Does the Best Man Win?
Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )
This week's Torah portion completes the description of the separation of the tribe of Levi from the rest of Israel, a process begun in last week's portion. The separation elevates the tribe of Levi to a 'holier' status than the ordinary Jew. Levi's enhanced holiness is a recurring theme through much of the Torah.
Moses, perhaps the greatest Jew in history, was a Levite; the two seminal events of Jewish history took place under his direct leadership and jurisdiction. He presided over the meeting with God at Mt. Sinai and it was through his mediation that we received the Torah. He led us out of Egypt and for forty years through the desert; all the miracles of the Exodus and the desert sojourn were preformed through his agency. Aaron, his brother, was exalted to the status of the first Kohen, and all the Priests of Israel are his direct descendants. The rest of the Levite tribe became the exclusive guardians and caretakers of God's Temple through the ages.
Nor is this elevation of the Levites merely ceremonial. The Jewish people were commanded to support the Levites economically through an elaborate system of tithes.
Maimonides sums up the status of the Levites in the following passage:
Why did Levi not merit a share in the inheritance of the land or in its captured wealth? Because he was separated to serve God and to teach His righteous ways and just commandments to the multitudes, as it is written, "They will teach your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel" (Deut. 33:10). For this reason they were separated from all worldly concerns. They do not wage war like the rest of Israel; they do not inherit a share in the land, or [concern themselves] generally [in the provision of] any sort of material well being by their own efforts. They are the army of God, as it is written, "May God bless His army" (Ibid. 11) and He, may He be blessed, worries for them, as it is written, "I am you portion and your sustenance." (Maimonides, Yad, Shmitta, 13,12)
We have addressed some of the philosophical issues raised by the awarding and transmission of social powers and privileges through the mechanism of heredity in these essays [see Vayechi, Bamidbar]; in this essay we shall examine some of the ethical issues involved. Quite apart from considerations of justice, what kind of society was God aiming at when he set up the Jewish people?
HOW ARE LEVITES SPECIAL?
To pinpoint the ethical issues involved we have only to contrast Maimonides' comment concerning the Levites with his very next comment about holy people who are not Levites (Ibid., 13):
"Any human individual, whose spirit moves him to volunteer, and his wisdom urges [him] to separate himself [from the world] to stand before God, to serve Him and tend to Him, to get to know God, and who pursues the straight path for which God shaped him, and [who] removes from about his neck the yoke of the myriad considerations pursued by mankind; this person becomes sanctified like the Holy of Holies. God becomes his portion and his inheritance forever, and He will provide him with what is sufficient to meet his worldly needs, just as He did for the Cohen and the Levi."
The difference between the Levite and the 'holy' individual is glaring; the latter is on a high spiritual level indeed. He has dedicated himself to Divine service out of genuine feelings of idealism and self sacrifice. Not so the Levite. No one checks out the level of his spiritual dedication. He is assigned the job of being God's special servant whatever his level of spiritual merit or idealistic spirit. The rest of us are forced to support him through our tithes whatever our opinion regarding his suitability for his task might be. Leaving aside issues of merit, how can such an imposition of tithes be implemented without causing great resentment? This is precisely the sort of system we usually associate with tyranny and corruption!
One of the striking phenomena of these first two portions in the Book of Numbers that describe the arrangement of the Jewish encampment and the distribution of its population is the number of times the camp, the tribes, and individuals are described as members of an army. Many of the commentators give various interpretations, but at the end of the day we are still left wondering - a people is not an army; an army is a body that is organized to carry out a special mission, defend the country, make the world safe for democracy and so on. Society is not an army; it has no specific mission. Societies are organized to enable people just to live in the maximum degree of ease and comfort. In what sense can the entire Jewish people be described as an army?
Our post-industrial society has two guiding principles, capitalism and democracy. We are organized economically according to the principles of capitalism; as a free marketplace where prices of goods and services are established through fair competition. We are organized ethically as a democracy; all people are regarded as equals and each citizen has an equal share in the social decision making process. This combination of values has some unexpected consequences on the character development of members that may not be apparent at first glance.
