[Note: This is a quasi-derashah, quasi-shiur, as I am guest-speaking at a Shabbaton this Shabbos.]
It’s safe to assume that 98% of the people here have heard the old joke about Yankel, who comes to the rabbi and begs to be made a kohen. Beside himself as the rabbi refuses to make him a kohen, Yankel pledges successively larger sums of money, he offers to perform greater and greater deeds of righteousness, to come to minyan, to learn torah, to help others, until, finally, the rabbi asks, “Why do you want to be a kohen so badly?” And Yankel replies, “My father was a kohen, my grandfather was a kohen…”
We laugh at the absurdity of Yankel’s request; doesn’t everyone know that kehunah is inherited?! Is he truly unaware that membership in this oldest of Jewish aristocracies is determined not by good deeds but by accident of birth?
But we shouldn’t laugh at Yankel – because Yankel knows a great deal about Judaism’s egalitarian instincts:
• Yankel knows that all human beings are created equal – that Ben Azzai taught that the most important pasuk in the Torah is זה ספר תולדות אדם ביום ברא אלקים אדם בדמות אלקים עשה אותו, that all human beings are placed on earth with an identical claim to affinity with their Maker.
• Yankel knows the mishnah that says Gd assigned all of us the same pedigree from Adam and Chavah in order to highlight the ridiculous character of a human who would dare allege, “אבא גדול מאביך, My ancestor is greater than yours.”
• Yankel knows the lessons of Sefer Bereishit and Sefer Shmot, that Avraham and Sarah of Aram, that Rivkah and Rachel of the house of Lavan, that Yosef the imprisoned felon, that an entire generation of slaves, can lay claim to the status of בני בכרי ישראל, firstborn children of Gd, and can establish the nation that the Shechinah would recognize as her own.
So why do we laugh at Yankel? We should agree with him!
Why do we accept the aristocracy of kehunah, as well as its twin nobility of מלכות, the monarchy?
Why is our government an inherited authority?
Why do we tolerate the idea that the honor of serving in the Beit haMikdash should go to an individual of no special merit beyond a genetic helix stamped Scion-of-Aaron, or that the right to sit upon King David’s throne should go to an individual who is simply descended from Ruth?
It’s because monarchy and kehunah are not really about honoring descendants, assigning privilege to people who don’t deserve it. A Jew who is born to a king, or to a kohen might never sit on the throne or serve in the Beit haMikdash. He has potential, as a Divine favor to his forebear, a reward for that ancestor’s labor.
Ramban said as much regarding the monarchy.
Ramban discussed the way that the Chashmonaim took over the Jewish monarchy after the events of Chanukah, and he claimed that they ultimately fell in battle as punishment for usurping the throne that belonged to King David’s heirs. And Ramban argued, citing the Yerushalmi, that the monarchy was assigned to that tribe not because those heirs were wonderful, but in honor of the deeds of their patriarch, Yehudah:
• Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line, according to a Tosefta, because Yehudah demonstrated selfless leadership in admitting his own guilt with Tamar publicly, because he saved Yosef’s life from his murderous brothers, and because he stared down the Viceroy of Egypt to save Binyamin.
• Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line, because Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of Yehudah’s tribe, trusted Gd and marched into Yam Suf before it split.
• And Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line because Ruth acted to save her former mother-in-law, Naami.
In other words: Monarchy was appropriate for King David and his children not because of King David, but because of the great deeds of the founders of his line.
The same principle applies to Yankel’s coveted kehunah; the right of kehunah belongs to Yankel because of the merit of his distant ancestors:
• Yankel’s great-great-grandmother, Yocheved, heroically saved Jewish baby boys in Egypt;
• Yankel’s great-great-grandparents, after Cheit ha’Eigel, rallied to Moshe’s cry of מי לה' אלי, Whoever is for Gd, come with me!
• Yankel’s great-great-grandfather, Aharon, led the Jewish people with selfless love.
In their merit, Gd gives their heirs a shot at serving in the Beit haMikdash.
But that’s all it is – a shot at being king, a shot at being a kohen, a shot at government of the Jewish people. One who is born into those lines can lose his position.
• An ignorant kohen is forced to take a back seat to a Torah scholar, even if the Torah scholar’s lineage is illegitimate;
• Families of kohanim lost their status because of their poor conduct;
• Offspring of Yehudah lost their thrones when they sinned.
• Jewish history is littered with the stories of regal families, heirs of the royal line, who fell from their perches.
We laugh at Yankel because he failed to understand that his great-grandfather’s merit remains for him. But Yankel understood our meritocratic ideal, that the offspring must still earn their status; authority must still be earned.
And Yankel was right about one more point related to the way we govern ourselves. When Yankel pledged tzedakah and Torah and chesed, he made the point that anyone, regardless of background, can start a new line or merit, can earn positions of greatness for himself and his heirs.
This message was expressed clearly every time the Jews dedicated or re-dedicated a house to Gd:
• When the Jews wished to construct a mishkan in which to gather and commune with their Creator, Gd assigned the task to Betzalel, from the royal tribe of Yehudah, and Ahaliav, from the tribe of Dan. Dan, descendant of Rachel’s maid Bilhah, was the tribe that moved last when the Jews traveled through the wilderness. He was the מאסף, the Desert Zamboni, sweeping up anything lost by the rest of the nation. The leader and the laggard were paired to construct the mishkan – and any Jew who wished, כל נדיב לב, could contribute goods or services to that Mishkan.
• When the Jews set out to build the first Beit haMikdash, Shlomo haMelech hired a man named Hirom – not Hiram King of Tzur, but Hirom whose mother was from the tribe of Dan, and whose father was from the city of Tyre up north. According to Abarbanel, Hirom’s father may not have been a Jew at all. Shlomo, from the tribe of Yehudah, and Hirom, from the tribe of Dan, and eventually Hirom’s son, who shared his name, built the Beit haMikdash.
