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Jewish Meritocracy


Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The bulk of the Book of Numbers is devoted to telling the story of the Jewish people's 40-year sojourn in the desert. It contains very few commandments and reads much like a history book.

While this can also be said about the Book of Genesis, the stories of Genesis record the events that are fundamental to all religious beliefs, the creation of the world, the development of the relationship between human beings and God, the lives of the Patriarchs that provide the template on which the history of the nation of Israel is later inscribed. In contrast, the Book of Numbers records events that were no doubt important at the time but seem to have little historic consequence.

But this is obviously a mistaken view. The very fact that the Torah devotes an entire book to recording these events demonstrates their cataclysmic importance. It is therefore legitimate to approach Bamidbar by attempting to understand the historic significance of the events that are recorded in it.

In this connection it is noteworthy that we begin our annual reading of the Book of Bamidbar on the Sabbath before the Shavuot holiday. As there is no coincidence in spiritual matters this points to a connection between the information contained in Bamidbar and the ability to receive the Torah, the event that we celebrate on Shavuot.

The thesis we shall attempt to develop in the next few essays is that the Book of Bamidbar establishes the norms of a Jewish society. It explains the nature of the social contract that binds together the individuals that comprise the Jewish people, and provides an outline for the ethics of social behavior that are integral to the Jewish social contract. Inasmuch as the Covenant of Sinai set the seal on this contract, the internalization of this system of ethics is a necessary prelude to the receiving of the Torah.


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The book begins by taking a census of the Jewish people; it lists their numbers, apportions these numbers into tribes according to families; it separates the Levites from the rest and finally draws a very detailed map of the Jewish encampment. Each tribe is assigned a leader, its own designated place, and its own particular order of march.

The camp of the Israelites is organized around the Tabernacle located at its center and places around the Tabernacle are assigned with reference to the four directions of the compass in clockwise order starting from the east, and ending in the north. Sandwiched between the inner edges of the Israelite camp and the Tabernacle is the encampment of the Levites, which is laid out according to the same basic pattern.

The Midrash informs us that the map of the Jewish camp described here is not a novel phenomenon. This manner of organizing the Jewish people can be traced back to the way Jacob distributed his children around his deathbed to receive his blessing. [For a detailed explanation of this subject see MAYANOT, Parshat Vayechi, in the Archives section.]

Moreover, Rashi [Genesis 50,13] tells us in the name of the Midrash that Jacob instructed his children to deploy themselves in the same order when they marched with his bier from Egypt to his crypt in Cave of the Machpela, and subsequently throughout history whenever the entire Jewish nation went on a march or formed a common encampment. Thus the layout of the Jewish encampment we encounter in our Parsha was drawn up by Jacob and is virtually eternal.

Interestingly, the Midrash also makes the point that although this order of march made its first public appearance at Jacob's funeral there is a reverse tradition at work here. The inspiration for the arrangement was provided by the desert encampment set up in our Parsha. As Levi had his own separate encampment around the Tabernacle he was instructed not to carry his father's bier with his brothers. Joseph who was broken into two tribes by the time of the desert encampment also didn't carry Jacob's bier. Ephraim and Menasha replaced Levi and Joseph to complete the complement of twelve. Jacob's eternal instruction originated in his prophetic vision of the Jewish encampment around the Tabernacle.

The encampment is the focus of an eternal spiritual circle, and we shall attempt to plumb its depths. Let us begin by looking at the character of the arrangement.


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There is a great rigidity about this entire system that is repugnant to the modern mind. Personal merits and abilities are not given the slightest consideration. Your family and tribal connection is the sole determinant of your place within the commonwealth. Not even the Torah scholar is awarded any special status. Your distance and direction from the Tabernacle, obviously the most desirable location, is purely a function of your lineage.

Although the age of encampments is long behind us, Orthodox Jewish society still retains the flavor of this approach. The family is still a very important determinant of a person's status within Orthodox society; sex is even more important. We have not turned into a meritocracy through the course of the millennia. Is there any way to bring this kind of social orientation down to earth so that a modern person can relate to it?


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The first observation we made is that we always begin to read the Book of Bamidbar on the Sabbath that immediately precedes Shavuot. This turns out to be quite deliberate. We are meant to enter the holiday with the echo of the detailed description of the Jewish camp still reverberating in our ears. The connection is explained in Jewish tradition in the following manner:


They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness; and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2)


Rashi comments that on that occasion there was unity; they camped "as one, with a single heart," but on all other occasions there was dissension and turmoil in the encampment (Mechilta).

The Ohr Hachaim, one of the best-known commentators on the Torah adds:


This unity was a necessary condition of being able to receive the Torah; it would have been impossible for Israel to receive the Torah if there was the slightest degree of dissension among the Jewish people.


But why should such perfect harmony be a condition of Torah acceptance? Perfect harmony implies unanimity. Unanimity is difficult enough to achieve among couples. To aim for it on a national scale seems unrealistic and even immature. The members of a mature society willingly abide by the decisions of the majority providing that the basic rights of all individuals are protected. That's what democracy is all about. Why can't a democratic majority of the Jewish people suffice as a condition of Torah acceptance?


