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Holy and Equal

07/03/2019 04:24:56 PM


Over three thousand years ago, in words recorded in our portion this week, a bald, Levite rebel named Korach, surrounded by 250 of his minions, declared: “It is too much for you, for all of the congregation are holy.”

Two hundred and forty-three years ago, on July 4th, a group of rebels wearing wigs signed a declaration. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What's the difference between Korach and Jefferson? What's the difference between "the entire congregation is holy" and "all men are created equal?" For one thing, the Levite, Korach, who made one declaration was swallowed up by the earth for his insolence. The men who signed the other became the founding fathers of America. I suppose that if King George had won, I might be writing describing George Washington as no different than Korach.

What is the difference between these two groups of rebels? One is motivation. Korach was driven by lust for power, by greed. He couldn't stand that he was passed over for the leadership, and he sought the wealth that came from priestly offerings. He did not want a different mode of leadership, but rather to replace one sole leader, Moses, with another, himself. In contrast, America’s founding fathers were also motivated by self-interest, a desire for political power and lower taxes, but ultimately, they did not want to take the place of King George. They wanted to create a different way of thinking about society, and a different set of opportunities.

Their implementation was imperfect. It would take centuries for our country to eliminate slavery and grapple with its aftereffects, and to allow women, and indeed, anyone who was not a wealthy landowner, full participation in civil society. That work is not yet done and does not even always move in a forward direction, but it is impressive that it has succeeded at all.

There was also a key philosophical difference between Korach and Jefferson. Saying that all are holy, and all are equal are not the same thing. Holiness is earned, and can vary from one person to the next. Holiness is about what happens when one commits to go further, to do more. All are capable of holiness, but not all choose to attain it.

In contrast, equality implies that each human being is created with essential value that cannot be denied or removed. Each human has inherent worth, and the right to fair treatment, no matter what their gender and faith, and, worthy of note in today's climate, no matter where they may have been born. Both our Jewish tradition, and our American tradition, aspire to this view. Equality does not demand that everyone should receive anything that ask for. Rather, it requires that each person must be granted to opportunity to pursue happiness. Whether we attain it is not guaranteed.

As we celebrate 243 years of American independence, it is worthy to remind ourselves of the difference between these two rebels. We cannot promise holiness to every person. We cannot promise every person success. On the other hand, as a society, we have an obligation to be fair and decent to every human being, to give everyone the chance to succeed, because they are made in the image of God.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784