• We find the same message of inclusion in the second Beit haMikdash, which was erected by a ragtag group of Jews who left Bavel more for lack of Babylonian opportunity than from any special Jewish piety. Despite their lowly beginnings, their poverty and their ignorance, this generation served as leaders and built the second Beit haMikdash.
• And then we move on to Chanukah and find the Chashmonaim, family of the Kohen Gadol, joining with any Jew who will answer their call of “מי לה' אלי, Whoever is for Gd, come with me!” to rebel against the Greeks. We find a woman named Chanah, daughter of Matityahu Kohen Gadol, rallying the Jews to revolt – and then we find another woman named Yehudit, with no particular lineage, executing the general Holofernes.
• This same principle has empowered Jewish leadership through the generations, no matter what culture or continent we have inhabited. Despite the absence of a Divine decree a la לא יסור שבט מיהודה, הכרת הטוב drove us to reward our leaders with opportunities for their descendants. From Tannaim and Amoraim in Israel and Bavel, to Gaonim and Rashei Galuta in Bavel and North Africa, to Negidim and Chachamim and Parnasim and Roshei Yeshiva in Europe, to the leaders of the first Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere, leaders of great merit have created lines, have been honored as their children were offered the opportunity to be ממלא מקום אבותיהם, to fill the seats of their parents – and when those children proved worthy, they established great dynasties, the well-known names of Jewish leadership: Klonymuses and Abarbanels, Rothschilds and Touros.
The mishkan, the first Beit haMikdash, the second Beit haMikdash, the rededication of Chanukah – all of them teach us that anyone can achieve greatness, that even as we honor descendants of great people, a non-kohen, a non-melech, any Yankel, can create a meritorious line of his own and bring honor to his own offspring.
This balance of honoring great people through their descendants, while demanding merit from those kin themselves, is of practical relevance for our theme this Shabbos. In governing our institutions, whether on the large scale of a country or the smaller scale of a community shul, we balance between those two imperatives.
The Jewish State of Israel is obligated to honor the contributions of its founders, be they the ancient, pious חלוקה communities, or the ideological BILU movement of the 1880s and 1890s, or the refugees of the Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century, or the kibbutznik chalutzim of the first half of the 20th century. These men and women, religious and secular, earned a place of honor for their in the new land by dint of their sweat and the lives they risked and gave for its creation. As Rav Kook recognized and actively promoted, as Rav Yissachar Techtel argued in his אם הבנים שמחה, Jewish government which seeks to honor the principles of Torah must recognize that these people are the melachim and kohanim of our time, and determine policy in a way that honors, rather than disenfranchises, their progeny.
But, simultaneously, those descendants must earn their titles. Being an Israeli by accident of birth is like being a Kohen by accident of birth; it entitles you to a seat at the table, but the future of that seat depends upon your own virtue.
And the same is true regarding our communities. A few months ago I was privileged to attend Rabbi Strauchler’s Installation here at Shaarei Shomayim, and I heard a great deal about the founders of this shul. I watched video interviews with them and their relatives, and I listened to tributes for families who have maintained this proud institution over the decades. These are the melachim and kohanim of Shaarei Shomayim, an aristocracy which earned a place of pride for its future generations. The einiklach of those heroes occupy that place of pride, but their challenge is to achieve greatness of their own, to earn their titles of today.
And the same applies regarding ourselves. I am part of a special line, descendants of Avraham and Sarah and of those who joined them over the millenia. I am part of a brit, a covenant – and I am in danger of taking it for granted. I want to be like Yankel – I want to come to Gd and say, “Gd, make me a Jew! I’ll do anything – chesed, torah, davening – just make me a Jew!” And when Gd says, “Why? Why do you want to be a Jew?” My answer will include the words, “Because my parents were Jews, and my grandparents were Jews…”
This morning’s haftarah described the role of aristocracies with the image of a Menorah whose oil is provided by two anointed sources, the monarchy and the kehunah. Next Shabbat, the second Shabbat of Chanukah, we will read about the role of Chirom, the man whose mother came from Dan and whose father may not have been Jewish.
The union of the two, the ancient aristocracy on one side and the rank-and-file creating its new aristocracy on the other, will continue the chain of the Mishkan, the first Beit haMikdash, the second Beit haMikdash and Chanukah, to construct the third Beit haMikdash, a בנין עדי עד, a construction everlasting.
1. Ben Azzai's quote is in Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4, the line about Adam's pedigree is in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
2. Ramban is on Bereishis 49:10, and his source is Yerushalmi Horiyyot 3:2
3. Yehudah's monarchy is identified as his and Nachshon's honor in Tosefta Berachot 4:18; Ruth's credit appears in the midrash to Ruth.
4. See http://www.torah.org/learning/ravfrand/5762/kisisa.html for an interesting story regarding the Chafetz Chaim and the honor of being a Kohen.
5. The mishnah in Horiyyot 3:8 talks about prizing the ממזר תלמיד חכם over the כהן גדול עם הארץ.Yoma 38a and Succah 56a talk about the dishonored families of Kohanim.
6. Regarding the construction of the mishkan, the rank and file contributed so much that the נשיאים, the leaders of the tribes, were pushed to the end, to donate follow-up gifts to what we could term The Building Fund – but each leader is mentioned personally in the Torah, despite their identical gifts, in order to show that each individual was significant.
7. The midrash of Chanah is found in Otzar Midrashim of Eisenstein.
8. The historic honor for the families of leaders is enshrined in halachah; many responsa deal with the problem of passing leadership positions to unworthy descendants, and of those who tried to wrest leadership positions from worthies.