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Those of us who retain a memory of the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War should be able to answer this question. Democracy has limits; people can live democratically, but they cannot be asked to sacrifice their lives democratically. The people who protested the Vietnam War were neither unpatriotic nor undemocratic. They simply did not believe in the justice of the American cause.

To be willing to sacrifice his life a person has to believe in the value of the sacrifice. Although the majority of Americans were consistently behind the war till the very end, America was forced to pull out of Vietnam. Those who were opposed to the war, even though they were in the minority, were simply unwilling to sacrifice their lives or the lives of their dear ones for a cause they could not sincerely support on the bases of upholding the decisions of the democratic majority.

Democracy is a good way to organize the economic and social inputs of everyday life. When it comes to questions of life and death every individual must clearly perceive in his or her own heart the things that are more precious than life itself.

The acceptance of the Torah entails at least the same degree of self-sacrifice as going off to fight a war. Jewish history is drenched with the blood of Jews who had to surrender their lives for the sake of their allegiance to the Torah, very often without any choice or prior consultation. In modern day Israel, Jews still lose their lives almost daily for the 'crime' of being Jewish. The Covenant of Sinai is still exacting a great human sacrifice. The Jewish people could only accept the Torah in a state of total unanimity.

But how can you achieve such a state? If we look around the world it is practically impossible to achieve total unanimity on even the simplest of issues, and certainly not about religious questions.


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The Mishna in Avot teaches:


Jealousy, lust and the desire for glory remove a man from the world. (Avot 4:28)


"Remove a man from the world" is a most curious way to express the idea that something is harmful. The statement prompts one to ask: What 'world' do these negative drives remove a man from?

It is our suggestion that the Mishna intends to tackle the issue of unanimity. Although unanimity is elusive, there generally is unanimity among people about the things that constitute the necessities of life or about what we call the basic human rights. Our common perception of reality forces us all to acknowledge that we have the same basic human needs.

Deciding what things should be judged as important when they are not absolute basic necessities is the consideration that introduces social disagreement. But why can't we agree about what is important just as we agree about what is necessary? After all, don't we all inhabit a common reality? If I recognize something as important why isn't its importance automatically clear to you as well? Why do we so vehemently disagree about the important aspects of life?

It is this question that the Mishna addresses. We see reality differently because of the feelings of jealousy, lust, and the desire for glory that are programmed into all of us. It is these primal urges that distort the clarity of our vision so that we do not see reality as it is; these urges literally remove us from reality, or 'the world'.

It follows that perfect consensus about the nature of reality between multitudes of people can be attained in the absence of jealousy and lust for glory; in the absence of these primal urges everyone perceives the identical reality and is readily able to agree on the fundamental importance of whatever is really important. The next question. How can an entire people rise to such a lofty state?

Our Torah portion provides the only existential answer. If every person within the camp clearly knows his own place, knows that his place is uniquely his and that no matter what he does he can have no other, everyone in the camp can be totally free of feelings of jealousy and lust for glory. Each Jew will observe the same reality as all other Jews in the encampment and Israel will reach perfect consensus. We will all agree that the Torah is important and that we must have it.


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But surely such a suggestion is outrageous. Can anyone really maintain that the only way to attain perfect social harmony is through getting people to accept some sort of absolutely rigid medieval caste system? Can it be spiritually desirable to impose a social order that allows no room for the recognition of individual merit?

Well, why don't we look at the opposite system? Why don't we look at ourselves? Our society seriously attempts to equate status with merit. Ideally in our world, the social status we attain will not depend on our surnames, whether we are male or female, dark or white. When we successfully complete the process of social engineering and emerge from the present stage of human history and turn the world into our ideal, everyone will be able to reap the rewards merited by his talents and abilities in equal measure regardless of race, color, sex or religion.

But wait! let's not get carried away by our vision. Let's study this ideal world we are busily constructing for a minute. Doesn't this still leave other forms of arbitrary inequality that it is beyond our ability to iron out?

In our ideal society, any person with the requisite talent can become a brilliant doctor regardless of his ethnic origins etc. and reap the rewards of his accomplishment with a prestigious job that carries with it the high salary commensurate with its status. Moreover such a person will earn his benefits fairly. He will have to survive medical school and internship to reap the rewards of his potentials with merit; he will have to work hard and compete fairly to get to where he is.

It sounds wonderful, but of course there is a fly in the ointment-such a person does not earn the high I.Q. that made it all possible in the first place -- he or she must be born with it.

Our ideal of a society based on merit is an illusion. People are born beautiful or talented or clever, the qualities that can be developed into skills and traits that we value and are willing to reward on the grounds that their possessors have more merit than the rest of us. No matter how egalitarian the society, the accidents of birth limit the ultimate status attainable by individuals, and the accidents of birth are totally divorced form merit.

Is there any real difference between what we aim to do -- which is to distribute status and rewards on the basis of genetic accidents -- and a system where these social rewards are distributed on the basis of family and lineage, also genetic accidents? What is the moral difference between the two systems? Doesn't the difference boil down to simple efficiency?

