In today’s world, which promotes the contradictory states of competition and egalitarianism, Judaism’s imposed structures seem confining to many people.
Competition works with envy. What does the other person have and how can I get it too—and get more of it in order to be better & richer than everyone else?
Egalitarianism insists that everyone deserves equal opportunity and rights for EVERYTHING. It doesn’t differentiate between innate nature, capabilities, talents, or abilities.
Egalitarians and competitors work against each other, yet both are held up us ideals within much of Western culture.
Yet Judaism has been there all along saying that neither is correct.
Yet Jews find themselves submerged in this contradictory culture, which is already in struggle and friction, and then need to work out how to internalize Jewish concepts that preempt their cultural indoctrination.
No wonder so many people get so frustrated or confused, or ended feeling so unfulfilled!
"I'm DONE With Being Just a Thumb!"
What good are all your blood vessels and inner organs if you don’t have a skeleton to put it on and flesh to hold everything in?
Likewise, you body parts play different yet essential roles. Oy vavoy if your heart would suddenly decide it would be more fulfilled as a lung or vice-versa.
And yes, even your body parts aren’t egalitarian.
You can live without your thumbs. Your heart is MUCH more important.
Yet if the thumbs decided they needed a more chashuv tafkid and pushed the heart aside, the person would die.
Likewise, if the heart decided it needed to step down (“A machine can do the work I can—what do I really matter?”) and live the more relaxed life of a thumb (“They get to rest at night and not keep pumping away”), it would be a disaster for that person.
So we see from this that if our mere body parts were at all competitive or egalitarian, there would not be one person left alive on the planet.
What Roles Does Hashem Send Us?
We have roles based on:
- spiritual/biological status (gerim, born Jews, Jews born as mamzerim chalilah, etc.)
- inherited spiritual status (Kohen, Levi, Yisrael)
- Tribal status (back in Tanach: Reuven, Shimon, etc.)
- yichus (kingship, Mashiach ben David, Mashiach ben Yosef, etc.)
- earned status (talmid chacham, tzaddik, etc.)
- family status (married, single, divorced, widowed, parent, etc.)
- age (elderly, above 20, above bar/bat mitzvah, child, etc.)
- and so on.
And within these roles, we have tremendous room to move.
A non-Jew can become a Jew.
A single person can become a husband or wife.
Childless people can become parents.
Young people eventually grow old.
A lazy chump can eventually work himself into a talmid chacham.
A selfish narcissistic can eventually work herself into a baalat chessed.
When black-and-white thinkers tell us what our role should be or how we should use our God-given structure, it can confuse us (because they can be so wrong).
But even well-meaning intelligent people can be wrong about what is best for YOU and how you should be using YOUR God-given roles.
Some people like to foist society's structures on you or even their own role on you. They try to wrench you out of your roles and stuff you into somebody else's box.
Don't let them.
(Tip: Learning mussar, doing a chesbon hanefesh, and engaging in tefillah can re-orient you to who you are and what you should be doing, despite external pressures.)
What Can You Make of Yourself?
The privileged Kohen can be an am ha’aretz while the run-of-the-mill Yisrael can become a massive talmid chacham.
A son can become rotten and a daughter can become a tzaddekes.
Judaism is replete with stories of people who rose from humble beginnings to great heights.
- Chana started out as the infertile & heartbroken co-wife of Elkanah, then became the prototype of ideal tefillah, plus the producer of one of the greatest nevi’im, Shmuel, and the mother of a large family.
- Ovadia Hanavi started off life as a non-Jew, then rose to become not just a Navi, but a Navi whose nevuah earned its own book in Tanach!
- Gidon was the youngest son of a the smallest family in the smallest tribe during a time when even the greatest Jews found themselves under Midyanite oppression, but Gidon rose to become a Shofet and savior of Am Yisrael.
- Rebbi Akiva lived a major portion of his life as the unlearned son of unlearned gerim and resented talmidei chachamim so much, he could’ve bitten them like a donkey might. Yet he himself became one of the greatest talmidei chachamim ever.
- Onkelos started off as non-Jew, then became a righteous ger and one of the most important commentators/translators of the Torah.
In modern times, examples also abound, as described by Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender (in 2 Examples of Unforeseeable Personality Transformation).
