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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Objective Truth – Justice and the Revelation at Mount Sinai-Delivered on Parashat Yitro 5777 at Baron Hirsch Congregation

This week’s parasha presents ma’amad Har Sinai – the Revelation at Sinai.  All of b’nei yisrael stood at the foot of the mountain and heard the Almighty proclaim, “Anochi”. Thunder and Lightning. An elaborately orchestrated choreography.

The author of the Akedat Yitzchak – Rabbenu Yitzchak Arama (I heavily consulted the translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk) – is bothered by a problem.

This elaborate scene at Mount Sinai is unparalleled in human history.  It would seem to have been aimed at conveying a purpose completely beyond anything man had ever experienced.

When we look at the Aseret HaDibrot – The Ten Commandments – we do not see any new philosophic insights. On the contrary, says Rabbi Arama, most of these commandments could easily have been legislated by human legislators of average intelligence interested in a well-functioning society! Murder, theft, adultery, honoring one’s parents. What great purpose is behind such an extraordinary event?

One might have expected the answers to the mysteries of the universe – but the Ten Commandments do not purport to address that topic.  Rabbi Arama says that even the first two commandments – postulating the Oneness and uniqueness of Hashem – could even be arrived at by human intellect – and these two utterances were made directly from the mouth of Hashem – kaveyachol.

What is the purpose of this whole experience, if not to teach new philosophical insights?

Rabbi Arama answers that many false philosophies had been circulating widely in that time. Although the acknowledgment of the existence of Hashem was widely accepted, many denied His ability or willingness to guide the fate of man or the history of mankind. Like the message of the plagues in Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai was intended to impress upon the Jewish People and, by extension, the world, the presence and involvement of Hashem in the fate of the Jewish People and in reward and punishment. It was not a legend but a living experience shared by the entire nation. 

We each engage this living experience on each of our holidays. I have told my children that when I was a child, my grandfather told me that he had heard from his father that our forefathers were present at this living experience.  This experience at Har Sinai continues to shape our people.

Hashem revealed to the Jewish People and to the world an objective fact, an essential truth – Hashem maintains a providential relationship with the Jewish People.   

Objective facts and essential truths are scarce commodities in our time. Fake news, false media and alternative facts rule the day.  In politics and especially on our college campuses, even the concept of objectivity is under assault.

One of my favorite stories illustrates the extent to which an un-objective and totally personal perspective can radically affect one’s thinking process. I first heard this story about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik from my Rosh Yeshiva and I subsequently saw it written up in Listen to Your Messages: And Other Observations on Contemporary Jewish Life by fellow Seattleite, Rabbi Yissochar Frand.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was a great rav in Brisk. The chief judge of Rav Chaim's beis din, his rabbinical court, was a great scholar named Rav Simchah Zelig.

It once happened that a butcher came into the beis din with a question regarding an animal he had just slaughtered. He had found a lesion on one of its internal organs and he wanted to know whether or not the animal was kosher.

Rav Simchah Zelig looked at the evidence and then considered the question very carefully. In those days, there were no real options for disposing of non-kosher animals. Thus, declaring an animal non-kosher was no simple matter - it involved very great financial loss, very many rubles. Unfortunately, however, Rav Simchah Zelig could not find any basis for declaring the animal kosher.

"I'm sorry," he said. "This animal is not kosher. It can't be used."

The man sighed as he heard the ruling. He nodded in acceptance and walked out without a whimper.

Three months later, the same man appeared before Rav Simchah Zelig once again, this time to litigate a dispute between him and another person. The disputed amount was a paltry 75 rubles. Rav Simchah Zelig ruled against the man, and it cost him 75 rubles. 

The man exploded in anger shouting at Rav Simchah Zelig and cursing him. The screams were so loud that Rav Chaim heard him and came running. Afraid that he would become violent, Rav Chaim ordered him to leave. 

