Sometimes Privilege Needs to Be Checked

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Checking the Levi’im’s Privilege

Hard to believe, but it’s almost ten years since “check your privilege” was thrown around as a way—you can’t be apolitical about the rest of this sentence—either to remind people they are being insensitive to the struggles of others who did not have their advantages, or as a rhetorical trick to deny people the right to an opinion because of their race/gender/ socioeconomic status. Meshech Hochmah thinks Moshe takes the first position with the Levi’im who challenge him at the beginning of our parsha.

In chapter 16. Verses 9-10, Moshe questions their taking lightly their special role in Mishkan service, wonders why they wish to claim the priesthood, too. Without any obvious problem in that reading of the text, Meshech Hochmah assumes a broader context, thinks Moshe was referring to their having been separated in Egypt, when they were exempted from the slavery, as tradition assumes, a time they spent continuing to fulfill the mitzvot.

He sources this last claim to Moshe’s characterization of the tribe at the end of his life, Devarim 33;9, ki shameru imratecha, for they observed Your word. [He implies the Levi’im literally kept the mitzvot, a Talmudic idea; Rambam in Laws of Avodah Zarah 1;3 reads it more loosely, thinks Avraham developed and the Levi’im held to a monotheistic code.]

“Check your privilege” descended into caricature in many instances, but Meshech Hochmah shows an example where it works well—the Levi’im had better opportunities to grow spiritually than the other Jews, fewer challenges to overcome, and should be thankful for what they have, not demand more [I think he follows the Midrashic tradition it was Par’oh who spared the Levi’im; other traditions credit the Levi’im’s freedom from slavery to their own choices, which would blur the conversation here, because they could claim their choices earned them a more exalted place in the nation’s spiritual hierarchy.]

When God has already gifted you more, it is at best ungrateful to make further demands.

Privilege Does Make Us Better Than Others, In Some Ways

R. Hisda in Yevamot 86a assumes the shoterim, the overseers/enforcers of the Jewish people always came from the Levi’im (in Egypt, too, a job noted in Shemot 5). Meshech Hochmah says they were best for the role because they did not have to preoccupy themselves with mundane matters like mortar and bricks, could develop their intellects and connection to God, and never worshipped any other powers. Their greater refinement readied them for Mishkan service, where unwitting errors can ruin the service nonetheless, and explains how the first-born disqualified themselves with one act of idolatry.

[A few questions: First, he singles out not worshipping any powers other than God, as if maybe they did not observe all the mitzvot, a minor issue; a little more problematic, in Shemot 5, Par’oh required these shoterim to oversee the quota of bricks, now without being given the raw materials, and punished the shoterim when the Jews failed. In that instance, it seems they did need to care about mundane matters.

Perhaps Meshech Hochmah would argue the executives of an industry are not burdened with the nitty-gritty of production, allowing them greater refinement. Or that a lifetime of preparation readied them to not be too affected. Either way, if that was already clear in Egypt, I want him to explain why the first-born were left to officiate over sacrificial service until the Golden Calf, since the servitude in Egypt did it.]

Details aside, he is arguing the Levi’im’s intellectual and spiritual superiority extended from opportunities they had that others did not, and they needed to factor that in whenever they spoke up. Recent overuse or misuse of the idea that privilege is something to be remembered and accounted for does not rob of it of its essential truth: when we are gifted ways to turn out better than others, we have to remember that, be grateful for it, and have it shape our attitudes about those others, about what we deserve, and what we owe to those less fortunate.

We may indeed be more qualified for higher roles, but should not forget that we did not earn those rights, and we must use them gratefully for the good of all rather than as a stepping-stone to more for ourselves.

Not Done Digging Themselves Into a Hole

After the Korach incident, the people complain again, 17;6. They accuse Moshe and Aharon of engineering the deaths of the two hundred and fifty men who offered the incense (as part of the competition to prove Aharon’s having been chosen by God).

[Meshech Hochmah is going to credit the people with a more sophisticated claim than the plain text has, with interesting insight into how leaders must, should, or may insist on the full privileges of office. At the plain level, the incident reminds us of how stubbornly people can choose badly, particularly in terms of who should be their leaders, and cling to that path long after it should be clear it is time to give up the fight. As Meshech Hochmah might say, ve-dok heitev. Or ve-hamevin yavin. Or whatever other phrase works.]

