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The False Piety of All Lives Matter

“All of the nation is holy and G-d dwells within each of them.” (Numbers 16:3

Korach’s argument sounds compelling. At first glance, it’s not clear what he does wrong. Yet by the middle of the parsha, G-d is so angry with Korach that he and his followers are swallowed up by the earth. 

What did Korach do that was so bad? Korach’s “All Israel Matters” argument is a lie, because he’s not honest about what he’s really trying to achieve.

A close reading of the parsha reveals that Korach is a classic demagogue. His words draw people in, but his ultimate goal is his own aggrandizement. He is not seeking more power for the people, just more for himself. He convinces others to join him by alluding to a promise that G-d made to Israel in Exodus 19:6, “You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Korach cleverly clothes his power grab in a shimmer of truth.

Our rabbis teach that unless a lie begins with a little bit of truth, it will not be believed (Rashi, Num. 13:27). Korach crafts his words to appeal to the masses but they are ultimately revealed to be self-serving and soul-less. A similarly cynical message is being broadcast today by some in our society. They proudly proclaim, “All lives matter!” Of course it’s true, but like Korach’s opening cry, it masks the speakers’ actual objectives.

The appealing aspect of “All Lives Matter” is the superficial truth that of course every life is precious. But like Korach’s argument, these words are said not to achieve or advance equality, but rather to abrogate responsibility to protect the lives of people of color who are continually under the threat of racial violence. Saying “All Lives Matter” falsely posits that equality has already been achieved and change is unnecessary, and implies that there is no more work to be done.

Our tradition associates a refusal to participate in collective reckoning with the behavior of a wicked child. In the Haggadah, the wicked son wants to know, “Why should I be a part of this?” He asks his parent, “What is this work for you?” as if to exclude himself from the obligation of learning about systemic racism and systems of oppression. He is not interested in anything unless it directly affects him, denying his actual connections to others.  

The Hebrew words for “wicked” (רשע) and “lie” (שקר) both contain the Hebrew letter shin. In the mystical tradition (Zohar 1:2), the letter shin asks G-d to use her to create the world. G-d responds that since the shin will be misappropriated for lies, she cannot be the foundation of creation. The shin herself is truth, but assists in making the lie believable.

There is an old theological dispute about whether pure evil exists, or if it is simply the absence of good. The Igra D’Kala (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, 1783-1841) posits that evil does not exist on its own. Rather, Korach took evil and attached himself to it. This is the shift from רע, potential evil, to רשע, a person who chooses to actualize it. The difference between those two words is the letter shin.

The Hebrew word for “truth” (אמת) comprises the Hebrew alphabet’s first, middle and last letters in order, reflecting that only truth can fulfill the entire Torah (Ben Yehoyada on B.T. Shabbat 104a). By contrast, the Hebrew word for “lie” (שקר) features three of the last four letters of the alphabet with the shin out of order. The word “lie” literally models a distortion of reality — like Korach’s distortion of reality when he acted as though the hard work of creating meaningful change were already done.

The Ari z”l sees Korach’s claim that “All of the nation is holy and G-d dwells within each of them” as aspirational, and even achievable in a future time. He observes that the verse in Psalm 92 for Shabbat, צדיק כתמר יפרח (“a righteous person will flourish like a date palm”) spells out Korach’s name with the last letters of these three words, because in the end, Korach’s claim of equal sanctity for all ultimately will be true. 

In the end, when we’ve done the work we need to do and have built a world of complete justice and love, Korach’s claim that the whole community is holy will be true. But we’re not there yet. 

It will only be appropriate to declare “All Lives Matter” when indeed Black, trans, and immigrant lives — when the lives of every marginalized human being — have been completely re-humanized and wholly valued. Until that time, it is a lie as old as Korach.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

 

Taking Pride in the Parade

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

Today is the Pride March marking 50 years from Stonewall and the beginning of the modern chapter of the LGBTQ liberation movement. So much has been achieved and still so much is left to do.

As rabbis and allies we want to build and tend spaces that provide complete inclusion and  equality. The daily reminders of the brokenness of this world help guide the work we do. The fight for LGBTQ rights is only necessary because society is defective. If there was no homophobia we wouldn’t need straight allies. We only need a trans day of remembrance because many have forgotten that trans folks are G-d’s folks. Our activism is necessitated by our communal failures.

Protests to dismantle socially constructed divisions and calls for radical inclusivity are nothing new. Korach and 250 of his followers bring these demands to Moshe in a dramatic confrontation.

Korach and his entourage say to Moshe and Aharon (Numbers 16:3) “It is too much, all of the nation is holy and God dwells within us all – why are you imposing a hierarchy on us?” At first glance, Korach’s argument seems to be a model of inclusion. All of us are spiritually elevated and divinely inspired. Indeed, Korach is echoing a promise that God held out to Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:6), “And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Given Korach’s supernal desires, why do he and his followers end up swallowed by a hole in the ground? The rabbinic tradition places Korach in a unique position: apparently punishing him for being ahead of his time. In Psalm 92, the song of Shabbos, we say צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח כְּאֶ֖רֶז בַּלְּבָנ֣וֹן יִשְׂגֶּֽה A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, and like a cedar, will grow tall. The last letters of the first three words of the verse in Hebrew spell Korach’s name and there is a tradition that this foretells that Korach will flourish eventually as a righteous person.

The mystics (Zohar and Ari z”l) understand Korach to have been motivated by the yearning to get back to the place before the brokenness, by asserting that we had already fixed it. However, if we do not acknowledge what is broken, we will not be able to properly rebuild. G-d’s justice is necessary and restorative because divine punishments are consequences of our inappropriate actions and position us to repent and return to that ideal place. Korach’s aspirations are holy, it’s his lack of awareness of the effort still needed to replace what was removed that is offensive to G-d’s experience with humanity.

While Korach may have wanted to get back to the moment that God offered to make Israel an entirely holy nation of priests, he is in fact ignoring many of the events of the previous year. Since Israel encountered God at Sinai, they sinned by building and worshipping a Golden Calf and were almost destroyed. The first born sons no longer have a cultic role; they have been replaced by the Levites. Aharon’s two sons died because they brought an unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle. And, most recently in last week’s parsha, the nation has sinned by believing the slanderous report of the spies. As a result, God has condemned Israel to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years. Korach and his followers aspire to return to the spiritual state that Israel was in at Sinai. A year later though, the people are different. Pretending that nothing has shifted does not help them get closer to where they were.

As we celebrate the monumental strides that our country has made in removing LGBTQ discrimination, we must take care not to be like Korach and assert precipitously that all has been fixed. Walking around a city adorned with rainbow flags and stores capitalizing on Pride merchandise is a beautiful and healing experience. But it also can make it harder to remember that in this country, the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is only 35 years. Until all of the human rights of the LGBTQ community have been restored, we must protest and resist the narrative that says we have made it and our work is done. We are indeed all holy and it is our task to see that divine holiness respected in us all.

 

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.