In this week’s Torah portion, Korach challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon:
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה’ וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ידוד
במדבר פרק טז, ג
And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, You take too much on you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: why then lift you up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?
It would seem that Korach is right: the covenant at Sinai established Israel as “A nation of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) and thus, in fact, “all the congregation are holy”. But Korach was terribly wrong about the meaning of that holiness. This week’s parasha is a warning for us not to go wrong like Korach. And this warning is of critical importance today because Korach’s false holiness has become a dominant ideology in the modern State of Israel.
Korach understands his “holiness” as a right to personal gain: he wants political power, and since he is “holy”, he thinks he should get it. While holiness carries a variety of meanings in Judaism, “give me more” contradicts all of them. For example, “You shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2) is understood by Rashi as “separate yourselves” from sin. Clearly, those who so separate themselves don’t leverage that fact for selfish gain. Another meaning of “holy” is that whose value is consecrated to God so that one who derives personal benefit from it has sinned. Either way, Korach desecrates the holiness of Israel by using it to advance himself.
Unfortunately, Korach’s prideful ideology was not swallowed up by the earth but is presently enjoying a renaissance. We justify the systematic oppression of Palestinians over the green line in the spirit of “for you are a holy nation unto God” (Deut. 7:6). Read up on the facts, and you’ll find that the State of Israel has used almost all public land under our control in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and much expropriated Arab owned private land as well, exclusively for Jews. Research further and you’ll discover that the State’s authority in planning and building has been abused to dispossess Arabs of their property and to strangle the development of their communities. You can start your research here and here. These are painful examples but only a few among many. Our behavior towards Arabs over the green line is often a case of
שלי שלי ושלך שלי
What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine
The fact that we behave this way with nationalist pride, “without apology”, highlights the existential danger in Korach’s false “holiness”.
Many have difficulty accepting that our policies constitute racial discrimination. Some claim that they are necessitated by security. And we must in fact defend ourselves against Arab racism, fundamentalism and violence as evidenced by the savage inhuman attacks carried out last week. Too often, Western audiences do not appreciate the grave danger that Israel and Israelis face at the hands of murderous terrorists. It is clear that we must sometimes use violence in self-defense in order to survive. But systematic discrimination against a civilian ethnic-national population in areas like public land and urban planning is not self-defense and cannot be justified by security.
Others claim that Israeli Arabs can also live in settlements and thus the discrimination is not against Arabs. But the bald fact is that our policies are designed by Jews with the intent to benefit Jews and those who benefit in reality are Jews. Furthermore, Israeli Arabs themselves often fall victim to similar discrimination inside the green line. We cannot use Israeli Arabs as a fig-leaf.
Lastly, we hide behind the claim that Palestinians over the green line are independent and do not live under Israeli rule. But the areas under Israeli control are spread out across the West Bank so that all Palestinians fall victim in varying degrees to our discriminatory policies. Those in East Jerusalem and Area C live under total Israeli control. But those in Area A are also victimized: Imagine if the public land surrounding your community was controlled by a state bent on preventing your ethnic group from benefiting from it. Obviously, that would impact upon your life. As painful as it is, we must face the fact that our policies constitute racial discrimination.
Through unspeakable bloodshed and horror, the twentieth century taught humanity the principle of
בלי הבדל דת, גזע ומין
Without regard to Religion, Race or Gender
This principle, appearing in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, expresses our recognition that when the state subjugates one ethnic-national collective for the benefit of another, the result is catastrophe. Human dignity depends on the apparatus of the modern state and the state must therefore serve human rights. Racist policies executed by a sovereign state constitute the practical denial that human beings are created in the image of God.
The Torah warns us again and again of this danger. For example:
וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
שמות פרק כב, כ
You shall neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 22, 20
In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch powerfully expresses the meaning of this verse in contemporary terms:
בתור גרים הייתם משוללי זכויות במצרים, וזה היה שורש העבדות והעינוי שהוטלו עליכם. על כן הישמרו לכם – זה לשון האזהרה – פן תעמידו את זכויות האדם במדינתכם על יסוד אחר מאשר האנושיות הטהורה, שהיא שוכנת בלב כל אדם באשר הוא אדם. כל קיפוח של זכויות האדם יפתח שער לשרירות ולהתעללות באדם – הוא שורש כל תועבת מצרים.
As strangers in Egypt you were devoid of rights, and that was the root of the slavery and affliction that was your lot. Therefore, guard you – and this is the language of prohibition – lest you establish human rights in your state on any basis but pure humanity, that which dwells in the heart of every human being just because they are human beings. Every violation of human rights opens the gate to callousness and the violation of humanity – this is the root of the abomination of Egypt.
The principle of non-discrimination, “without regard to religion, race or gender”, is the contemporary vehicle of the Torah’s ancient admonition.
And thus we see that Korach’s self-aggrandizing “holiness” attacks the very roots of Emunat Yisrael, the Faith of Israel. Hence the fate of his followers. We must cleave to the true meaning of
מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ
A nation of priests and holy nation
And so return to the true way of Emunat Yisrael and more deeply connect to the redemptive power of Torah tradition. This, too, is well expressed by R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Exodus 19:6:
“גוי קדוש”…[גוי] אשר אינו חי למען תהילת עצמו, גדולת עצמו ותפארת עצמו, אלא למען כינון מלכות שמים ותפארתה עלי אדמות. גוי זה לא יבקש גדולה בעוצמתו, אלא בממשלתו המוחלטת של חוק – המוסר האלוהי – והלא זה משמעה של ‘קדושה’
A holy nation…[a nation] that does not live for her own glory, her own greatness or her own majesty, but rather to establish the Kingdom of Heaven and its majesty on earth. This nation will not seek greatness in power, but rather in the absolute rule of law – divine morality – for this is the meaning of ‘holiness’.
In the harsh reality of the Middle East, we cannot always live up to our highest aspirations as expressed by R. Hirsch. But it is time that we Israelis, and Jews around the world, wake up to the reality that we, too, contribute our share to the violence and insanity. We engage in systematic discrimination against Arabs that is not justified by self-defense and that we could cease without a peace agreement. We have, in part, fallen victim to the grave error of Korach, and the results are disastrous for both our neighbors and ourselves.
This article is an expansion of a D’var Torah that appeared at Rabbis for Human Rights