How do we perceive people? As a part of a structure—e.g., a family member, the staff of our college or work-place, the Jewish community, the police-force, parking meter attendants? Or do we see people as individuals?

Of course, everyone would like to say both. That would be wonderful, but it does not always work that way. We tend either to categorize a person by their role in a structure, or to look at them as a real individual. At that point the lines of the general structure dissolve, and we suddenly see the parking-meter attendant as a unique and very specific human being.

Some people are able to perceive both perspectives at the same time, in a remarkable way. Moses, leader of the Jewish people, had this quality. We see this in the layers of discussion which surround our Torah reading, the Parshah of Korach (Numbers 16-18).

Korach, an infamous Levite, was attempting to harm the Jewish people by attacking Moses and Aaron, so that he could have power for himself. The attempt was foiled, and Korach's children became loyal supporters of Moses and their descendants served in the Temple in Jerusalem. Moses could see the danger posed by Korach and he called to G‑d to help him. The large, visible events in the Torah depict the sudden physical destruction of Korach and his followers: the ground opened up and swallowed them. Rashi describes more subtle elements as well.

Earlier in the Torah, each Jewish male had given a half-shekel. The total sum of money provided for the daily offerings which were brought in the Sanctuary, in expression of a bond between the Jewish people and G‑d. Korach, too, had given a half shekel. He, too, was therefore part of the general structure of the Jewish people, bringing a daily offering to G‑d, in a way which empowered him. Yet now he was trying to misuse this power.

Moses could see Korach's role in the daily offerings in two ways: as an anonymous member of the entire Jewish nation, and also as a particular (and in this case dangerous) individual. Moses asked G‑d to disenfranchise Korach's particular, individual source of power from the daily offerings.1 This was in order to weaken Korach and was part of the process of saving the Jewish people from Korach's attack. It was as if Moses could see the lines of energy which Korach and each other individual person drew from the daily offerings.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out the importance of this ability of Moses to perceive the individual within his or her wider framework. Korach was a dangerous person, as are some others in our own time. However, most people are not: they are fundamentally good, although sometimes "difficult." One's parent is a person, an individual, as well as a parent; so too is the college lecturer, the boss and the parking meter attendant. At the same time they also have their wider role, and one needs to treat them accordingly. (Tip: don't be too casual with the parking meter attendant)

This double perception, says the Rebbe, is the mark of Moses, and of all true leadership. It is also bequeathed to everyone who has a sense of responsibility in life. It enables us to see the role of the person in their general context, and at the same time to perceive that person as he or she really is, as a unique individual. Through this kind of double perception, and then acting carefully and responsibly, each one of us can help to make a better world.2