In the Western world, we believe in equality and we consider it one of the cornerstones of democracy. From a certain perspective, of course, this is a bit ridiculous. If we were being purely logical, we would give a political scientist more votes than a community rabbi, for the political scientist is surely more knowledgeable about the issues relevant to the elections. The owner of a programming company should have many more votes than the person who does the cleaning. But we don’t do this, because we believe that all human beings are equal.
Yet this little thought experiment raises real questions. Are people really equal? Don’t people differ in their intelligence, reliability, morals and motivations? There are professionals who invest a great deal of effort to succeed in their fields, and others who are satisfied with the minimum. There are children who get great marks in school and others who hardly pass the year. There are heroes who risk their lives for others and opportunists who don’t value human life.
According to every objective measure, people are not equal – not in their physical appearance, not in their emotional depth or personality, not in their intellectual capabilities. The only way we can claim equality between people is if we establish a different perspective from which to draw a comparison. We need to take the perspective of one who is so superior to even the best of human beings, that in comparison to Him, all human beings are relatively equal. The declarations of independence of two Western democracies as different as Israel and America both recognize God (the language used in the Israeli declaration is “the rock of Israel”) as the only possible being who can give us that perspective. When we are compared to the infinite God, the great, all-knowing Creator of the world, the differences between people are nothing. In order to emphasize human equality we need the divine reality. Without it the idea of equality is a nice illusion, but impossible to defend rationally.
When our Parashah commands us that the law must make no distinction between the rich and powerful and the poor and humble, it’s under this principle. Rashi invokes a judge presiding over two cases, one involving one little coin and another involving a hundred coins. Rashi explains that the judge shouldn’t give preference to the “bigger” trial but should treat them equally, because one little coin has the same value to a poor person as a hundred coins to a rich man. Of course the rich and poor are different; but God is the ultimate Judge and in His eyes these differences are insignificant.
The democratic system is based on a spiritual truth: that in the eyes of God all human beings are equal and deserving of the same respect and justice. Because the Universe was created by Hashem, because every person is a unique reflection of His image, each one of us can claim the same portion of the infinite value that in the end belongs only to God.
We are all equal, the big and the small, not in respect of our abilities or our wisdom. Our equality is not a product of what we do, but of who we are. We are the sons and daughters of the living God.
Rabbi Mijael Even-David is the Rabbi of Edgware Masorti Synagogue. Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, he made Aliyah in 2005. He is married to Raya and they have a one year old daughter, Hallel.