Separate but Equal
How many barricades have been stormed over the last few hundred
years for the ideals of universal equality! How much blood has been
shed! From earliest childhood we have been brought up to believe that
all people are created equal, that no single individual has more rights or
privileges or obligations than any other individual. We have been taught
to aspire to a classless society, and to look askance at other societies
that have rigid caste systems. Indeed, these are among the very
foundations of the society in which we live.
In this week’s Torah portion, however, we find an altogether
different view. The Torah describes the encampment of the Jewish
people in the desert, each tribe occupying a specified position under its
own banner. “The people of Israel did everything Hashem had
commanded Moses,” the Torah concludes. “This is how they encamped
and this is how they traveled.”
The question is obvious. Why make special mention of the
compliance of the Jewish people with the divine instructions for
encamping and traveling? What was so commendable about it?
The Midrash explains that the people were indeed to be
commended for their unquestioning compliance. The Levites occupied
the position of honor in the center of the encampment near the
Tabernacle, while the other tribes, many of whom were superior in
wisdom and knowledge to the Levites, occupied positions on the
fringes. Nonetheless, to their everlasting credit, they did not raise any
objections or attempt to push the Levites aside. They submitted willingly
to the divine wisdom that had assigned hereditary roles to all the tribes.
But was this indeed a fair system? Was it right that for all
generations no member of another tribe could aspire to the priestly
duties of the Levites? What happened to upward mobility? How can this
be reconciled with our contemporary conception of justice?
The answer lies in the difference between the Jewish attitude and
the contemporary secular attitude. In the secular view, the purpose of
each individual’s existence is solely for personal fulfillment. Therefore,
if all people are inherently equal, their purposes are also equal, and no
one should be allowed to take precedence over someone else.
In the Jewish view, on the other hand, all people are united in one
common purpose, the fulfillment of the divine plan for the world. Each
person in the world has a divinely assigned role which will allow him to
contribute to the universal effort to fulfill the will of Hashem. Some
roles are, of course, more prominent and prestigious than others. But in
the greater scheme of things, everyone is of equal importance, since
everyone’s contribution is essential towards achieving the greater
As we prepare for Shavuos, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah,
these thoughts give us new insight into the statement of our Sages that
at Mount Sinai the Jewish people “encamped together as one man with
one heart.” The acceptance of the Torah engendered a profound unity
among the Jewish people, because all their lives became focused on
the single sublime goal of fulfilling the will of the Creator.
A great sage once asked his disciples a riddle. “Which part of a car
is the most important?”
“The engine,” replied one disciple.
“The wheels,” said another.
“The transmission,” said a third.
“The driver!” called out yet another in a burst of inspiration.
The sage shook his head. “You are all wrong. If the car is missing
any of these things you mention it cannot move. So you see, they are all
of equal importance. But more important than how the car works is the
purpose it serves. The most important part of a car is its passenger!”
In our own lives, we cannot help but feel occasional pangs of
jealousy or resentment when we compare ourselves to others. But if we
transcend the narrow parameters of our personal situation and see
ourselves as playing a vital role in a vast universal plan, we can gain an
altogether different perspective on the world. We will come to the
realization that those people, whose superior endowments we resented,
are not our rivals on the surface of this planet. All of us are on the same
team. We are the wheels and the engines and the brakes and the
batteries, and as long as we pool our individual talents and endowments
for the greater purpose of fulfilling the will of Hashem, we will never
have any reason to be discontented with the roles we have been
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.