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.