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Halacha and Meritocracy - Parashat Vayechi 5780 - January 10, 2020


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 brothers who were 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. Let us use this idea to help guide our own personal perfection through uplifting our own values and to support us in perpetuating the Torah in our time and for future generations. 

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