Fair and Unfair in Judaism
by Braha Bender
Korach approached Moshe with the demand that Jewish leadership ought to be a communal affair. After all, argued Korach, “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy and Hashem is among them; why do you exalt yourselves?” (BaMidbar-Numbers 16:3)
Obnoxious chutzpah notwithstanding, in a way Korach was right. What makes a good lie is a powerful little bit of truth. The entirety of the Jewish people, men, women and children, had all personally witnessed and heard the Almighty speak at Sinai only a short time ago. As they travelled through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, the Presence of G-d was revealed among them on a constant basis. They were indeed all exceptionally holy people.
But in a more relevant way, Korach was wrong. The entirety of the community was not fit for leadership because communal leadership is a farce. In truth, Korach wanted the leadership position for himself. Since all the politicking in the world would not raise him to Moshe’s stature, he tried to undermine Moshe from the bottom up by protesting the notion of “separate but equal”.
Again, Korach had a reasonable sounding claim. The problem with the notion of “separate but equal” is that it’s usually high on the “separate” and low on the “equal”. At the end of the day, Moshe bore the privilege and responsibility of leadership and Korach did not. Complained Korach, how is that fair?
Meet Rachel. Rachel grew up in the inner city slums of an industrial dead-end in middle America. She didn’t have enough to eat. Her single mother numbed her pain on the bottle. Instead of hugs and kisses and help with her homework, Rachel received insults, screams and encounters with a belt buckle. Rachel’s life was “not fair”.
No one would have chosen that life – except Rachel. Thirty years later, Rachel looks back at a life of accomplishment against all odds. Instead of succumbing to her mothers and her peers’ lifestyle, Rachel dragged herself through school by the skin of her teeth, grabbed on to the counseling services available at her public school, won a scholarship for the underprivileged, and began building a new life for herself. After discovering her Jewish heritage thanks to an outreach rabbi on her college campus, Rachel decided to try out seminary in Jerusalem for a semester. One semester began the commitment of a lifetime.
Walking down the street in Jerusalem today, Rachel looks like any other frum married woman who stayed on after Neve and built a life for herself. But her relationship with Hashem? Much deeper than most other people’s. Her appreciation for what it means to live a healthy, meaningful life? Much greater than most other people’s. The pleasure she takes in the little things that others take for granted? Much more profound than most other people.
Rachel understands that what she went through didn’t just make her stronger, it gave her a clarity, a love of life, and a relationship with the Almighty that goes way beyond what most other people get to enjoy. Her life is qualitatively different thanks to who she was pushed to become. Would she have had that without her difficult background? Maybe. Probably not.
Is that “unfair”?
Meet Yechezkel Tzvi. Yechezkel Tzvi or “Chezky” , as most people call him, grew up in a prestigious rabbinical home. There were no skeletons in the closet; no cobwebs behind the bulging bookshelf – just a normal, warm, wonderful frum environment.
Chezky certainly had enough to eat, and in every way. His home exuded nourishment. People dropped in at every hour of the day to ask his father shailos (halachic queries) and advice. His mother, while making sure to provide Chezky and his siblings with plenty of personal attention, also found the time to counsel, cook, and care for the emotionally and physically needy in her community.
But Chezky took it all for granted. Chezky went to the best chadarim, the best yeshiva ketana, and the best yeshiva gedolah as a young adult. An uncle in the diamond business bought him an apartment when he got married – to the best shidduch that money and yichus could buy, of course – and they lived happily ever after.
Or, should I say, mediocre ever after? Chezky never took life by the reigns. He never took initiative to grow beyond where he started. Society didn’t expect him to. On the outside, he looked like a tzaddik, a perfectly normal religious Jew.
Inside, though, Chezky had no real sense of drive or fulfillment. He was gliding through life and life was gliding by him, just passing by. He never tried to surpass the spiritual starting line where he had begun his privileged existence.
He could have. Being born into a healthy, frum family is an ideal we wish for every child. With all the terrific resources he had been given, Chezky could have and should have chosen to make every effort to surpass his comfort zone. But he didn’t. His Judaism was rote and so was his superficial relationship with Hashem.
Chezky’s eyes did not sparkle like Rachel’s, not for a second. What would they have to sparkle about? Inside, behind the calm and put-together veneer, Chezky was in a self-induced spiritual coma.
Is that “fair”?
Separate But Equal Revisited
Torah explains that a good parent does not give every child the same thing; a good parent gives every child what he or she needs. “Fair” does not mean keeping up with the Jonesteins. “Fair”, according to Torah, is how the Almighty treats every one of us: with individualized, personal love and attention.
Both Rachel and Chezky got what they needed to maximize their individual spiritual potential. Sure, you could claim that Rachel got the better deal in the long run. Her starting position in life was so extreme that it almost forced her to grow into a bigger, deeper, more accomplished and fulfilled person, but Chezky could have done just as well.
Chezky could have used the resources his childhood had given him to become a fantastically growth-oriented person. Historically, plenty of children of gedolim (extraordinary Jewish leaders) went on to become gedolim in their own right, and it wasn’t because they were riding on their prestigious parents’ coattails. Growth doesn’t work that way. It’s always an inside job.
However, Chezky didn’t make that choice. Rachel did. Which individual received the more “fair” portion in life? Both of them received exactly what they needed for their unique free-choice growth potential.
The concept of “separate but equal” in Judaism doesn’t just apply to the different mitzvos assigned to men and women, or to Levite men, Kohanic men, and Israelite men. It applies to every single individual. Not a leaf falls from a tree without the direct causal attention of the Almighty Himself. We don’t believe in any other power. None. Not gravity. Not rush hour. Not mothers-in-law. Not bad childhoods. Torah Jews know that everything is from Hashem.
Korach’s argument was wrong on a fundamental level because, although all Jews are indeed holy, G-d also made each one of us different. Our different capacities and roles are not a mistake. Different people are capable of making uniquely meaningful contributions to the whole precisely because of their differences. Not everyone is suited to be a leader just as not everyone is suited to be an electrician. Or a painter. Or a woman, man, Levite, Kohen, and so on.
We each have different life circumstances and different personalities. This is purposeful, and, according to Torah, meant to be capitalized on. Our differences are not meant to be a means of competition, but a potential source of true unity and strength.
As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe said:
“Every person must realize: I, with all my abilities, potentials and talents both physical and spiritual, am unique in the universe. Amongst all those alive today there is no other me.
In past generations too there was no other me, and until the end of time there will be no other me.
And if so, the Master of the Universe must certainly have sent me here on a special mission that could be fulfilled by no one else but me - with all my uniqueness.”
Moshe’s response to Korach got to the heart of the matter: “In the morning Hashem will make known the one who is His own…” (ibid 5)
Rashi explains that the exegetical interpretation of the words “in the morning”: “Moshe said to them, ‘The Holy One, Blessed is He, divided His world with boundaries. Can you turn morning into evening? So will you be able to nullify this.’”
We can protest our childhoods, we can blame our mothers, and we can spend our lives wishing we had different personalities. That is, until we realize that all of it was and continues to be choreographed directly and precisely by our Maker. It is only when we realize that G-d is the one Who gave us that childhood, G-d is the one Who gave us that mother, and G-d is the one Who gave us this personality that we can begin to use those tools to grow.
G-d created our starting line. It is up to us to try to reach the finish line. Our eternity is determined not by what we look like at the end of our lives, but by how far we have come from where we started.