He starts with Yerushalmi Ta’anit 3;4, the source for the idea Moshe Rabbenu did not receive the close and full revelation from God for thirty-eight years in the desert. Although he deserved it, the people were nezufin, distanced from God as punishment for their sins. Had Moshe had such prophecy, he would have passed on its messages to them, and they were excluded. [The Gemara does not explain why Hashem couldn’t have Moshe have the prophecy and not share it; perhaps even the fact of his having such prophecy would uplift the people in ways dissonant with their nazuf status.]

The people decided it showed Moshe depended on them for his highest level of prophecy, was only given it for them. It’s why they said, 16;3, you’re taking too much for yourselves because the whole nation is sanctified.

Taking Some Acceptance Too Far

Had the Korach group been punished for rebellion against duly appointed leaders, they would be like harugei beit din, killed by a court, and Sanhedrin 47b tells us such people’s deaths atone only for the crime involved. Were the 250 to have that status, their sacrifices should be unacceptable, because Mishlei 21;27 tells us the offering of evildoers is an abomination.

Yet Hashem told Moshe to have Elazar rework the fire-pans they offered with their incense to be a covering for the altar. The people decided it meant their sacrifices were acceptable, which must mean their deaths atoned for all their sins, as is true for harugei malchut, people killed by a king (in this case, Moshe), when the king exercises his right to kill certain people for reasons that do not inherently or necessarily demand death.

Seeing how it was Moshe’s choice, the people were sure he should have foregone his honor, because (as we just said above) they were sure his honor extended from theirs.

Sometimes, We Indeed Should or Must Stand On Our Privilege

He sees three errors the people made: 1) They assumed Moshe’s status was solely a function of theirs; 2) God’s accepting the fire-pans for sanctified purposes showed the men’s deaths were Moshe’s choice, and 3) Moshe should not have insisted on punishing their disrespect.

Were the people right about Moshe’s honor coming solely from them, they would still be wrong, because a king may not forego his honor. True, they were in error, but to forgive a sinner—says Meshech Hochmah, in what I think is a well-accepted idea—the sinner must acknowledge having been wrong. The people held fast to their view of Moshe and the Korach rebellion; as long as that continued, Moshe was prohibited from yielding to them.

We can misread our privilege sometimes, other times we would be wrong not to demand it. [Years ago, an important Torah scholar told me he ignores slights in private, but if they happen in public, he feels his status as a Torah scholar obligates him to respond.]

Animals Are Not the Same as Humans

Chapter eighteen lists gifts the kohanim received for their service in the Mishkan/Mikdash, including first-born oxen, lambs, and kids. First-born people and donkeys are redeemed rather than offered, we learn in 18;15.A simple reading might fool us into thinking the two are the same, but Meshech Hochmah draws our attention to the Torah’s doubling the verb, padoh tifdeh, for human babies, with only one tifdeh, you shall redeem, for non-kosher animals (donkeys).

In another context, Baba Metzi’a 31b took the doubling of a verb (there, it was hashev tashiv, from Devarim 24;13) means the action had to be done repeatedly. In that case, the lender had to return the collateral when the borrower needed it, even a hundred times.

Meshech Hochmah applies the insight here to infer that the money to redeem a baby must be given as many times as it takes until the kohen receives it, where the redemption of the donkey first-born only needs the owner to have designated the sheep. Should it die before the kohen gets it, the redemption has still taken full effect.

He says he found Ra’avad in Eduyot make a similar comment and R. Tarfon in Sifrei took the doubling of the verb to mean the father would redeem a wife’s first-born son even if tragedy struck and the baby passed away young (not before thirty days, when we are unsure the baby was full-term). Were a first-born donkey to die before the owner redeemed it, no further action is needed or relevant.

Bechorot 51a calls this being hayyav be-ahrayuto, responsible to ensure the money reaches its intended destination. (Today, pidyon ha-ben money goes directly from the father to the kohen; but imagine if the father had purchased the five silver coins and they were stolen the night before the pidyon. He has to get others to redeem his son, whereas if the sheep he had set aside was stolen, he has fulfilled his obligation.)

The Gemara refers to our verse without making explicit it was inferring it from the doubling of the verb for humans, not for animals. Meshech Hochmah supplies the technical reasoning, to show us the difference between the two: redemption for people is a function of a full-term baby having been born, for animals only a matter of marking the birth of a donkey the owner will have a chance to use after the redemption, and requiring only the act of setting aside a sheep for the kohen.

There are privileges to being human, to being a Levi, and to being the leader of your generation. We can struggle to know what they are and when to insist on them, but the proper awareness, use, and limitation on our privileges is one more important piece of building our world.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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