When it comes to high drama, it’s hard to beat Parshat Korach. When Moses’s first cousin, Korach, challenges the leader’s authority, Moses retorts by suggesting a “spirituality duel” of sorts, charging Korach and his band to return the next morning so each party can present offerings to God. Korach’s offerings are rejected, and God renders a final sweeping judgment against the rebels by opening a chasm in the earth that swallows all of Korach’s people and their possessions.
Although the Torah does not offer great detail about the encounter between these two leaders and the nature of Korach’s complaint, many midrashim help to fill in those blanks. One, in particular, from Bamidbar Rabbah, offers us some “behind-the-scenes footage” that not only sheds light on each man’s intention, but can have profound implications for how we enact our commitment to global social justice today.
In the midrash, Korach challenges Moses’s authority on issues of halachah—laws of observance. At one point, he asks Moses if a house full of Torah and Scriptural books stills requires a mezuzah on the door. Moses answers that, indeed, it does. Korach laughs and, in a mocking tone, questions this logic: the mezuzah contains only two excerpts from Torah, while a house full of books contains its entirety! The midrash implies that for Korach, the spirit of the law (i.e. owning a substantial Jewish library) trumps the letter of the law (i.e., affixing a mezuzah to the door).
I believe that there is another interpretation of the midrash that carries universal truths that are applicable to global justice work today. We can also see the issue as a debate about the importance of the internal versus the external expression of commitment. Korach believes that what is on the inside (the library) outweighs what is on the outside (the mezuzah). Moses, however, finds value in both: he never negates the importance of a home filled with Jewish books; but he asserts that, whatever the internal contents, the home must have a mezuzah on its door to demonstrate the residents’ commitment to God to those outside.
Making a parallel to social justice work today, the library represents the steps we take quietly and privately to make a difference in the world. This may involve our personal study of the Jewish values surrounding the pursuit of justice, or actions we take privately—such as giving tzedakah, volunteering or signing petitions.
The mezuzah, on the other hand, signifies how we act and engage others about social justice issues in a public, external way. On a practical level, this means discussing human rights and international development issues in conversations with friends to engage them to join us; being open about the causes we support and the tzedakah we give to inspire others to do so as well; sharing links to articles or petitions and writing about the issues we support to spread our passion for them; or even wearing emblems like rubber bracelets, pins or clothing to signify that we support global social justice issues. When we pursue justice through the mezuzah approach, we educate others about the injustices in our world and use our own justice-seeking actions as a vehicle to motivate others to do the same.
We may, at first, feel uncomfortable with the latter. We, like Korach, may assert that it is what is on the inside that matters; that putting our righteous acts “on display” is superficial when we are already accomplishing the intended goal of the pursuit of justice. But truth be told, if our actions toward bringing justice prove limited to our individual reach, then the ultimate impact of those actions will be limited as well.
Take, for example, how we give tzedakah. Renowned author, ethicist and activist, Peter Singer, addresses this internal/external tension on giving when discussing the goal of ending world poverty. According to Singer:
Research has clearly shown that people are more likely to help others when they know that others are helping. Yet in many cultures, it is considered unseemly to tell others about how much you give… This attitude is understandable, but nevertheless unfortunate, because it means that people don’t talk about giving, and those who are thinking of giving may be unaware of how many others give. This makes it less likely that they will give… If large numbers of people pledge to give a modest percentage of their income to people in extreme poverty, that will show everyone that others do give.
We may be inclined not to share information about our tzedakah practices for fear of appearing boastful, but, as Singer points out, talking openly about our giving can be a powerful way to motivate others to give generously as well.
The best pursuit of global social justice requires both internal and external action—the library and the mezuzah—because real justice will never be achieved unless, and until, each of us—strengthened by our own core convictions and beliefs—turns outward and invites others to act upon these beliefs along with us to build a better world.
To join the national conversation about tzedakah and share your giving practices, visit www.wheredoyougive.org.
Wendi Geffen is a rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in suburban Chicago. Dedicated to social justice and its Jewish textual roots, she regularly works to empower the synagogue and her larger community to act on the Jewish imperative to pursue tzedek. Wendi is also the creator of Beyond and Back, a Chicago-wide program that engages young adults to explore their Jewish identity through text study and dialogue. A graduate of Emory University, she was ordained at Hebrew Union College and received honors for academic achievement in Bible. Wendi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.