Korach and the Limits of Individualism

Throughout the 40-year journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land, the Torah teaches, the former slaves learn what it is to become a nation.

In the book of Numbers, which we are reading as part of our annual Torah reading cycle, the Israelites time and time again test Moses and God as they journey not only towards their new home, but towards a new understanding of community. This week, we read the story of Korach, who offers a challenge not from the grassroots, but from the highest halls of power.

As a Levite, Korach is part of the ruling elite, a functionary of the Tabernacle, a spiritual leader. Yet, the top leadership in the community rests with a different Levite, Moses, and his brother Aaron, who serves as High Priest. Korach speaks out against Moses, saying, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”

In other words, you, Moses, are no holy than anyone else, so why is it that you are elevated as our ruler?

While Korach is seen in Jewish tradition to be a villain, challenging Moses and God and leading a rebellion, of late I tend to sympathize with him. While he and his followers are swallowed whole by the earth as punishment for their rebellion–their sedition had the potential to upend the communal order–ultimately he has a point. We should consider everyone holy, not just the ruling few, and therefore leadership should be earned, and not just granted.

And yet, we can see how Korach’s words can be taken too far in the other direction. What if Korach is not just questioning Moses’s leadership, but questioning leadership in general? “For all the community is holy,” Korach says, and therefore we should each be able to do what we want, we should each be able to make our own choices all the time.

It is a tension that we continue to feel to this day, especially as we live in the rights-based society of the United States. Each one of us, we are told in our country’s founding documents, is “holy,” though our American scripture uses the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

However, we tend to take this too far, and forget that our rights need to be balanced with responsibilities. We have the freedom of speech, yes, but we can not exercise that right in a way that puts other people in danger–the classic “can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” argument.

It is often the case that individual rights need to be balanced with communal responsibilities. We do have our individual liberties, and yet so does everyone else. And sometimes these come into conflict, and we find ourselves needing to curtail our own individual liberties in order to serve a higher communal good. We can not, we should not, always put ourselves first.

This lesson is grounded in our Jewish tradition, which teaches a responsibility-based society. We are taught that we are all responsible for one another. We are told in the Torah to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” to make their suffering our own, to make their needs our needs. Giving to charity, sharing what we have, is not an option, it is an obligation. Our spiritual teaching of community is the counterbalance to the American teaching of individualism; we are taught, time and time again, it is not just about us.

Today is the day that here in Washington, Governor Inslee’s mask order becomes official. Everyone in a public place throughout the state is expected to wear a mask in order to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. We have long known that wearing a mask is a good idea; the order now makes it state policy.

This does not sit well with some who do not want to be “forced” into wearing a mask. For some the opposition is based on their own medical condition, and the feeling that they themselves are healthy enough to take risks of exposure. For others its the simple defiance of not wanting to be told what to do, that they should be able to make decisions for themselves. (I won’t even address those who think it is a hoax or the will of God.)

The problem is: they are not making a decision for themselves, and they need to consider everyone’s risk of exposure. Because we are interconnected, part of an interdependent society, there are times when we do things not out of individual choice, but because its been determined to be beneficial to the greater good. Our responsibilities need to balance out our rights.

Korach challenged authority, and by doing so we can understand him to be advocating the sovereignty of the individual. That attitude does not support a thriving community. There are things we are called upon to do not just on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others. Individualism may benefit us, but it does not always benefit our neighbors, our families, our friends, our communities.

To use Korach’s own words, “all the people are holy,” which all the more so means we should do what we can to safeguard the health and safety of everyone in our community, even if that means doing something we are asked to do and not something we choose to do.

In other words, even if you would prefer not to, wear the mask.

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