Is Jewish Honor Based on Birth or Merit?
One of the most difficult things for people to grasp is the way that inherited and earned roles play-out in the Jewish life. Is one form of recognition preferable over the other? Or is there a seeming dance going on between the two and their respective roles? That is what we are going to try to explore this week.
This week’s parsha begins with Aharon, the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest – lighting the Menorah. I don’t want to side-track us too much, as most of us will quickly remember that this section’s Rashi commentary brings up why this is mentioned here in this part of the reading mostly about ordaining the Levites for their roles. Our rabbis tell us this is in order to highlight that this role was given to Aharon and his sons as a sign of honor.
The midrash says that Aharon was previously distressed when he saw the princes of each of the tribes present their inauguration offerings on their own. Without the presence or help of the Levites. (Numbers chapter 11) The Levites, they were excluded from this count and thus felt distressed. In light of this feeling of being overlooked, the kindling of the Menorah – a truly great rite – it was given to Aharon, who was now the tribal head of the Levites.
After this, in the early part of the first aliyah, we have the instructions for purifying and sanctifying the Levites. At the end of this reading we see that the Levites are brought before all the entire congregation of Israel and ordained for services with physical smicha – the laying on of hands, and conferring authority. (Numbers 8:10)
Aharon, as their leader, he was to be given instructions to “lift up” the Levites and offer them as a “wave offering” on behalf of the children of Israel. (Numbers 8:11) What do we mean by this? What did he do?
It’s not like he could serve them all up on a silver platter, lifting them towards the sky. No, instead it means symbolically. He lifted them up, as one would a flag, he made a symbolic rise to the occasion through a gesture of pride and honor. And instead of offering in the normal sense – by simply waving forward animals donated to be used in the service of the Temple sacrifices – Aharon, the Levite elder, he offered his sons in perpetuity to physically perform this service.
This is the meaning of the phrase, “Veheinif Aharon et haleviim tenufah lifnei Hashem / Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before Hashem…” (Numbers 8:11) That Aharon was to elevate his sons for service by pushing them forward, driving them (tenufah) to take their role in service to Israel and G-d.
Now let’s back up a second and remember why the Levites are not accounted for as part of the Twelve Tribes during the inauguration offerings. Normally the Levites were not called-up or recognized, being regularly snubbed in the tribal roles and inheritances. This as a consequence of collective error on the part of the Levites several times in the past, going all the way back to their tribal role in the slaughter of Shechem and the sale of Yosef haTzadik. They were disinherited in a way, so that they were never counted as a normative tribe again. As a consequence the half-tribes (such as Efraim and Menasheh) slipping into the vacancy when it was time to take count and set-up camp.
So why are they honored now? How is it that the come to take this role as spiritual leaders among the tribes of Israel? Sure Moses and Aharon are both Levites, and this does distinguish the clan. But given their disinherited role, how is it that the Levites are able to take this place of honor now as the Mishkan service takes shape?
The answer comes by exploring the second aliyah. Let us look at this span of text which address this for us:
“Following this, the Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. You shall cleanse them and lift them as a waving.
“For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself.
“For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.
“And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”
וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ הַלְוִיִּם לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם וְהֵנַפְתָּ אֹתָם תְּנוּפָה:
כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי:
כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי:
וָאֶקַּח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Our text reminds us of two facts. First off, in the general sense every firstborn male belongs to G-d. Be it human, a kosher animals, or even an ass (donkey). As it is written, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn of the children of Israel, everything that opens the womb of man and of animal.” (see Exodus 13:2)
And even more so, after G-d inflicting wrath upon the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the Israelite firstborn sons, these sons are even more so considered sanctified to G-d. They were spared and then set apart for His service. And this is the way that it should ideally have been, with the princes of each tribes offering up for their people. The firstborn of each tribe offering sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.
So the firstborn are: 1) naturally sacred, and 2) supernaturally set-apart. There are two reasons why the firstborn of all Israel should be set-apart as priests.
So why is it that we don’t see that happen here? Why are the Levites elevated to this role and pushed forward for this service instead? The answer is found in our Rashi commentary:
“For all the firstborn… are Mine: The firstborn are Mine by right, for I protected them among the Egyptian firstborn, and I took them for Myself-until they erred through the golden calf; so now ‘I have taken the Levites’ (v.18)”
כי לי כל בכור: שלי היו הבכורות בקו הדין, שהגנתי עליהם בין בכורי מצרים ולקחתי אותם לי עד שטעו בעגל, ועכשיו ואקח את הלוים:
Rashi for Numbers 8:17
Our midrash teaches us that during the incident of the sin of the golden calf all of the tribes were involved in worshiping it, except for the tribe of Levi. (Yoma 66b) For this reason the firstborn of each tribe were set aside, and the honor of priesthood was thus given to the Levites in perpetuity.
So lets consider this. This issue of priesthood and honor.