Look at the baal teshuvah movement or the kollel movement, the religious day school movement, the yeshivah movement, or Rav Aharon Margolis’s autobiography (As Long as I Live) about everything he had to overcome in poverty, polio, and disability.
Why Your Talent or Ability Doesn't Always Matter
The same is true for a Yisrael who possesses the loveliest tenor voice in the universe. He cannot join the Levite choir.
Likewise, no matter how well a Levi or Yisrael suit the qualification of a Kohen (“My feet are naturally warm, I can move my fingers perfectly into the Kohanic position—oh, and have you ever seen how perfectly I sprinkle dam from my innately talented fingers?”), they can never be a Kohen.
Even if you are such a holy person that Hashem fulfills every bracha you utter, you absolutely may not join the Kohanim in blessing the Nation.
Such a transgression will have the opposite effect.
Even today, Kohanim face strictures on who they can marry and where they can go, strictures that don’t apply to others. It’s for their own benefit.
Also, during the times unqualified egoists attempted to fulfill the Kohen Hagadol’s role in the Kodesh Kedoshim, Heaven struck him dead and he needed to be removed by the rope previously tied around his ankle.
Mashiach ben David can ONLY come from the Tribe of Yehudah, specifically the PATERNAL line of David Hamelech.
Someone from a different family within Yehudah or from Shevet Binyamin can be a huge tzaddik and a mind-dazzling miracle worker, but he cannot be Mashiach ben David.
When you mix halachic roles, you get into trouble.
A man may certainly decide to excel in tsnius, but if he puts on a pretty floral headscarf and a long flowing skirt, he commits the serious transgression of beged ishah.
Protesting that every last hair follicle is covered and his skirt conforms to the exacting standards of the Chazon Ish does not save him from the sin he has committed.
(Not to mention, the ridiculous spectacle he makes of himself.)
Of Rogue Waves, Olive Groves, Balanced Kohanim, and Wolfish Binyaminim
People had their tafkidim imbued within them from their Shevet.
Zevulun mastered sea travel. Asher excelled in olive production.
We need both. Can you imagine if Asherim or Zevulunim started trading barbs over whose role was more important?
"In Zevulun, we deal with necessary imports and exports! And olive groves are for sissies—have you ever encountered a rogue wave out at sea? Anyway, where would the Torah of Yissachar be without us?"
"Oh yeah? Our Asheri women are fit for High Priests, buster--my twin sister even married one! And where would Am Yisrael or the Kohanim be without olive oil? You want hatavat hanerot for the Menorah? Then you need Asher! Anyway, where do you think all your nifty ointments to deal with rope burns, sunburn, and wounds out at sea come from, eh? Let's see you try and extract some of that out of a rogue wave!"
What would be the point?
Hashem created both because He WANTS both.
Rashi mentions that Asheri women were often chosen to marry high priests and princes.
Because the abundance of olive oil products in Asheri territory gave Asheriot the added beauty of gorgeous skin and pleasingly plump figures.
It’s not that a Kohen Gadol or prince only cared about looks. Many Jewish women of that time possessed the character to marry royalty and were beautiful too. (Please see Asher's Beautiful Daughters for more depth.)
Chazal speaks of the innate trait of zerizut in Kohanim, which can be used for good or bad. Kohanim also possess equal amounts of temper and kindheartedness in order to balance out these 2 opposing traits. (Please see Temperament of a Kohen for more.)
In 49:27 of Parshat Vayechi, the Kli Yakar explains:
“…it takes the example of a wolf who preys according to his dietary needs and sometimes he preys and annihilates for no useful purpose, and this is a precious explanation.”
But it doesn’t mean that a Binyamini is innately bad or that this trait is unconquerable.
In fact, one of our gentlest heroines is a Binyaminit—Queen Esther. And Mordechai’s wolfish courage and sense of purpose never denigrated into a destructive free-for-all.
These 2 Binyaminim somersaulted a genocide into a salvation celebration for eternity.
The Structure You Need for Your Personal Journey
Our goals are not competition or egalitarianism.
Our role is to take whatever structure Hashem provided for us (both nationally and individually) and use that structure to bring out our best and achieve our highest potential.
That’s exactly why Hashem put that framework there in the first place.
Not to break it, damage it, or to weasel out of it and steal someone else’s (which won’t fit us anyway) or pretend to be someone else's…
…but to USE and UTILIZE it in the best way possible.