As Parshat Tzav draws to a close, God commands Moshe to instruct Aharon concerning the laws of the shivat yemei hamiluim, the seven days of preparation that will lead to the inauguration of the kehuna on the eighth day.
These events will launch the ongoing priestly role of Aharon and his progeny across the span of Jewish history.
Why is the priestly role within Judaism inherited and not “earned”?
Why is honor given, to this day, to a Kohen simply because of his lineage?
Are we not all “equal” in God’s eyes? If we are equal, shouldn’t Jewish society be a meritocracy?
A review of the Torah’s outline for Jewish society, from both a historical and a legal perspective, reveals a fascinating tension and interplay between inherited and earned roles and rights.
Numerous approaches to the concept of korbanot are offered within traditional Jewish literature. Following are several of them.
Certain roles within our tradition are inherited in perpetuity. All male descendants of Aharon are automatically Kohanim, while all male descendants of the tribe of Levi are, of course, Leviim (those who serve within the Temple). Within each Jewish family, firstborn males are accorded specific rights. Jewish men and women have different halachic obligations from birth. Once David becomes king all authentic royalty descends from the Davidic dynasty. Even Jewish identity is unalterably inherited through one’s mother. According to Jewish law while someone can certainly convert to Judaism, a born or converted Jew cannot “convert out.”
On the other hand, other critical roles within Jewish society are clearly earned. Although the Torah is silent on the subject, Midrashic literature clearly reflects the position that God’s choice of Avraham is far from arbitrary. Instead, the first patriarch secures his position as the progenitor of the Jewish people only through years of lonely philosophical struggle and search. Moshe, the paradigm of leadership and the progenitor of rabbinic leadership, rises to greatness as a result of his own initiative. Sages, scholars, rabbis and teachers across the ages earn their positions of authority by dint of scholarship and character. More than a few of the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud rise from humble origins, including Shmaya and Avtalyon, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Reish Lakish and others.
Most fascinating of all is the tension inherent between these two potential paths of communal participation: what happens when birth roles and earned roles collide.
The pattern established in the patriarchal era, for example, is particularly telling. On the one hand, the concept of birth privilege is already recognized, as can be seen most clearly in the struggle between Yaakov and Esav for the title of firstborn. And yet, in each generation of this historical period, the firstborn loses his rights to a younger sibling. Yitzchak, not Yishmael, is heir to his father’s legacy. Yaakov supplants his older brother, Esav, in the struggle for Yitzchak’s blessing. Yehuda, Yosef and Levi each receive a dimension of the leadership role which was to rightfully have been Reuven’s, as the firstborn. This pattern continues in the generations that follow as Yosef’s younger son Ephraim is given precedence over the older Menashe and as Moshe overshadows his older brother, Aharon.
Though the firstborn Israelite males are originally designated for service within the Temple, they lose that privilege through their participation in the sin of the golden calf and the Levites are appointed in their stead. Although not originally designated to serve as a Kohen, Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, rises to that role and, according to some authorities, his descendents serve as Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests), in reward for Pinchas’s courageous acts in defense of God’s honor.
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). 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.
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 God’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 God’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth.
The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.
The place of both earned role and birth role within Jewish experience now becomes readily apparent. As God launches the journey of His chosen people through history, He weaves two participatory paths into the fabric of their society. Together these paths create a balance essential to the nation’s survival.
On the one hand, in each generation, earned opportunities will exist to encourage personal discovery, striving and growth. The realms of Torah scholarship, communal contribution and public leadership will lie open to those who earnestly seek to enter, regardless of personal background.
On the other hand, earned roles alone cannot ensure the perpetuation of all the structures critical to our nation’s character. Continuing responsibility must be assigned for the maintenance of institutions ranging from the priesthood to the Jewish home. Only a clear, ongoing division of responsibility, through the establishment of designated birth roles, will preserve the entire tapestry of Jewish life across the centuries.
The dramatic fealty shown by the Kohanim in maintaining their own unique heritage for over three thousand years demonstrates the true, lasting power of inherited roles. This power has helped safeguard the character of our nation from Sinai to this day.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.