality for all.

In summary I believe that Jews should be proud of the efforts made by Jews all over the globe for equal rights and privileges for all. Indeed in so doing we fulfill the prophetic vision of being a light unto the nations of the world. However the distinction God makes in the Torah of Moses that involve different roles and duties for Jews, Non-Jews, Kohanim, Levites etc. must be respected and regarded as divine distinctions that are just and beyond the comprehension and understanding of mere mortals. Yes, to live as a Jew means to submit oneself to the divine will and simultaneously be an activist for peace and justice for all mankind.