"I don't understand," said Rav Simchah Zelig when he was finally alone with Rav Chaim. "Three months ago this man comes into my court, I rule against him and it costs him 1500 rubles, but he doesn't say a thing. Today he comes into my court, he loses 75 rubles, and he goes wild. It doesn't make any sense."

"The money has nothing to do with it," Rav Chaim replied. "It's all about winning and losing. In the case of the animal, there were no winners and losers, just a question about a piece of meat that had to be resolved. But today was a different story altogether. Today he lost and someone else won. That was unacceptable."

What essential truth does this story uncover? 

On the surface, the story speaks to the subtle power of one’s subjective world-view – losing a competition with another is more painful than losing your own money. In fact, so painful that one acts irrationally.

On a deeper level, this story communicates the power of justice and the power of a judicial system to support our personal reorienting of our subjective frame of mind. The butcher in the story missed the opportunity for personal transformation.  On a more personal scale, true justice, like the revelation at Mount Sinai, is a living experience. True justice is blind and objective. True justice offers an objective point of reference upon which each person can calibrate his or her opinions.  

The discussions of ma’amad Har Sinai and the system of justice are so related that the revelation is bookmarked in the Torah by two different presentations of justice – Yitro’s suggestion to Moshe of how to create an efficient court system and the Torah’s presentation of civil law in Parashat Mishpatim which we will read, be”H, next week.

In summary, together with Mishpatim, Parashat Yitro presents the existence of an objective moral law – a system of justice given by an eternal Lawgiver Who forged an on-going providential relationship with the Jewish People.

If so, why is this week’s parasha called Yitro? Yitro was Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law. On what merit is his name associated with this essential truth?

Rabbi Yosef
Ber Soloveitchik, the Rav, of blessed memory, addresses a different, but related, question. The Torah records that Yitro suggested to Moshe that his system of one court for all of Israel was too taxing. As the Rav says, “why didn’t Moshe intuitively feel the need for a well-organized judicial system? Why didn’t it occur to Moshe and it did to Yitro?"

The Rav argues that the Torah was particularly interested in linking the proper implementation of the judicial system with Yitro. It wasn’t necessarily that Moshe didn’t consider it – instead, the Torah wanted to connect the novel idea for ideal justice with Yitro. 

Why?

The Rav answers in the following way:

Many of us are undoubtedly familiar with the following Midrash in the Sifri. Before Matan Torah, Hashem sent agents not only to b'nei yisrael but to other nations, as well. After seeing a sample of the Torah, each nation rejected the offer.

Eisav saw lo tirtzach – thou shalt not murder – and said no thank you.

Yishmael was shown lo tignov – thou shalt not steal – and said no way.

Amon and Moav learned lo tin’af – thou shalt not commit adultery – and responded with a flat no.

This Midrash points to an existential pessimism that must have gnawed at b'nei yisrael. Will the world ever be redeemed by the values of Torah?

Imagine their doubts after their treatment in Egypt – by Pharoah who had an inkling of Hashem. Imagine their absolute skepticism after their treatment at the hand of Amalek!

Is there hope for mankind?

The Rav offers an unbelievable insight. The Torah had to present Yitro exactly at this time. In the Rav’s own words, “Yitro is the representative of mankind, non-Jews, of people who are ready or they will be ready to accept the Torah and live in accordance with its law. Intuitively, Yitro was a Jew.”

The Torah purposely sidestepped Moshe and shined the light on Yitro and his understanding of proper organization of justice to answer the lingering doubts that the Jewish People had – regardless of their interactions with Esav, Yishmael, Amon, Moav, Mitzrayim and especially with Amalek, mankind can experience true enlightenment. This is why Yitro’s name is affixed to our parasha.


In Moshe’s days there were doubts and in our days there are doubts. Yitro reminds us that the light of objectivity, truth, justice and chessed will one day, hopefully soon, permeate all of the inhabitants of the world.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Importance of Derech Eretz - Parashat Yitro - February 17, 2017

This week’s parasha presents the reuniting of Moshe Rabbenu and his father-in-law, Yitro – the namesake of our parasha

The Torah records that at the beginning of their encounter, Yitro says to Moshe, “I am your father-in-law, Yitro, who is coming to you and your wife and your two sons with her.” Rabbenu Ovadia Seforno, and a number of our commentators, are troubled by the inclusion of this statement. What does it add?

To answer this question, Seforno makes recourse to a teaching of our Chachamim in Masechet Pesachim 112a – do not enter your home suddenly, all the more so, the house of your friend. Using this dictum, Seforno explains that Yitro was attempting to give Moshe advance warning so that Moshe could have adequate time to make appropriate preparations for Yitro’s lodging. Yitro was concerned about Moshe’s interests and concerns – his announcement is a testament to his high ethical standing.

A more expanded version of this Rabbinic dictum is recorded in the fifth chapter of Masechet Derech Eretz:

  • A person should never leave the company of his teacher or friend unless he excuses himself and is granted permission. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak) asked permission before leaving the company of Avraham. 
  • A person should not suddenly enter his friend’s house. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak), after Adam’s sin of the tree of knowledge, stood at the entrance of the Garden of Eden and called to Adam, ‘Where are you?’
What is derech eretz?

On the most basic level, derech eretz means “the way of the world” – protocol. It is basic protocol to not leave the company of your friend without saying goodbye. It is basic protocol to refrain from barging in on someone’s house. However, in Masechet Berachot 35b, derech eretz is also used in another sense – earning a living. What is the unifying feature of protocols and earning a living?

I suggest that derech eretz refers to a human being’s basic psychological needs – the needs with which we are all hard-wired. We have a need for social harmony (saying goodbye), privacy (announcing one’s arrival) and independence (making a living). The Rabbis teach that we are obligated to promote social harmony – not just from our own framework but equally from the framework of those around us. We are obligated to respect each other’s privacy – because that is a basic human need. The Torah promotes making a living – dependency is taxing.

Our Rabbis teach that while it is natural to be protective and vigilant about our own needs, we must be equally sensitive to the basic psychological needs of everyone around us – we must strive to treat each other with derech eretz.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Shirat HaYam and Tu BiShevat - Parashat Beshalach- February 10, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Beshalach, presents the splitting of the Red Sea - b’nei yisrael was saved from the Egyptians who drowned while b’nei yisrael was safe on the far shore. In response, Moshe led the Jewish People in shirat hayam – the Song of the Sea – a song of praise for Hashem for His miraculously saving b’nei yisrael.

In Masechet Megilah 10b, the gemara cites a well-known midrash – “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but G-d silenced the angels, saying, ‘The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!’”

I discussed this gemara this morning with my students and we focused on one question – if it was improper for the angels to sing praises in the face of the death G-d’s creation (the Egyptians), why was Moshe and b’nei yisrael not subject to criticism? To answer this question, we examined a law in a very different context – but one that has a connection to Tu BiShevat which falls out this Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch, (siman 211:1) deals with the case of a person who has multiple fruits on his plate, all requiring the same blessing – bor’e p’ri ha’etz. On which fruit should he make the bracha? The Shulchan Aruch explains that for the purposes of blessing, fruit is prioritized from three perspectives, in descending order: fruit that is on the list of the seven species from Israel (grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates) followed by fruit that is in its whole form followed by fruit that a person likes. If a person has grapes and cherries on his plate, he should make the blessing on grapes. If he has cherries and a slice of orange on his plate, he should make the blessing on a cherry. If he has a slice of apple and a slice of orange, he should make the blessing on whichever one he likes better.

What is the foundational principle of this law? On what basis should a fruit of the seven species be used as the vehicle of blessing over a whole fruit over a preferred fruit? Our class suggested that this principle is rooted in an understanding of food-blessings. A blessing on food is a praise of Hashem – a recognition that His will yields to us the benefit of sustenance. We further suggested that when praising Hashem with a bracha, the halacha demands that we use the object that will yield the most rich praise of Him because of what is associated with that object. The best object is one that is universally associated with His providence – fruits of the Land of Israel where Hashem’s Providence is most evident. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that is the product of His will – a whole fruit. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that we, from our subjective framework, like the most.

What emerges from this analysis is that praise of Hashem can incorporate objective criteria – like a fruit’s association with the Land of Israel or it being in its agriculturally original state – whole, or alternatively, praise of Hashem can incorporate subjective criteria like personal predilections – the praise comes from one’s own experience and state of mind.

We proposed in class that this distinction between objective and subjective frameworks of praise can be used to explain why the angels were subject to criticism but the Jewish People were not. Angels are beings designed only to carry out Hashem’s will free of the influence of free will. They are designed to be purely objective. When singing praises to Hashem, angels must represent the entire picture – the objective frame. Hence, Hashem criticizes them because they did not incorporate the whole frame – they failed to acknowledge the loss of humanity that served as the basis for the salvation of the Jewish People. However, as human beings who experienced the salvation, there is no expectation for the Jewish People to maintain a completely objective framework – their song of praise emerged from their experience of salvation. Like the person who prioritizes making a blessing on a fruit – which is the means of his sustenance – using an object that is associated with the Land of Israel, the Jewish People sing praises to Hashem at the Red Sea – the place of their salvation – regarding Hashem’s greatness in His mastery over the world.

On Happiness - Parashat Bo - February 3, 2017

Our parasha, Parashat Bo, is the third in a set of four parshiyot dealing with the experience of b’nei yisrael in Mitzrayim.

Moshe and Aharon approach Paroh and declare that if he refuses to let the Jewish people go, the plague of locusts will be unleashed upon Egypt. Moshe elaborates and explains that all of Egypt will be consumed. Moshe and Aharon leave Paroh. Paroh’s servants complain to Paroh. “How long will you allow Moshe to be a trap for us? Let the men go so that they should serve their G-d. Do you not know that Egypt has been destroyed?”

The Torah continues the narrative. “And Moshe and Aharon were returned to Paroh. Paroh says to them, ‘Go serve the L-rd your G-d. Who and who goes' (מי ומי ההולכים)? Moshe responds, ‘We will go with our young and with our old, we will go with our sons and with our daughters with our flocks and with our herds; כי חג לה' לנו - because it is a festival unto G-d for us.’”

Our commentators ask a number of questions on the passage:
  • What did Paroh mean when he said, “Who and who goes”? 
  • Why did Moshe break up his response to Paroh? Why did he say, “We will go with our young and with our old, we will go with our sons and daughters with our flocks and with our herds.”? Why not consolidate this into one statement – we will go with …”
  • What did Moshe mean by a festival unto G-d for us?
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, known by the name of his commentary on Torah, Kli Yakar, develops an intriguing explanation of this passage. He begins by explaining Paroh’s query to Moshe and Aharon - מי ומי ההולכים – Who and who goes? Paroh was asking what other nation goes into the wilderness in order to serve G-d. In other words, Paroh was exclaiming that even if one looks all around, it is unheard of to find a nation that walks into the wilderness in order to serve G-d. According to this explanation, Paroh was struck by the unique nature of the Jewish idea of a festival.

Kli Yakar explains that, in his response, Moshe was pointing to two aspects of a Jewish festival – serving G-d and cultivating human happiness. These two aspects explain Moshe’s language – serving G-d – a festival unto G-d – and happiness – for us. The existence of these two dimensions explain Moshe’s seemingly cluttered statement. “We will go with our young and with our old” – these groups are obligated to serve Hashem by offering sacrifices. “We will go with our sons and daughters” – these groups will help us to be happy – after all how can we be happy if our children were left in Egypt as collateral for our return. “With our flocks and with our herd” – we will use these animals to sacrifice to Hashem.

What is a Jewish festival? From Moshe’s statement, we see that a Jewish festival consists of two attributes – a mitzvah to serve Hashem and a mitzvah to be happy. How is service of Hashem linked to happiness?

On each of our festivals, we are obligated to be happy and, in Temple times, to bring an offering as a result of our happiness. Additionally, we are each obligated to make each member of our household happy to the best of our ability according to each member’s needs and wants. Furthermore, as an act of the mitzvah to be happy, we eat meat and drink wine and, in Temple times, we would eat of the festival offering. When we eat and drink, we are obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and others who are oppressed. The Torah castigates one who locks his doors to these people on the holiday. Such a person is said to have simchat kreso – happiness of his belly – as opposed to simchat mitzvah – happiness of mitzvah.

These laws demonstrate that the Torah promotes a paradigm in which happiness is achieved through serving or helping another. We are obligated to be happy not simply by acting happy – eating meat and wine – but by coupling this eating with an act of service to Hashem and by making others happy.

The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, also speaks of the relationship between service and happiness. To paraphrase him, happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy - it must come as the unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.

Even the act of eating meat and wine on a festival – an act designed to promote our own happiness – is itself an act of commandment – a mitzvah. In performing this act of mitzvah we are serving G-d. Although the decision to perform a mitzvah comes from us and from our own free will, the commandment itself is outside of us. By performing this commandment, we are serving G-d.

Modern psychology recognizes a truth that Moshe Rabbenu conveyed to Paroh 3300 years ago – happiness and contentment flows from one’s dedication to a cause or goal outside of oneself. This truth is as important to the Jews who were enslaved in a miserable existence in Egypt as it is for modern man. Happiness cannot be directly pursued. Happiness is a result of living a life committed to goals outside of oneself – pursuing truth, justice, learning, wisdom and service of Hashem and His commandments. Even earning money so that one can promote these goals can promote happiness. It is the dedication to this commitment that helps a person to be happy.

Measuring the Quality of a Prayer - Parashat Va-era - January 27, 2017

In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Parashat Va’Era, Hashem shares with Moshe Rabbenu that He has heard the groan of b’nei yisrael as a consequence of their slavery and that Hashem remembered His covenant.

The response of b’nei yisrael to the slavery is also recorded in another place in the Torah. In the description of the mitzvat bikkurim – the commandment of the first fruits – the farmer brings his first fruits to Yerushalayim. In presenting the fruits to the kohen, the farmer recites a confession – a viduy. As part of this confession, the farmer briefly recounts the experience of the children of Israel in Egypt. The farmer begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us and placed hard work on us.”


In the next passage, the farmer describes the reaction of b’nei yisrael to the affliction. He says, “Then we cried out to Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail and our oppression.” The farmer concludes his confession by briefly describing the salvation of the Jewish People from bondage and their inheritance of the Land of Israel.


What was the text of the Jewish People’s prayer? What language did they use to beseech Hashem that He should save them?


Many commentators interpret the Torah as not taking a stance on this issue. When the Torah says, “And we cried out to Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers,” these commentators see only a reference to this prayer – not the text of the prayer itself.


Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berliner – the Netziv – interprets this verse to be sharing with us the actual text of the Jewish People’s prayer. He reads the verse to say, “And we cried out to Hashem, ‘The G-d of our forefathers’.” The Jewish People’s prayer was primitive and only two words long – “elokei avoteinu” – “G-d of our forefathers”. The Netziv bases his interpretation on a comparison of this verse to a similar verse in a different context. In this other context, b’nei yisrael is describing to the king of Edom how the Jewish People cried out to Hashem when they were suffering in Egypt. Through this description, b’nei yisrael is hoping to arouse the sympathy of Edom and to convince them to allow passage through their land. In this description, the Torah leaves out the words, “elokei avotenu” – “G-d of our forefathers”. Netziv understands this omission to have been intentional – the Edomites did not need to know the text of the prayer – only that the Jewish People prayed.


For the Netziv, this short prayer – “G-d of our forefathers” – represents the minimal content of a prayer. As the Jewish People were on an exceedingly low spiritual level, their capacity for prayer was limited. This prayer did not even contain a formal request – only a statement of G-d’s existence and His relationship with our forefathers. However, b’nei yisrael prayed to their capacity and Hashem answered. The Netziv interprets this verse to mean that G-d answers even the most primitive prayer – when that prayer represents the capacity of that individual.


This is an important lesson for us and for our children. Each of us has our own philosophical and spiritual capacity and we pray to Hashem based on these capacities. According to the Netziv, the Torah teaches us that the primary measurement of the quality of one’s prayer is the level to which one’s prayer compares to our personal capacity. The most important thing in prayer is to do one’s best.

The First Building Block of Prophecy- Parashat Shemot- January 20, 2017

This week, we read the first parasha of Sefer Shemot. The parasha describes the increasingly difficult circumstances that bnei yisrael were suffering under the rule of Paroh in Egypt. The parasha also introduces us to Moshe and describes his development into the leader of the Jewish People.

In his first prophetic experience, Moshe is shown an angel of Hashem within a burning bush. Moshe saw that the bush was burning but not being consumed. Moshe then says, “I will now turn and I will see this great vision – why is the bush not burning?” The Torah conveys that Hashem saw that Moshe had turned to see (the vision) and He called to Moshe from the midst of the bush, “Moshe, Moshe” to which Moshe responded, “I am here.” After this exchange, Hashem reveals to Moshe the content of the prophecy – that Hashem would redeem the Jewish People from Egypt through the agency of Moshe.

Looking more carefully at the details of this – Moshe’s first prophetic experience – we notice a seemingly innocuous detail – Moshe asked why the bush was not burning.

A similar detail is recorded within the Haftarah that Sephardim read this week – the well-known first prophecies of the prophet Jeremiah. Hashem says to Jeremiah, “What do you see, Jeremiah? And I (Jeremiah) said, ‘I see a stick of almond wood’.” Hashem then proceeds to share with Jeremiah the meaning of the vision.

Each of these prophecies share a common detail – the revelation of the prophecy is preceded by an observation of a physical phenomenon by the prophet. By including this detail in the description of each of these prophecies, the Torah seems to be conveying that the prophet’s observation was essential. Why is this detail important?

In his Laws of The Fundamentals of the Torah, Maimonides explains that, among many qualities, a prophet must be intelligent. Perhaps this requirement explains the inclusion of the observations made initially by Moshe and Jeremiah. Like a scientist exploring the world around him or her, Moshe and Jeremiah (with some prodding from Hashem), made an initial observation about the physical world. When confronted by a new situation, the first instinct of the researcher is, “What do I see?” or “How does it work?” Once Moshe and Jeremiah showed themselves to have this approach to understanding the world, they were prepared for prophecy.

One of the primary jobs of an educator is to harness and direct the innate creativity of his or her students to intelligently approach Torah and the world around us. From Moshe and Jeremiah we learn that, towards this end, the first instinct that we should cultivate is the What? or How? question. We can promote this instinct by teaching our children to look carefully at the text of the Torah and report the observations that they learn – what happened in the first plague? We can model looking at the world around us and noticing phenomena and learning how they work – what is steam and how does evaporation work? While partially innate, intelligence can be developed and refined. Today, we do not have access to prophecy, however, G-d has given us the gift of intelligence. Moshe and Jeremiah teach us the building blocks of this gift.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Merit vs. Lineage: A Lesson from Reuven - Parashat Vayechi - January 13, 2017

This week’s parasha, VaYechi, describes the blessings that Ya’akov conveyed to his children at the end of his life.

The first blessing was to Ya’akov’s eldest son, Reuven. The blessing begins, “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like in impetuosity – you cannot be foremost…” Based on this verse, the Midrash concludes that, at the outset, Reuven and his descendants had been given the rights to three positions of leadership – Firstborn, Priesthood (kehuna) and Kingship. All were lost when Reuven sinned by acting impetuously. As a result, these rights were each transferred to more appropriate recipients within Ya’akov’s family- the Firstborn to Yosef, the Priesthood to Levi and the Kingship to Yehuda.

From the perspective of this Midrash, rights and privileges are determined by merit. Originally, Hashem had intended Reuven - Ya’akov’s first-born – to be associated with all of the rights of leadership - the first-born, priesthood and kingship. When he sinned, Reuven lost all of these rights. Other, more meritorious brothers, were selected to hold the privilege of these rights.

Let us contrast this perspective with the halachic system – with Jewish Law. In halacha, how are rights and privileges distributed? Rights and privileges in the Torah are distributed based on one’s lineage: The rights of a kohen – first and best portions of food, for example – are transmitted only to kohanim. The rights of a first-born – double inheritance, for example – are transmitted only to first born males. The rights of being a king – taxation, for example – are transmitted only to the descendant of King David who is inaugurated as king. This system is based on lineage – very different than the meritocracy of Ya’akov’s time described by the Midrash.

However, another statement by our Rabbis conveys the idea that meritocracy exists even in our day. Our Rabbis say, “The child of an adulterous relationship, a mamzer, who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” This statement conveys the idea that one’s level of Torah scholarship is more important than one’s lineage.

How can we reconcile the fact that rights and privileges are distributed in halacha based on lineage with the aforementioned aphorism that conveys the all-important value of Torah scholarship?

To help answer this question, let us examine the story of Korach – which is presented much later in the Torah. While b'nei yisrael is travelling in the desert and in the wake of the catastrophe of the spies, Korach – a great-grandchild of Levi – bands together with Datan and Aviram and On the son of Pelet, a descendent of Reuven and 250 men. Each of these men was disgruntled for different reasons. Korach was upset because he was a descendent of Levi but from a family that Hashem did not select to have any levite or kohen rights. The descendants of Reuven were upset because as children of Ya’akov’s first-born male – Reuven – they felt entitled to a position of leadership.

The Midrash explains that they all stood before Moshe and jeered him. They asked Moshe whether a room that was filled with sifrei Torah requires a mezuzah. Moshe responded that it does require a mezuzah. Korach mocked Moshe saying, “If the purpose of the mezuzah is to remind us of the unity of G-d then why would I need a mezuzah on a room filled with sifrei Torah – what greater reminder of the unity of G-d exists than sifrei Torah?”

What was Korach’s error?

He failed to understand one of the unique qualities of Judaism. Two spheres exist within Torah – the Torah’s overarching aims and goals – the philosophy of Torah – and the halacha – the Torah’s legal system. Hashem’s Will is that we should be truthful and honest, just, charitable and that we should love Him. These are overarching aims of the Torah. G-d, in His Infinite Wisdom, codified a system of law called halacha which is designed to help inculcate these overarching aims into the adherents of the law. Although there is a relationship between halacha and the overarching goals, these two spheres are separate – each and every halacha does not directly correspond to an overarching goal. Rather, the halacha is a separate system.

Korach failed to understand that the requirement to affix a mezuzah on a room is a halacha – a legal requirement. One aim of the mitzvah of mezuzah is that those who encounter a mezuzah should be reminded of G-d’s unity. However, fundamentally, mezuzah is a law. There are parameters to the law. What is a room? What is a mezuzah? Who is obligated? When is that person obligated? Is the obligation on an owner or a renter? The law is that a mezuzah must be placed on the door-frame of a room. Therefore, even if this room contained all sifrei Torah, a mezuzah must be affixed to the doorpost.

Returning to our question - how can we reconcile the fact that rights and privileges are distributed in halacha based on lineage with the emphasis that the Torah places on merit?

One of the features of a legal system is that it often does not differentiate between individual circumstances. However, by designing a legal system, Hashem helped ensure that our commitment to the overarching aims and objectives will be obligatory and permanent and not merely casual. The existence of the law – which is based on objective criteria such as lineage – creates the circumstance that allows for the perpetuation of the Torah philosophy – that merit is of supreme importance.