Bamidbar: Finding our תפקיד

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      The original name of the entire book of Bamidbar is חומש הפקודים—where each member of the Jewish people is assigned his role—his תפקיד. This week’s parashah, the opening parashah of the book, is very explicit about grouping the tribes and setting each in a particular place. In the center is the tribe of Levi, “replacing” the firstborn in their special role vis-à-vis the Mikdash, and, at the entrance to the Mikdash, are the kohanim, headed by Aharon.

      Aharon has the interesting distinction of being the first “non-problematic” older brother in the Torah[1]. Starting from Cain, the very first older brother, older brothers are problematic throughout the narrative, and that is worthy of a separate post.

      But what makes Aharon special? Why does Aharon not initiate conflict with Moshe the way other older brothers in the Torah initiate conflict with their younger counterparts? We believe that Rav S.R. Hirsch hints at a possible answer in a discussion of Esav. The failure of Yitzchak, writes Rav Hirsch, is that he educates both his sons in the same way. The approach is successful for Yaakov, but fails for Esav, because Esav has a different personality; had the father gotten to know the son closely and tailored his approach to his son’s personality, Rav Hirsch implies, both children may have led happier, more successful lives.

      Indeed, Moshe and Aharon are the first pair of brothers in the narrative who are not competing for the same role; instead, the roles they enter into are complementary—each has his תפקיד. Each needs the other, in the complementary role, to be successful in his own. This turns out to be the key to brothers deriving happiness from each other’s successes rather than each other’s failures.

      We may think that we see something similar in today’s progressivism, with quotes like that of Rep. Ayanna Pressley:

      [W]e don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.

      What we are seeing is the opposite. Each of these “voices” represents the same progressive boilerplate. What she does not want to see is any of these faces voicing opinions different from hers. In identity politics, everybody talks about their color and sexual orientation, but everybody’s role is the same; our parashah advocates roughly the opposite.

      A more insidious example from modern society is the current hysteria over the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. The issue of abortion itself aside, the narrative seems to be that the Supreme Court will legislate a ban on abortion—something not remotely under consideration or in the realm of possibility. What is under consideration is leaving the decision to state governments.

      Those who want legal abortion could respond simply by advocating that people in each state try to influence their state government. But note that this is not the angle they take. They argue that it is a “human rights” issue, and therefore should be on the federal level. At first blush, this is simply complete nonsense, as there is no connection between human rights and legislating on the federal level. But after a second glance, Ryan McMaken notes that it is just a 21st century form of colonialism—forcing one’s ways on those one sees as less civilized “for his own good.” This is much of the rationale behind legislating anything at all on the federal level.

      When forceful approaches are acceptable, this appears to always be a result—minorities are trod on and forced to follow the majority—and “democracy” is no defense. McMaken quotes Ludwig von Mises:

      The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest…. To be a member of a national minority always means that one is a second-class citizen.

      The unique aspect of colonialism is that local majorities end up being trod on because of more powerful majorities in a faraway place. We could write pages about how state majorities are nevertheless minorities on a federal level, and that this fact is what really determines that this is precisely colonialism rather than some other injustice. But what is important to our topic at hand is that once again, one of the goals is homogenization. All the states must be forced to be the same; and, according to the same people, America must be forced to be more like Europe.

      The cadre that constantly and stridently claims to be for diversity is in fact its most bitter opponent. According to them, we must all be the same. It is the Torah that truly presents diversity as strength[2]. It is precisely brothers with different aims and goals who coexist peacefully. And our national peace and success rests on each of us being committed to his own תפקידl[3].

      This week we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Sivan, on which we said יעלה ויבא, the first subjects of which are זכרוננו ופקדוננו—our memory and our role. With our tradition—our memory—we can recognize our role. In the West, those who study Greek and Latin, the Bible and Roman law, medieval culture and the Enlightenment, understand the origins of their society and are able to identify appropriate roles for themselves. Such educated people have tended to contribute to the culture, civilization and peace of the West[4]. With the sham of modern “education,” this picture is receding in favor of the picture described above. But this need not happen among the Jews; as we said in our davening on Tuesday, each of us just needs to look to our mesorah and identify his תפקיד.

      [1] One could present certain apparent counterexamples, such as Yosef being an older brother to Binyamin without issues, but in that particular case, Yosef is actually very much a younger brother in a family where the older brothers exhibit some deeply problematic behavior.
      [2] This must, of course, be qualified. To allow a full diversity of opinion—including opinions that see murder and theft as acceptable—seems problematic. We would, however, argue that there has always been such a contingent among the Jews, and such a contingent remains to this day, and it is largely precisely that contingent—in the form of socialists—who built the modern State of Israel at its inception. That their views are contrary to Torah and that we hope that they “come around” does not change the fact that they have an important תפקיד, and this must be acknowledged when dealing with them.
      [3] On a related note, Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg teaches that an issue with the students of Rabbi Akiva was their failure to appreciate the bigger, collective importance of the role that everybody plays, and Nathan Kruman connects that point explicitly to the subject matter of this post. It is important to note a similar deficiency in ourselves if, for example, we ever catch ourselves wishing that the secular part of Israel’s population—for all the problems it causes—would disappear.
      [4] Some dictators also gave off the appearance of being educated; this was typically more propaganda than truth.

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