The past three centuries have monumentally transformed the political landscape. In much of our world, democratic governments have replaced repressive monarchies, offering equality and dignity. After centuries of political persecution and institutional discrimination, man has fashioned a fair and equitable form of governance. This movement has been driven by “heroes of democracy”—some of whom authored great ideas of democracy and others who valiantly struggled to implement this dream.
Listening to Korach speak, perhaps he should be included in this list of “heroes of democracy.” After all, he campaigned in favor of political equality and his bold demand can certainly serve as a motto of democracy: “the entire people are holy; why do you lord power over them?” Korach appears deeply committed to political and religious equality. Why is he punished so severely? Why is this “champion of democracy” swallowed by the earth?
There are many answers to this question and many layers to Korach’s crime. Firstly, Korach wasn’t a loyal freedom fighter or a selfless revolutionary; he was a demagogue, shamelessly fomenting popular unrest to serve his own selfish political interests. He spoke gallantly about the nobility of every Jew, but in reality he served the interests of one “particular” Jew—himself. It is tragic that so many were trapped by his fraud and so many suffered such a horrific fate. Demagoguery can only be successful if it contains a kernel of truth, and Korach’s cry for “equality” masked his detestable and egotistical agenda.
Secondly, opposing Moshe’s authority isn’t merely a political protest. Moshe’s authority, established at Sinai and enshrined by his ongoing prophecy, is vital to Jewish faith. Assailing Moshe’s authority undercuts the foundation of our belief system: the divinity of Torah, the validity of the oral tradition and the phenomenon of prophecy. The stakes of this faceoff are greater than just political office; Korach has committed theological heresy and this justifies a severe sentence.
Furthermore, Korach’s hostility displays ingratitude to Moshe. Quite frankly, after all the miracles Moshe performed, his courage in standing down Pharo, his selfless dedication, his feverish prayers to rescue the wayward people, Moshe deserves better. Even if Korach were dissatisfied with Moshe’s leadership, he could have been more gracious in registering his disapproval. Fomenting a mob against Moshe and accusing him of conspiracy is excessive and thankless treatment of a leader who deserves better.
So there are manifold layers to Korach’s crime and he well deserves his awful fate. But even his cry for democracy is flawed; by carefully studying his unusual judgment, and especially the language describing the earthquake, we can better grasp his faulty claims. Moshe employs two very uncommon “code words” to predict Korach’s downfall. Firstly, Moshe informs Korach “in the morning” or “boker” God will select His chosen agents.” Instead of describing the showdown as occurring “tomorrow,” Moshe refers specifically to the morning. Additionally, Moshe predicts a new “creation” or a new “beriya” which, as it turns out, is a major earthquake that swallows the rebels. Both the reference to the morning as well as the allusion to a new “creation” evoke memories of God’s original creation. Somehow, Korach’s challenging of the foundation of nature and then refuting Korach restores the original conditions of the natural order. The world of Bereishit is reinforced through Korach’s defeat, and the wording of his punishment underlines this.
God established firm boundaries within His natural order, and these boundaries support and stabilize our reality. These boundaries can be “geographical” such as the barrier between ocean and dry land, or they can be “conceptual,” such as balance between various forces of physics that together brace our experience. Without these boundaries our reality would collapse. These “distinctions” or borders are built into the natural order and aren’t unfair or unjust; differences in nature are crucial for the proper functioning of the universe. They are just differences, not moral statements.
The most obvious example is the division between daytime and nighttime. During the week of creation God established two very different time periods and assigned respective planets to govern these intervals. Daytime isn’t superior to nighttime, but more so, these differences are pivotal for human survival: daytime enables certain forms of human behavior whereas nighttime permits other forms. Without either, the human condition would fail. Without sunrise and daytime, human productivity would cease and without the sun setting and the onset of nighttime, human resources would deplete. The difference between daytime and nighttime showcases that distinctions or boundaries within nature aren’t morally discriminatory, but built-in necessities to God’s world.
Korach missed this point. What is true in nature is true in the human realm. Of course, every Jew is equal and each one possesses latent and equal holiness before God. However, equality does not translate into uniformity or conformity. Just as daytime and nighttime are distinct, similarly, religious functions must be differentiated so that they can be effectively performed. Specialization is crucial to functionality and isn’t unjust or bigoted. Service as a Levi requires certain lifestyle adaptations that not every citizen can sustain, just as life as a kohen demands even greater stringency and vigilance. By selecting respective groups to operate in these unique settings, God didn’t discriminate against other groups nor did He diminish the holiness of any common Jew. He merely established boundaries in the social and religious order similar to the boundaries within nature. Moshe rebukes Korach, mentioning “creation” and “morning,” thereby reminding him that nature is molded upon these vital boundaries.
Just as God created divisions within the natural order and divisions within the religious order, He also created divisions within our personal and communal “orders.” Differences between races, religions, ethnicities and genders form our personal identity and present shared values around which communities are assembled. Without these differences, personal identity becomes muddled and opportunity for communal experience is hampered. Sadly, in many societies, “identity markers” are often used to generalize or to stereotype; worse, sometimes these differences invite discrimination. When democracy prevents these injustices it is heroic. However, if the culture of democracy blurs these fundamental features of identity and removes the natural divisions within humanity, personal identity becomes hazy and communal experience erodes. Democracy isn’t meant to be a cultural leveler or an identity eraser. In our rush to protect the political rights of every man, sometimes we seek to homogenize diversity and forcibly shape people into “everyman” all the while denying the basic distinctions that God programmed within the human realm. Democracy should aim for equality before the law and equality in the voting booth. The culture of democracy sometimes threatens to undermine the divisions and differences that compose our identity. By erasing differences in our identities, the modern cultures of democracies often commit the same mistake as Korach.
Of course one of the most basic distinctions God created in history is the difference between Jew and gentile. In today’s modern culture of equality, the very notion of a “chosen people” sounds bigoted and racist to many. Those who bristle at the notion of a chosen people may very well paraphrase Korach’s proclamation: if every man is gifted with Divine image, and we all share virtually the same DNA, how can one race be chosen? The response to this modern “Korach-ian” challenge is true today as it was then: Jews are chosen for their special mission. An exceptional people, capable of processing supernatural experiences and stubborn enough to resist historical pressure, has been chosen to assist humanity in discovering the dignity and meaning of a religious lifestyle before God. Differences that are sewn into the fabric of the natural religious order aren’t bigoted—although they can easily be misunderstood as such.
Our role in the “historical order” isn’t yet clear to the world. As Moshe informed Korach, “Tomorrow this will all be clear.” Tomorrow, when the world reaches a better place, this will all be clarified. Tomorrow, all the hate and animosity directed at Jews will fade. Tomorrow, Jews themselves will better appreciate their mission and not only their privilege. Tomorrow.
By Rabbi Moshe Taragin
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.