We have substituted an oligarchy of the intellectually gifted and replaced the oligarchy of lineage. In our ideal meritocracy the accidents of birth would be allowed their fullest expression and will not be diminished or contradicted by the accidents of family and lineage. This is certainly a change but it can hardly be lauded as a major merit revolution.

Does this mean that the pursuit of an egalitarian society based on merit is an impossible dream? Not at all. As usual you merely have to look in the right place. Instead of looking at physicality, we have to look at spirituality!


* * *



If we start with the assumption that God created us all, equipped us with our potentials and placed us in our circumstances, we eliminate at one fell stroke all the usual reasons for human pride. No one can be proud of the fact that he is smart or handsome, that he is male or female, that he can run quickly or for any of the usual reasons that people have for feeling superior or proud.

Moreover, any achievement that is based on such basically given genetic skills is also eliminated as a reason for feeling meritorious or superior. How can anyone know what someone else would have achieved given the same talents, motivations and circumstances? How can he be sure that the other person who was given all this would not have achieved more?

All merit must be based on what cannot be given but must be chosen. That is why true merit can only be based on the results of the exercise of free will. This brings up right back to our Parsha and the reality point it presents.


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All of us were given the ability to decide who we are -- a soul or a body. Is reality fundamentally material, a conclusion that implies that our basic identity is defined by our body? Or, are we essentially souls encased in bodies, which do not reflect our identity but are merely the space suits that we wear to survive the trip to the physical world?

If we are primarily bodies, then we are essentially males or females, smart or dumb, white or black, etc. Whether our attributes came to us accidentally or not does not matter; they are who we are and the fact is that it is worth more to have a high I.Q. than a low one. The possessor of the higher I.Q. is a greater asset to humanity. He is perfectly justified in claiming the rewards of his superiority, for in fact he is superior. It may not be just, but it is nonetheless true.

If we accept the notion that we are primarily physical beings, than it is possible to accept our society as a meritocracy on the grounds that it is the best we can do. Railing against the unjust distribution of gifted genes is akin to worrying about the injustice of our intellectual superiority to ants.

If we relate to human beings as bodies we must concede that we are doomed to forever inhabit an unjust world. Those who are more qualified have inherently more utility, and therefore, it will always be logical and utilitarian to give them more power and status and offer them greater rewards, even though there is no moral justice behind this system whatever.

The Mishna is wrong, then. Jealousy, lust and the desire for glory are inevitable in a morally unjust world. We can never fully reconcile ourselves to unjust distributions. We can never reach unanimity by definition. We will never see reality in the same way. We would never be able to accept the Torah as a people.

If on the other hand, we choose to see ourselves as souls, everything takes on an entirely different appearance. Let us see how the world looks from this perspective.


* * *



If we are primarily souls, we are not males or females, smart or dumb, white or black. These are qualities that inhere to our bodies, which are the outer covering that our souls wear. Our merit flows from the choices we make as souls, not from our achievements as bodies. Anything that is related to utilitarian considerations -- the attainment of food clothing and shelter -- is not a proper basis for evaluating anyone's basic worth. Such matters, because the potentials for their attainment are so genetically weighted, are beyond choice and primarily in God's province; the distribution of human talents required for producing the necessities of life is God's method of providing us with these necessaries. Utility is divorced from merit.

The Talmud says:


All is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven. (Talmud, Brochot, 33b)


But there are some technical questions. The first; if I am a soul how do I locate myself? It's easy to identify a body and single it out from other bodies but how do you identify a soul?

Let us borrow some concepts and language from the world of computers: A soul is a particular file of holiness, and a file can only be located by properly describing its path. To locate oneself as a soul it is essential to describe one's tribe and one's family, as well as the drive on which this family and tribe are located.

If we would set out to describe and locate a particular soul we would probably use a system much like the one introduced in our Torah portion which seems almost like a WINDOWS forerunner. We would have to locate where the original spark of divinity at the root of our souls separated from the Creator, which would be described by the direction orientation from the Tabernacle. This would give us the overall directory and then we would have to go through the tribe and family to locate the specific individual, a process that is uncannily similar to describing the location of a particular piece of software within a directory.

The placement of the Jewish people outlined by the Torah hammered home the message to the Jewish people that they were souls and not bodies. When they were in the desert eating the Manna living under the protection of God's cloud they all perceived this as their common reality; accordingly, all traces of jealousy and desire for individual glory as bodies left them entirely. The difference in the given abilities of people which is basically a function of the potentials wired into their bodies were classified as the Divinely determined assignment of tasks. All Jews perceived the same reality; they were able to achieve the essential unity and consensus required to accept the Torah.

In any case, the acceptance of Torah makes sense only to the person who perceives himself or herself as a soul and not a body. There is nothing utilitarian about the Torah's commandments. They were not designed to manufacture superior widgets or better mousetraps.

The acceptance of Torah amounts to the acceptance of oneself as a soul. As a soul there is no reason to display any reluctance in accepting one's assigned position in the encampment of Israel. This brings one into perfect harmony with all the other souls in a way that still allows for self-definition. Parshat Bamidbar is truly a proper prelude to the Shavuot holiday.


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