The Limits of Democracy

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


The Limits of Democracy

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


Bamidbar, the fourth of the five books of Moses, chronicles the Jewish nation’s sojourn in the desert.

What is the relevance of retelling all these old stories?  Is G-d merely chronicling Jewish history for us?

Everything written in the Torah is relevant and meaningful for all time. This rule is quite obvious with regard to some matters, for example, the commandment of Shabbos. The idea of resting from acts relating to creating (for example, cooking, making fire, etc.) and focusing on spiritual and personal growth is an accepted idea, and one whose need is easy to grasp. Similarly, with all mitzvos, if we investigate, we will find that although the technicalities of a mitzva might seem strange at the outset, the reasons behind it, and the behavioral patterns it is meant to encourage, all make a lot a sense.

For example, in this week’s portion we have the commandment to redeem our first born sons from the priest (a mitzva which is still practiced today). The reasons behind this are quite logical. In Egypt, while we were achieving nationhood, G-d unleashed a series of plagues on the Egyptian people. The final plague was the killing of the first born Egyptian males. By our redeeming our own first born males, we show that we remember our past, and that our Judaism is not existing in a vacuum, but is the extension of a thirty three hundred year old tradition. It also teaches us the important trait of gratitude. We are grateful that G-d took us out of Egypt, en route to giving us the Torah.    Similarly, all the stories related in the Torah have important messages to teach us.

The story of Korach is particularly relevant to our day and age.

Korach seemingly raised some very legitimate points. Korach felt it was not fair that Moshe had placed himself as the head of the Jewish people. “Isn’t the entire nation holy?” Korach asked Moshe. How do we reconcile the story of Korach with our fundamental belief in democracy?

There is a classic Jewish book called “The Way of  G-d”. This is a book written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato around the year 1735. This book chronicles the way and purpose of the world, and how we interact with G-d in it. He writes that before anything else, there must be a belief in G-d. Without that belief, everything else is relative. Any rule or way of acting becomes secondary to personal bias unless there is an absolute arbiter of morality.

As Jews, we must see our relationship with G-d in this light. Following Him blindly is the lowest level of belief. We must strive to reach higher than that, and use the written and oral law to analytically investigate our role as Jews. And we must look at our history and proceed accordingly.

Korach forgot this important point. Moshe did not appoint himself as leader, G-d did. Korach was the first pluralistic Rabbi insofar as he did not wish to see things G-d’s way, but rather his way.

Democracy is an important tool and is used in the Torah (when determining law, the members of the court would vote). However, when we are under the stewardship of G-d, it is not always appropriate.

Another lesson to be learned from Korach is that although people may have a right to an opinion, it does not mean their opinion is right. When we see many of the opinions which come out of the Jewish sector from so called “Rabbis” and “leaders”, this point is driven home.

The gift of prophecy has been removed from the Jewish people, and our leaders are not chosen by G-d, but by us.  Let us make sure when we choose these leaders that they not only have the necessary scholarship, but also understand the historical implications of Judaism, and have the necessary empathy to relate to the Jewish people.

Home ] Up ]