The combination of equality of opportunity, a hallmark of democracy, and the competition of the free market, fundamental to the capitalist system, encourages individuals with ambition and ability to mold themselves into the kind of people who have the ability to compete for one of the high prestige careers available in the social milieu.
An individual who is about to embark on a career path, [or his parents and mentors who represent his interests], studies the world, and notes that 'success' has a pretty narrow definition. It is defined as a prestigious, glamorous career in the areas of finance, law or medicine, accompanied by the economic rewards of a generous salary. Since we are a democracy and such positions are open to all, why wouldn't anyone automatically aim his or her sights at achieving such success?
SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT—TODAY'S VERSION
But in order to have the ability to compete for these 'success' positions you have to develop some pre-requisites. You have to remain in university long enough to obtain a second degree. Nor is education sufficient; to be successful at competing for a 'top' job with a 'top' firm, this higher learning must be accompanied by a certain style of dress, a certain accent, familiarity with certain books, movies and plays, and with certain forms of organized sport. In fact it won't hurt you at all if you have dabbled a little bit with tennis or golf yourself.
The person who believes that he or she has the potential for landing one of these 'glory' positions will begin to mold himself or herself into the type of person who is equipped with these prerequisites of success from an early age. If you can be a success why not be one?
The entire process tends to encourage the development of certain character traits and discourage others. For example, it is important to develop the self- discipline to sit in your chair and study because you have to survive in school till your second degree. It is important to crush the tendency to non-conformity, otherwise you will not have the right look or the right accent and the power people will sense that you don't really fit in. It is important to learn how to be socially popular and impress people with your charm.
The process of character development outlined above clearly has spiritual aspects. We are looking at the molding of the human spirit after all, of focusing effort and attention on particular traits of character and personality. The conclusion; in our post industrial modern society spiritual development is guided by external utilitarian non-spiritual considerations. Idealism and the requirements of spirituality as such, play no role in this development scheme.
This observation helps to explain why our media is so focused on the lives of artists and sports figures. Such people are born with very unusual talents; they do not needto compete in the free market to reach success and manage to get to the 'top' without having trimmed their characters and personalities into the standard marketable shape. They are successful and yet still possess genuine character and individuality and the rest of us find the combination quite fascinating. They, along with the lucky entrepreneur, cut out of the common herd by enormous financial success, form a special subclass of individuals within modern society; they are at the pinnacle of success and yet not 'standard'.
Among 'ordinary' people, the only place to look for genuine original character is among recent immigrants, who are unable to escape their ethnic flavor for the first few generations or among the underclass, who are not equipped to compete in the free market in the first place and are not tempted to conform. This explains how our society can be so spiritually impoverished while so economically successful.
THE NATURE OF AN ARMY
Let us contrast this to the human situation in an army. Armies are designed to carry out missions; in order to do this successfully, there must be bright, talented, and ambitious people in all the jobs that are defined as 'essential'. The quartermaster corps needs its group of great talents just as much as the armored division or the air force. An army could not afford to concentrate its talented manpower in only those jobs that are considered glamorous. When new recruits arrive and are tested, a general staff that knows what it is doing will make sure to channel roughly the same percentage of raw talent into each of the various divisions of the corps.
Although many recruits are no doubt initially quite upset by their placement, as each one is trained in his own specialty and acquires a particular set of skills and character traits uniquely suited to his own task, people begin to settle down. Instead of everyone molding themselves in identical patterns because they are all competing for the same success-associated glamour positions, the job he occupies tends to mold the person. People in the army are not allowed to mold themselves; the army molds them and develops their characters according to its needs. If the army does a good job, in the end people are even happy to be where they are. The successful officer in the quartermaster corps no longer fantasizes about driving a tank. His character has changed to suit his occupation. Soldiers tend to have more individuality than other people.
Having absorbed this information, let us now turn our attention back to the way the army metaphor attaches to the Jewish people.
(A cautionary note: the outline presented above describes what happens in the world in broad outlines. It obviously does not apply to all individuals or situations; it only has validity when applied to social patterns as a whole.)