To being with, priesthood is a topic that most of us are out of touch with. We just don’t generally see this role filled in our daily lives. Sure in the traditional word we have them acknowledged in the giving out of aliyot – when reading the Torah. And in rare ritual cases such as the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn male, born of natural birth to a Jewish mother. (see Exodus 13:13–16, Numbers 3:45-47) All this hearkens back to that age. But for the most part, rites overseen by kohanim are rather rare today. Except on high holidays, when the Priestly Blessing is given, most of us barely recognize the kohanim in our midst.
And in progressive synagogues the roles of priesthood is often overlooked all together, having theologically moved beyond affirming Temple ritual and inherited roles. With even the Priestly Blessing today being given by rabbi or cantor.
But the awkwardness and tension between the birth and earned roles is something that many people still struggle with in light of our Jewish tradition. It is not just modern readers and progressives that have struggled with this issue. Indeed the wrestling between inherited and earned roles goes all the way back go the beginning for the nation of Israel.
Yet there is one fact that we cannot ignore. That our religion and culture emerged for a world were the right of inheritance and status was given to the firstborn. More precisely the firstborn male. In the ancient world this was the only seemingly clear and objective way to settle the issue of inheritance and status. In such a system there is seemingly few points by which to argue. Everyone remembers which is their firstborn child, so this is the one who is blessed and to whom possessions of the father’s estate are to be left to.
This cannot be ignored or understated. And just in case this point is missed, the right of firstborn is explicitly reaffirmed by the Torah. (Deuteronomy 21:17)
Inherited roles which are assigned by birth and held in perpetuity are further stressed elsewhere, not just here and now in the Torah when discussing the Levites. It is also stressed with it comes to the role of the Kohanim, distinct from that of the general Levites. It is also later shown to be the case for nobility, with kingship being passed on by right and order of birth. And of course, Jewish identity is also assigned at birth. Being passed by maternal line according to halacha. Inherited status and recognition is something that is undeniably present in our tradition.
But as I’ve previously stated, the challenging of birth status has always been part of the Hebrew-Israelite experience since the beginning. Our patriarch and namesake being Yisrael – also known by his birth-name, Yaakov. Yaakov, the same one who overcame Eisav the firstborn, for the right to be the heir and spiritual chieftain. And this is not a lone example. Such tension is similarly mirrored in Avraham Avinu’s recognition of Yitzhak over Yishmael, who was technically the first-born son. We also see this later on when the tribes are established, when Yitzhak gives inheritance to Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. There we see the tension between Yosef and Yitzhak palpably present in this incident, as the patriarch insists that the younger once again rises above the older. (see Parshat Vayechi 2012)
Our founders and leaders have challenged the natural order and risen above it, time after time again. And this is the legacy they leave to us, an inherited drive to be people who would will to smash the glass ceiling. To rise above obstacles to a place of leadership and honor, as opposed to those who gingerly ease into that seat. People who acquire their rightful place through merit and zeal, not just through mere nepotism.
When we read here in this parsha of the ordination and assignment of the Levites as priests by the congregation we can get caught-up in a narrow view of this text, and maybe even see this narrative as reaffirming the appearance of nepotism and favoritism. Until we remind ourselves the reason they are called up for this role, because of their tribal merit in avoiding the golden calf. In this light, their appointment is not to be seen as an example which reaffirms a perception of the mighty establishing their heredity. It is a story of people who come from a lowly and unlikely place to the height of honor through merit.
And in the not so far off future in this very book of Bamidbar (Numbers), we are going to see the roles shaken up once again. As Pinchas, who was not ordinarily not eligible to be High Priest, has this honor as Kohen Gadol given to him and his descendants in perpetuity. An honor given to him on account of his act of zealotry. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011) We will again see the earned role trump the inherited role.
Something to consider
To this day much of Judaism still struggles with the issues of balancing out honor and respect based on lineage, and that of showing proper recognition to those who are honorable in their own right. For which is more worthy of recognizing? Which should we lunge to honor first? The noble through heredity or the honorable in their own merit?
Even for traditional Judaism, which still recognizes the roles of the priestly lineages, there is still a seeming awkwardness. One that is seen through a philosophical and practical dance to help us maneuver the contortions we feel stretching us in this matter.
While commenting on this topic of heredity vs. merit relating to kohanim in Parshat Tzav, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin – a Torah commentator well-known for his discussion series highlighted by the Orthodox Union – he states the following upon consideration of the way the Levites and even Pinchas shake up the roles of heredity. He observes how the shake-up is not just far-off in the past, it’s still seen present in our halachic lives:
“Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)”
As we know, even when the roles of priestly caste are recognized, in the real world we still most often give precedent to the meritorious over the blue-blooded.
In closing, today I would like to leave you with the continuing and closing words of Rabbi Goldin for consideration. He offers us some words which are wholly appropriate for us as we come out of Shavuot – celebrating the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai:
“Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.
“Full descendants of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept G-d’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to G-d’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)
“The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.”
Parshat Tzav – by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin
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- Parshat Shelach (2012) – The Strength of the Repose
- Parshat Shelach (2011) – Does it matter what they say?