Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law


Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”


Parashat Korach – Leadership and Equality

כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים

Parashat Korah opens with sudden drama, as Korah and 250 other leaders of Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon in open rebellion. Korah and his followers challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority and right to rule over Bnei Yisrael, on the basis of the fact that “כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים,” the entire congregation [of Israel] is holy. What is most interesting about this is that it doesn’t seem to be incorrect. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of Moshe’s comment from Bamidbar 11:29,  “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” “would that all ‘א’s People were prophets.” Moshe seems to agree with Korah in his statement regarding the quality of the people. In his response to Korah, he specifically doesn’t reject Korah’s statement that the people are holy. “Come morning, ‘א will show who are His, and who is holy, and who may come near to Him; and he whom He will choose He will bring near to Him” (Bamidbar 16:5). Moshe opens by saying that ‘א will show who is holy, but then when describing the process actually occurring, he leaves that part out. Moshe seems to agree with Korah, which means that the rather harsh manner in which Moshe responds to his accusations requires an explanation. Upon inspection however, the explanation can actually be found within the extendedly harsh rebuke. Starting with a seemingly redundant second speech, Moshe begins a series of rebukes which detail the specific problems in Korah’s claim.

Korah starts his speech by saying, “רַב-לָכֶם,” “It is too much for you [Moshe and Aharon]!” (16:3). Moshe turns this exact language around on him at the end of his first rebuke, saying, “רַב-לָכֶם, בְּנֵי לֵוִי,” It is too much for you, Sons of Levi!” (16:7). Moshe builds on this by inverting the accusation in his second rebuke. “הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל,” “Is it too little for you, that ‘א has distinguished you from the Congregation of Israel?” (16:9). Korah and (some of) his followers were from the tribe of Levi, and, as such, had already been designated for distinction in Bnei Yisrael, yet they’re treating this as if it is nothing. They’re acting as if Moshe and Aharon are the only ones with special jobs, and by implication they are denigrating their status and duty as Levi’im. Moshe is asserting that although his and Aharon’s jobs are more unique, they are not more important, and that saying they are is actually belittling ‘א’s designation of the Levi’im. In line with his statement from 11:29, “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” Moshe thinks that all of Bnei Yisrael are important and holy. Unlike Korah, he doesn’t think this is dependent on the jobs they are given.

Korah’s fatal assumption, that the job of an Israelite is what makes them special, and that unique duties preclude equality, is addressed by a popular midrash,[2] quoted in Rashi’s comments in Bamidbar 16:1 (s.v. And Dathan.).

He dressed them with cloaks made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes, or is it exempt?” He replied, “ It does require [fringes].” They began laughing at him [saying], “Is it possible that a cloak of another [colored] material, one string of blue wool exempts it [from the obligation of tekheleth], and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself?[2]

In the midrash, Korah argues that the equality of all of the strings throughout the garment ought to eliminate the need for special strings on the corners. Similarly, the holiness of all of Israel ought to obviate the need for certain more distinguished leading individuals.

Korah does not respond to Moshe’s accusations, but his possible response, that he, not Moshe and Aharon, should be in charge of the nation of Israel, is dealt with by Moshe in his speech regarding the deaths of Dathan and Aviram. “Hereby you shall know that ‘א has sent me to do all these works… If these men die the common death of all men… then ‘א has not sent me.” Moshe and Aharon’s leadership is not a function of their innate status, nor could it be, for the entire congregation is holy, rather it is a matter of being chosen by ‘א, being assigned a duty by God. The midrash picks up on this as well, as Moshe’s response, cut off by Rashi, is that the tekhelet strings on the corners of the garments are needed by virtue of being commanded by ‘א. So too, the leadership of Moshe and Aharon is necessary by virtue of being commanded by ‘א.

Equality is part of the basic ideology of the Torah. All people are created in the Image of God (Bereishit 1:26; Seforno Ad loc.). Despite this, differentiation in duties is a necessary fact of life, of trying to form a nation. There must be those who lead the nation and those who perform the services. Therefore, ‘א commanded as such. That does not mean that anyone is innately better than anyone else. The same holds true today, after we have lost the Temple and any form of national leadership. We’re all equal, but we’re all different, and that’s a good thing. ‘א created everyone for a specific purpose, and differentiated us in order to enable us to fulfill those purposes. No one person is better or more important than any other. We’re all part of a greater picture, and all important within it.[3]


[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3; Midrash Tanhuma, Korah, 2.

[2] Translation from, with slight emendations for clarity.

[3] This conception of the nature of individuals in a society also has important ramifications for the way we think of our socio-political models. People tend to point to the emphasis the Torah places on taking care of the underprivileged as proof that the Torah supports liberal/socialist/communist political thought. However, while there are specific contradicting sources, this also runs contrary to the basic debate of the Korah and Moshe. Korah’s argument that all of Bnei Yisrael are holy and thus should be able to serve in the Mishkan lends itself to easy comparison with the liberal point of view, where all people ought to be given all opportunities. This emphasis on the whole as opposed to the individual when it comes to evaluation is classical liberalism. However, as demonstrated above, Moshe does not line up with what’s normally thought of as Conservative/capitalist political-thought. Rather, Moshe’s position really falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing both the individual and the whole (for more on this, see Rav Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference).