I was given a pocket knife when I was six. I spent many happy hours playing mumblety-peg with that knife. I became quite adept at it (practice does pay off). When my kids were young, my son (second born) was given a pocket knife which he thought was awesome and grownup. His older sister (first born) objected vehemently that, as the older sister, she should have a pocket knife before he did, and not only that, but three years before he did because she was three years older. This is the only instance I can recall of my kids expressing concern about birth order and precedent, but it has stuck in my mind, and came to mind when reading this week’s parashah, Naso.
Parshat Naso opens with a description of a census taken of the Gershonites, members of the clan of the eldest son of Levi. Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohat, and Merari. We find their names in Genesis 46:11, listed among the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came in Egypt. Together, the three clans of Gershon, Kohat, and Merari constitute the Levitical Priesthood. Therefore, they have special responsibilities pertaining to the service in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle), as well as its disassembly, porterage, and re-assembly. Parshat Naso lists these duties. It reads like a government manual, which it essentially is:
זֹאת עֲבֹדַת, מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַגֵּרְשֻׁנִּי--לַעֲבֹד, וּלְמַשָּׂא. וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת-יְרִיעֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, וְאֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, מִכְסֵהוּ, וּמִכְסֵה הַתַּחַשׁ אֲשֶׁר-עָלָיו מִלְמָעְלָה; וְאֶת-מָסַךְ--פֶּתַח, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וְאֵת קַלְעֵי הֶחָצֵר וְאֶת-מָסַךְ פֶּתַח שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְעַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב, וְאֵת מֵיתְרֵיהֶם, וְאֶת-כָּל-כְּלֵי עֲבֹדָתָם; וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יֵעָשֶׂה לָהֶם, וְעָבָדוּ.
These are the duties of the Gershonite clans as to labor and porterage: they shall carry the cloths of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting with its covering, the covering of dolphin skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the enclosure, the screen at the entrance of the gate of the enclosure that surrounds the Tabernacle, the cords thereof, and the altar, and all their service equipment and all their accessories; and they shall perform the service. (Numbers 4:24-26)
Since this is the beginning of a parashah, we might not have noticed that the duties assigned the Kohatites are listed earlier in the same chapter—before the passage about the Gershonites—because that passage is contained in the previous parashah, B’midbar. It is standard practice to list the eldest first. Rachel cannot marry Jacob until her older sister, Leah, is married, which is why Laban slyly slips Leah into Rachel’s place on the wedding night. Why are the Kohatites named before the Gershonites in this matter of divvying up the duties related to the Mishkan? Why did they get a pocket knife before their older brother?
This violation of the “eldest first” rule of the Bible attracts the attention of the Rabbis and inspires them to ponder the question of order, precedent, and priority. In midrash B’midbar Rabbah (6:1), the Rabbis provide a comprehensive list of who takes precedence over whom for the purpose of “redemption [from captivity], lifesaving, and clothing” but not for “a seat [position] in the House of Study.” Since the passage is long, I have provided it below in both Hebrew and English translation; by all means, read it now. I will summarize it and comment here. The order of priority is: a sage, the king, the High Priest, a prophet, various kinds of priests, Levites, Israelites, mamzerim, natinim, proselytes, and manumitted slaves. This list inspires a host of questions, and many concerns, not least of which is why there is such a list, how can the claim be made that some people are more inherently valuable than others, and why are proselytes last on the list. All good questions, and far more than I can discuss in one drash.
What is instantly apparent is that the Rabbis, who promulgated the list, put themselves at the top of the priority pyramid, above even the king and High Priest. A cynic might be tempted to say that this is a self-serving list. An historian might respond that there were no longer kings, High Priests, prophets, natinim, or manumitted slaves when the midrash was written, nor is it clear that anyone was searching out mamzerim, so much of this is theoretical, at best. The Rabbis replaced the priests as leaders of the community after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.; they correctly saw themselves as the leaders upon whom the continuity and survival of the Judaism and the Jewish people depended. What is more, the status of Levite and Israelite are orthogonal to the status of sage, which is to say, one could be a Levite or an Israelite and also be a Sage. More likely—and most importantly—this passage is an expression of the prioritization of values, not people.
The Rabbis are asserting the primacy of Torah learning as the most important attribute, skill, and value in Jewish life. First, let us ask: How do the Rabbis make this claim in the midrash? (Next we will discuss why they make this claim.) Their argument for the primacy of learning hinges on Proverbs 3:15 She is more precious than rubies and all the things you can desire are incomparable to her. Proverbs is speaking of wisdom (the “she” in the verse) which the Rabbis identify with Torah: Torah is the core of Jewish covenant, the foundation of Jewish life, the most precious thing to the Jewish people; all else is incomparable. The phrase “than rubies” מִפְּנִינִים can also be parsed “than in the innermost sanctuary,” which allows the Rabbis to cleverly and subtilely equate “she” (Wisdom=Torah) with the inner sanctum=Holy of Holies. More to the point: the Rabbis have replaced the Priests, the activities of the House of Study (Torah study and prayer) have replaced sacrifices, and the Bet Midrash (the House of Study) is the new Holy of Holies for the Jewish community in the Diaspora. Paul Simon once sang, “It’s all happenin’ at the zoo.” The Rabbis sang, “It’s all happenin’ at the Bet Midrash.”
The exception to the precedent list is important: it does not apply to a seat [position] in the House of Study. Perhaps the most telling sentence in the midrash is this: But if the mamzer was a scholar he takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest. The highest communal priority is Torah scholarship. The Rabbis made knowledge, learning, and reasoning the backbone of Jewish life and communal well being. They established a primary and foundation priority of learning that saw Jews through nearly 2,000 years of Diaspora. The result? Consider this:
“The Jews have a high percentage of Nobel Prize laureates in all fields: In literature, science and economics. It's an amazing achievement. We tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people. How do they – more than other nations – manage to reach such impressive achievements? How is it that Jews are such geniuses? The conclusion we reaches is that one of your secrets is studying Talmud. Jews read the Talmud from an early age, and we believe it helps them develop great abilities. This understanding led us to the conclusion that we should also teach children Talmud. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud we could also be geniuses. And that's what stands behind the decision to read Talmud at home.”
These words were spoken by South Korean Ambassador to Israel Young Sam Ma on the Israeli TV program “Culture Today.” He expressed a belief commonly held in South Korea, where Korean-translated editions of the Talmud are common, and mothers read Talmud to their children in the hopes of creating geniuses. I am not claiming that studying Talmud will transform anyone into a genius and insure his/her financial success, but it’s worthwhile asking: Where did South Koreans get the idea that reading the Talmud infuses one with intellectual power that translates into economic prosperity?
Two economists, Maristella Botticini (Boccini University) and Zvi Eckstein (Tel Aviv University) ask the question that inspires South Koreans to have their children read Talmud. In The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (Princeton University Press), focusing on human capital, the authors explain how investment in religious education effected choice of occupation and earnings in the Jewish community. The seismic events of the first century—the destruction of the Temple and the imposition of Roman rule that decimated the Jewish state with war, famine and exile—led to the rise of a new class of leaders, the Rabbis, who replaced the priests. The Rabbis promoted the primacy of Torah study not only for themselves, but for the community, necessitating general literacy and numeracy. They advocated strenuously for the first system of universal public education in human history. As Jews moved from rural agricultural settings to more urbanized environments, the skills acquired to live and study as Jews transferred well, enabling them to enter new trades and take advantage of new economic opportunities. By and large, Jews were far more literate than the populations of their host countries, lending them a significant advantage, particularly in urban centers where reading, writing, numeracy, reasoning, knowledge of laws and contracts, and negotiation skills—all of which are requisites for, or derivatives of, Torah study—would translate to success in business, trade, and finance. What is more, Jews were networked with one another by religion and language (Hebrew), so that when a Jew traveled through Europe or the Middle East on business, he would be welcomed and find food and shelter in any Jewish community. This reality facilitated business arrangements and trade based on common culture and hence trust.
Yet is this the reason to retain learning as the primary religious value that undergirds Jewish living and Jewish community? Hardly. Certainly the Rabbis did not have this in mind. They understood that in studying Torah and Talmud, Jews would learn a host of wonderful values about living life with integrity, strengthening family and community, and contributing to the betterment of the world. The literacy and numeracy requisite to study, and the intellectual and reasoning skills developed through study are not ends in themselves. Rather, the Rabbis understood that those invested in Torah study will absorb God’s priorities: justice, compassion, kindness, honesty, loyalty, human dignity, the sanctity of life, humility, righteousness, and the pursuit of peace. Those who invest in Torah study are transformed by the texts they imbibe, reshaped by the ethics they absorb, and go out into the world imbued with a sense of their personal obligation to tikkun olam (the repair of the world).
The South Koreans who ply their children with translations of the Talmud have quite understandably missed the point. My daughter may have resented the fact that the gift of a pocket knife violated her sense of proper precedent among siblings, but not every hierarchy is inherently bad. The message concerning the primacy of Jewish learning the lies just beneath the surface of the list we find in B’midbar Rabbah is a fine one.
When the Rabbis established “Sages” at the top of the hierarchy, perched on the tip of the pyramid, they were promoting the value of Torah study as the highest social priority, knowing that all the things we would want as the hallmarks of a civil, compassionate, and just society would arise from Torah learning. These are values for a the ages, values that strengthen family and society, and their byproducts—from success in academic endeavors, business, and yearly tally of Nobel Prize winners—is icing on the cake. Do we today understand and appreciate the message? I think we could and should work assiduously to ensure that the primacy of Jewish learning retains its rightful and exalted place at the top of the pyramid of priorities. Our future depends up it.