Imagine an office environment in which there are three employees who do the same type of work. Each of them is dedicated to completing the assigned responsibilities, but to varying degrees. One of them does the bare minimum, simply checking a box in order to move on to the next task. Another goes further, investing fully in a project and spending time and energy pouring over the details. The third goes above and beyond, doing well more than required. The work they put in is reflected in their yearly bonuses, with the most dedicated of the three receiving the largest bonus. However, in each case the job still gets done, so why should the hardest worker get paid more?
According to Korach, this is the dilemma facing the Israelite nation. This week in Parshat Korach, we read the details of the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.
Korach’s problem was that he saw the community as unbalanced. He didn’t understand the need for priests and additional leaders and why holiness played a role in leadership. In Korach’s words, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” Korach sees the entire community as holy and thus deserving of equal status, including their relationship with God and leadership responsibilities. In Korach’s mind, no one is better or holier than any other community member, which, in a sense, is a beautiful vision of equality.
Unfortunately, Korach underestimates the value of leadership. Everyone may possess some holiness, but without the vision and direction of leaders, what good is that holiness to the community? Working together in general, let alone building a society, isn’t always neat and tidy. Group efforts can be messy and difficult because, holiness aside, everyone is different. Some people will work to the status quo, and some will go above and beyond. But the beauty of true community and teamwork is recognizing that each person has something to contribute. We may each be holy, but the holiness of the community is far greater than the sum of our individual holiness.
Modern Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz offers a similar take. The model that the Torah sets up is one where communal holiness is the goal, not a given. While we may all have a spark of holiness inside us, our community isn’t truly holy until those sparks come together.