From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Everyone is holy.”
Despite all the drama of a world in turmoil, I sometimes get the feeling that we live in a boring world. Everyone is so politically correct. Gâ€‘d forbid we should say what we really think!
I once attended a dinner for a local organization, and the entertainer was a comedian. He got up and told the audience that the rabbi of the organization had called him and made him promise he wouldn’t use any material that was “below the belt.” Then, another committee member reminded him not to be racist or anti-religious or gender-discriminatory. A third made him promise not to offend any minority groups. Having been duly stripped of every opportunity for satire, the comedian just said, “Ladies and gentlemen, good night,” and walked off the stage.
The argument of Korach, the mutineer in this week’s reading, smacks of such inane political correctness. Korach accuses Moshe and Aharon of nepotism, of grabbing positions of power for themselves. In doing so, he insists, “The entire community is holy. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Gâ€‘d?”
In fact, the very same argument could be used against Jews in general. “Who do you think you are? Chosen People! Aren’t all men created equal?”
The fact is that Jews are different. Ask any anti-Semite and he’ll confirm it. The blatant hypocrisy of the nations of the world and the international media in constantly holding Israel to a higher standard of morality than it does its Arab neighbors only reaffirms that Jews generally adhere to a value system that is distinctive and unique. Indeed, we do. The “Chosen People” concept means greater responsibility, not privilege. Far from our being pompous and condescending about it, it has molded Jews into the most sensitive, humane nation on earth. And that is precisely why if we do occasionally veer from those principles, it is such an aberration that it is considered front-page news.
Our belief in and respect for the inherent worth of every human being does not contradict our conviction that Judaism is unique. Does not every religion maintain that its path is the correct one? Almost all, besides Judaism, actively evangelize to graciously save the lost souls of other faiths. We Jews do not seek converts, because we believe that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come,” and they don’t need to become Jews to get a slice of paradise.
Some years ago, the University of Cape Town was considering building a student religious facility that would unite all three major faiths in one house of worship. It was to service Muslims, Christians, and Jews in a combined mosque-church-synagogue to be known as a “MosChuraGogue.” I was asked by a local newspaper what I thought of the idea. My answer was that the mistaken presumption in the founders’ thinking was that three separate faiths could not possibly get along. There was therefore a need to join them into one composite. The fact is that we are each distinct with our own set of beliefs and practices, but there is no good reason why each faith should not respect the others. Why must we suppress individuality to achieve harmony?
My saintly mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose yahrzeit is usually observed around the time we read this parashah, thus explained the Midrashic account of Korach’s rebellion. Korach gathered his men, and they donned prayer shawls made of the t’chelet blue wool used for the tzitzit. “Does a tallit made of t’chelet still need tzitzit?” they challenged Moshe. Moshe answered in the affirmative, and they laughed and mocked him. “If one strand of t’chelet exempts an entire tallit, does not a whole tallit of t’chelet exempt itself?”
Said the Rebbe, this was precisely the argument of Korach. The whole tallit, that is, the entire congregation, is holy. We are all t’chelet, holy wool. There is no need for distinctions between us. Why do you, Moshe and Aharon, appoint yourselves leaders and exalt yourselves over us?
The fact is, however, that distinctions are a necessary reality of life. While we don’t look to create divisions between people, not everybody is a doctor. Imagine if every fellow who felt like playing physician would hang up a sign outside his house and start dispensing medicine. We’d have a very sick society!
The Rebbe was a great humanitarian. He was concerned about every nation and every individual–Jew or gentile–and tried to make a difference to the broader society, as evidenced by his efforts for a sacred moment of silence in American public schools and his emphasis on education for all. Simultaneously, he was adamant that Israel needs to be uncompromising in its territorial strategy to safeguard the security of its citizens. Humanitarianism need not mean blurring all the lines. “Imagine,” John Lennon’s peace song where there are no more religions, is not only impractical and anarchic, it is a denial of truth. We don’t all have to be the same to get along.
Within our own people, some are kohanim, others Levi’im, while most of us belong to the rest of the tribes of Israel. There are doctors and lawyers, priests and prophets. The challenge of those who hold legitimate, genuine high office is to keep the distinctions from disintegrating into divisiveness. It is possible to be holy, distinctive, special–and sensitive. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.