FIXING THE WORLD
Three times daily in the Aleynu prayer, Jews express the hope that the world can be "fixed": 'to fix the world through the Almighty's sovereignty.' Something needs fixing only when it is broken; what does it mean that the world is broken?
The entire Torah proclaims the need to integrate the world of the spiritual with the world of the physical. Presently, such integration is not only absent but is regarded as impractical. In human terms, the impracticality of integrating spirituality into everyday life is expressed perfectly by the process of human development described above. If we wanted more spirituality in the world we would have to encourage people to develop in spiritual directions. But this would surely result in a lack of conformity and varying definitions of the things that constitute 'success.'
Our society can't afford such lack of consensus about the constituents of success. We have reached our high level of economic well being by ensuring an oversupply of talented individuals who are willing to mold themselves into the sort of people willing to put up with the pressures of careers in financial management or litigation etc. We can only ensure the continuity of their numbers by maintaining a strong consensus on the definition of 'success'. Character development is spiritual development. We can only continue to prosper if spiritual development is guided by physical necessity.
There is something broken about a world that must pressure human beings to develop themselves in non-spiritual ways for the sake of self-preservation. In human terms, the historic task of the Jewish people is to provide living proof that it is possible to build a successful society and still do the opposite.
It is our task to demonstrate that society can flourish in all areas while fully integrating spirituality into everyday physical life. Ideally, there should be Jews in all walks of life, doctors, farmers, assembly line workers, fulfilling all the normal social tasks, and yet living every minute with spirituality and constantly working on developing their spiritual growth.
THE ARMY OF ISRAEL
Israel is organized like an army. Each of us is appointed to our worldly task instead of being free to select it on the basis of the desire for glamour or success.
Being appointed means that our creative instinct and ambition can be directed to plumbing the spiritual depth of the life situation we find ourselves in. We can afford to turn the instinct for competition that abides in all of us towards the attainment of higher spiritual levels, instead of focusing it on the pursuit of worldly honors or material wealth. Focus on spiritual development leads to the exploration of the spiritual potential of the life that one has rather than in the search for better lifestyles.
For this reason, the Jewish nation is organized so that the social tasks necessary to conduct a normal society are filled according to the division into tribes. When we succeed in our common enterprise, we collectively demonstrate the possibility of living in a world that successfully integrates physicality with spirituality.
LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOURSELF
The attitude to competition is fundamental to all this.
One of the more misunderstood commandments is the well-known injunction to "love your fellow as yourself." Although this concept of the love of one's fellow man is considered the bedrock of modern social ethics, as an actual injunction the obligation to love your fellow man as yourself isn't taken seriously. The ability to regard the interests of others in the same light as your own is associated with the trait of selflessness, a spiritual trait possessed only by saints like Mother Teresa.
Secular ethical systems do not aspire to reach this ideal - secular ethics are focused on the establishment and maintenance of rules of behavior that will insure fair competition. We are satisfied that we have a righteous society if we level the playing field so that we can offer everyone a fair chance at all social prizes. Our ethics are modeled on sports; the guiding maxim is may the best man win. To love your fellow as yourself implies the very opposite of competition; it is not a practical ethical basis for modern secular societies.
But does the Torah really expect an entire nation of human beings to behave like saints?
Once again the answer lies in the army analogy. Soldiers do lay down their lives for each other. Moreover they do this not out of nobility but out of a sense of self- preservation. Unless they are willing to do so, they know that they themselves cannot survive. A soldier knows that his hopes of survival are pinned on the willingness of his comrades in arms to surrender their lives for him and he knows that they will only be willing to do this as long as they can be confident that he is willing to do the same for them.
The survival of the Jewish people as a people depends on their success in their mission, the demonstration of the successful integration of spirituality with physicality in a human society. To be successful in this endeavor they must all be willing to help each other. The success of everyone depends on the success of everyone else. Instead of having a stake in doing better than other people, which turns the concept of loving one's fellow as oneself into a type of sainthood, eJew has a stake in each other Jew's success, which turns the same concept into a practical necessity of life.
