The following is adapted and expanded from a sermon that I delivered this past Shabbat.
A popular question often posed to rabbis by young people who are dating, or perhaps their parents, is the relative importance of “yichus” – the lineage, the background of their potential spouse. The standard cute rabbinic answer is to picture yichus as a row of zeros. If the person in question is independently valueless, a zero, then all you have is a longer row of zeros. On the other hand, if the person in question is not a zero but is independently worthwhile, then that row of zeros can make that person’s “value” exponentially greater.
It is a good answer because on one hand it puts the focus on what individuals makes of themselves irrespective of background. On the other hand, it emphasizes the importance of one’s background, the fact that it is possible to be be born into a situation where it is much easier to be much more “valuable” than someone else who may lack particular advantages, someone who doesn’t have that row of zeros. The playing field *is* uneven, and some people are simply born with a head start.
We understand this well, which is why we expend so much effort and invest so many resources in making sure that our children have all the advantages they can possibly have, that their environment is as conducive to success as it can possibly be. It is why we want our schools, our synagogues, and our community organizations and institutions to be as developed as they can possibly be, and it is why we work so hard to support them. And, speaking at least for the Modern Orthodox community in the New York area, we’re there. Our communities are educated, professional, successful, cultured – by whatever metric you want to measure by, we’ve done it. Our synagogues are full, our rabbis are trained professionals, and our communities have almost incredibly high standards of observance and affiliation. We see the results of this in our younger generations as they take their places, who work hard to meet the high communal standards we originally set for ourselves to ensure their success – and are succeeding even by those standards.
At the same time, there are ramifications to our success. The infrastructure that we have built to ensure that our children have that greatest possible chance at success is not cheap – neither in terms of money, nor energy, nor time. As our synagogues become more full-featured and day schools aim ever-higher, those costs increase. The pressure rises, both on dues and tuition-paying parents and grandparents, but also on the children, who need to succeed wildly academically and professionally in order to afford to settle, one day, in the same communities that gave them the background to succeed. As the standards continue to rise, more people are left behind – and many more do not even get to begin.
The same is true in terms of religious observance and practice. Our communal standards of observance, of Torah background, of familiarity with the words, music, and procedures of the synagogue service, have probably never been higher. We continue to elevate all of these as we raise our children with a background where so much more comes built-in and so much literacy is assumed. Yet, at the same time, our synagogues have become more homogenous, closed-off, perhaps even intimidating to those without that background. So, as the standards continue to rise almost automatically for those with the rows of zeros, many more people find themselves left behind, with ever more ground to make up. Many people in this category will likely never even seriously try.
The interplay between background and achievement is, in fact, the subtext of this week’s Torah portion, especially when compared to last week’s, which was primarily about kohanim – the priesthood. When it comes to kohanim, it is all about lineage, about background. Simply by being born to a particular set of parents, a kohen has access to levels of kedushah, sanctity, that are unavailable to a standard-issue Israelite. True, a kohen has to conform to a particular lifestyle, has to maintain certain levels of ritual purity, but, assuming that he does, the kohen can perform the Temple service, eat sacred foods, and bless the people. The Israelite, even he conforms to the exact same standard of purity, cannot do those things. In other words, the row of zeros behind the kohen, that lineage that traces back to Aaron, is extremely significant, even defining.
On the other hand, this week we read about the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year. In particular, once every fifty years debts were forgiven, and most land sales were reversed. In other words, no matter how badly someone may have failed, that person’s children were not doomed to carry that debt for generations, to begin so far behind. Conversely, no matter how much one person may have succeeded, his grandchildren were not guaranteed a life of luxury. The scoreboard was reset to zero, with nobody carrying excessive advantages or disadvantages by dint of their circumstances.
As we look at our own society, sometimes it may be more priesthood and sometimes more Jubilee. I think that for our community, again, the larger New York Modern Orthodox community, we have actually moved in recent generations towards a position of priesthood. A generation ago, Orthodoxy seemed to be in decline, if not endangered. The pews were filled by Jews emerging first from the tenements and then from displaced person camps. The rabbis seemed out of touch, and rigorous observance, let alone scholarship seemed a vestige of an older, lost world. Against this background, communities struggled to overcome their disadvantages, to give their children a chance in America, to get back to the starting line. Today, only decades later and thanks to a combination of indescribably hard work and fortuitous social conditions, everything is reversed. Today, the question is not whether our children will have a chance to succeed; it is, rather, what happens if they don’t. We assume a level of success, both religious and professional, that is astonishing, and, amazingly, we live up, by and large, to the incredibly high standards that we set for ourselves. We are, in many ways, the kohanim – but with no Jubilee in sight.
Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a remarkable sermon to the Jewish Center, back in 1962, in which he developed an idea by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. According to Rav Kook, and against conventional wisdom, a kohen does not get to bless the people because he is holier than they. In fact, kohanim are regular people, just like the rest of us – look around, and you’ll see. Rather, kohanim bless the people because they carry more potential than everyone else. Their lineage gives them a sensitivity, a disposition to holiness. The higher standard to which they are held challenges them to live up to that standard, to activate the potential of their background, to become holier rather than to simply be holier. Yet the kohanim do not bless themselves on account of their elevated potential; they bless everyone else. They face the people and recognize that the only differences between the blesser and the blessed are circumstances of birth and background, not innate ability. In doing so, they challenge themselves to fully realize the advantages with which they were born, and to use them in such a way that elevates everyone.
After the discussion of the basic laws of Shemittah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, our parashah describes the laws surrounding the man who becomes impoverished and is forced to sell his ancestral home, to borrow money, or even himself into slavery. The Talmud contains an opinion that sees this as cause and result, as law and punishment. If one does not carefully observe the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, he will suffer reversals and be forced to sell his land. If he does not then hear the message he will be forced to incur debts, and then to sell himself in order to survive.
When a landed, successful Israelite saw someone struggling or destitute, his first impulse may well have been to attribute his fellow’s lowly condition to a series of poor choices, poor morals, or lack of a culture of success. In the same way, even as Orthodoxy has grown strong, we can look at other denominations with big, empty synagogues and hollowed-out communities and our first impulse is to attribute cause – this is what they did wrong, this is what we do better. This is also part of our national discussion, in particular about certain communities and their relative failure and success when measured against the population at large.
The end of that Talmudic passage, though, emphasizes the word the Torah uses to describe the fellow in dire straights – achikha, your brother. At the very heart of it, we are reminded that you and he are basically not very different at all. Even if we do not live in a culture that reallocates assets and cancels debts even fifty years, we can try to achieve the perspective that the original Yovel was meant to instill.
Perhaps that glaring disparity in living conditions is more due to circumstance than culture, more the result of poor background than poor choices. We are reminded that many people do the best they can with what they have, and are still forced to sell themselves into slavery to pay the bills, that a synagogue can do everything right, and still fail. With that realization, we are challenged to redeem that brother, to restore his birthright and human dignity.
Our challenge is to act like the kohen by reaching out in blessing, in recognition of our responsibility to the potential power and influence of our community. With that perspective, we may realize the best in ourselves even as the blessed lifestyle we enjoy elevates everyone else as well. In the end, hopefully we understand that our unique ability to profoundly impact the world around us is our most valuable blessing. In fact, it is our greatest privilege.