BACK TO THE LEVITE
In a spiritual society the most glamorous job is the one that was given to Levi.
In a meritocracy such as ours, such a job would be open to competition and awarded to the most successful aspirants. This state of affairs would encourage all Jews to mold themselves into the type of people who could successfully win and hold on to this particular job.
But that is not God's wish.
We have already made the point that God wants Jews to fix the broken world and present an entire society, with different sorts of spiritual development. But there is a more profound point that must also be made in this connection.
Even if God were not interested in diversity it would be impossible to award the Levi job on the basis of competition. In fact the framework of free competition would ensure that this particular job would never be properly filled. The contestants would do their utmost to mold themselves into the shape imagined by humans as suitable for leading the holy life. They would adopt poverty or chastity or meditation as a lifestyle; human beings in search of holiness generally do. They would attempt to follow Maimonedes' model of the holy individual who is not a Levite quoted above.
God wanted the job to shape the Levi's spirit, not the Levi's spirit to shape the job.
While God gives recognition to the holiness of the individual described by Maimonides (quoted above), this is not necessarily the best type of person to serve as the teacher class of the Jewish people. Teachers should never be "holier than thou" if they hope to be effective. They should be role models that one can aspire to emulate.
To ensure this social integration, God did two things. He moved the job out of the sphere of free competition and He made the Levites financially dependent on the tithes of the rest of Israel; each person gives his tithe to his particular Levite on the basis of pure goodwill. The Levites will never be holier than thou; they would simply starve.
Human beings have an excellent understanding of economic success. They are perfectly capable of outlining the tasks that are necessary to attain it and offer the positions to anyone with the competence to fill them successfully. Human beings do not have such a clear idea of the ingredients of success at holiness. Since they do not know how to draw up the tasks and must leave the matter to God, they cannot offer the positions of holiness on the free market. God prefers to shape the people themselves. No matter how well He would define the job it would remain beyond our grasp. You can only attain holiness by living it.
THE TASK NEEDS US ALL
The picture of the Jewish encampment and of the system of social ethics it implies is an idealized picture; the picture presented by Orthodox Jewry in our times falls far short of matching it. One of the major criticisms leveled at the ultra-Orthodox of today is their inordinate focus on a life of Torah study at the expense of other occupations, a policy that leads to many of the social problems associated with poverty and breeds much resentment among secular Jews who constitute the majority of the Jewish people at present. Where are the ultra-Orthodox doctors, lawyers, farmers and policemen that we are eulogizing?
It is important to realize that the Orthodox society we observe today is the portrait of a society undergoing a process of spiritual triage. The message of this entire essay is that we must regard the entire Jewish people as a single corporate body. It can be clearly stated without disparaging anyone that the great majority of Jews alive today are not very focused on pursuing and developing their Jewishness. When so many limbs of a body are missing, the remaining organs are forced to concentrate on the tasks that provide the bare minimum necessities of Jewish spiritual survival.
A good metaphor for the present spiritual state of the Jewish people is to imagine a large family of extremely talented individuals who decided to go into mass hibernation leaving only a tiny fraction of the family awake to guard the sleepers. Given the power of their combined energy and the richness of their aggregate talents, such a family can easily tackle and change the world and even 'fix' it when all its members are awake and at work. But as most of the family is in a deep sleep, those who are still awake are kept scrambling just to keep the family home intact and the essential utilities paid up, so that the family will still have a place in the world when all its members wake up.
It is a normal human reaction to question the motivation of people who are out to teach the so-called "truth." "Are they after my vote, my money or are they just fanatical zealots out to persuade the world that their way is the only way?" But these suspicions are invalid in the case of Jews reaching out to their fellows.
The Jews who are still spiritually awake to their own Jewishness are overwhelmed by the immense load that they carry so poorly and by their desire to get the family members whose participation in the family enterprise is a prerequisite to its success to finally wake up. No one can ever reconcile himself to the loss of a missing limb or to the continuing absence of a beloved brother. The pain of dismemberment and the mental anguish of separation are an ever-present part of everyday reality.