Frequently, we may look at other people, and feel jealousy. We wonder why this person was born wealthy, this one with a brilliant mind, this one with great beauty. Others may also look at the Torah, and wonder why this group is different from that group, or why the Rabbis gave certain responsibilities to one group and not another.
The truth behind the distinctions of the Kohanim should teach us. Jewish thought does not tell us to seek fame and glory. Our lives are not about power and privilege. The Torah tells us that we are here to seek and to serve our G-d, through performance of Mitzvos and good deeds.
Disclaimer: As I mentioned in part 1 of this two-part series, I am expressing my viewpoint on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness in the community of Messianic believers and suggesting that Jews and non-Jews embody different, or at least, overlapping sets of responsibilities and duties to God while remaining absolutely equal in God’s love and in His salvation. Chances are, some of you reading this will not be happy with me and will disagree with my perspectives. I understood that when I started writing “Monkey House.” Now let’s continue and see how the various parts of the Bible and the perspective of the sages can illuminate this issue.
I know I’m probably going to make some people reading this unhappy, but it’s important to understand that if groups of Jews in the Messianic movement need to preserve their distinctiveness relative to the Torah and God, it isn’t an attempt to “cut out the Gentiles” or to make themselves more exalted. It’s a response to the Torah and the covenant of Sinai. The specific distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in modern Messianism is just as valid and legitimate as the distinctions between the Kohenim class and the larger body of Israel in ancient (and arguably modern) times.
Rabbi Menken said something very important that most Christians should pick up on:
Jewish thought does not tell us to seek fame and glory.
Compare that to this parable of the Master:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” –Luke 14:7-11 (ESV)
The reason the Torah is a story about God’s interaction with humanity and not just about God’s interaction with Israel, is because the Bible is a tapestry woven with the very threads of human nature. It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. It’s human nature to desire what another person possesses by right or ability and to think it’s unfair if we can’t be exactly like them. It’s human nature to sometimes want to be someone we’re not.
Perhaps this is the human dynamic that lead the Levites to be jealous of the Kohenim as well that what’s going on in the Messianic community these days. It may even be the original root of early supersessionism in the church.
I once read a short story in Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s anthology Welcome to the Monkey House where no one was allowed to be better at anything than anybody else. For example, using the slowest runner in society as a baseline, anyone who could run faster was made to wear weights to slow them down to the same speed as the slowest runner. That way the slowest runner wouldn’t have to feel bad knowing that other people could run faster. The entire society was organized this way so that even the perception of greater or lesser ability and privilege was eliminated for the sake of absolute uniformity.
I’m sometimes reminded of Vonnegut’s story when I encounter the desire for uniformity by non-Jews in the Messianic movement.
But God didn’t make us uniform. He didn’t make the Kohenim uniform with the rest of the tribe of Levi or with the Israelites in general. God also didn’t make Jews in the Messianic movement uniform with the larger Gentile Messianic, Hebrew Roots, and mainstream Christian community.
I know that if the lessons in the Bible cannot overcome human nature in the body of faith, my one little blog has no hope of doing so. Nevertheless, since Rabbi Menken’s Torah commentary speaks to this theme, I thought it appropriate to adapt it for a somewhat different audience. We need to understand that different doesn’t mean “better” or “worse,” it just means different. If someone else has a job as a writer because that is their special skill set, it doesn’t make them better than you, it just makes them different based on natural ability. The same goes for people who are skilled musicians, artists, and computer programmers.
Rabbi Menken ended his commentary with the following words, and I suppose I should do the same:
G-d gave us the Torah to assist us in our search. We need not wonder why some of us are Kohanim, some Levites, some Israelites, and why our tasks and responsibilities are different – because just as each individual is different, what will help one person to grow could be harmful to another. And when we perform our tasks correctly, and succeed in our mission, then these outside distinctions do not determine who is considered truly worthy: “An ill-begotten scholar is preferable to an ignoramus priest.” It is not how we were born that makes us – it is how we die.
We can either try to learn from these lessons or be stuck in the “monkey house” singing the blues.
There is no one for whom to pride oneself. We must toil strenuously. With patience and friendliness we can prevail in all things, with G-d’s help. With a denigrating attitude toward others and inflating our own importance we lose everything, G-d forbid.
Hayom Yom: Iyar 20, 35th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
NOTE: Oh, neither the title of this blog post nor my choice of comparing the Korah rebellion with some of the conflicts in the Messianic movement are intended to be disrespectful. As I said, the dynamics between the Kohenim and the Levites is very similar to that of Jews and Gentiles in Messianism. And having recalled the name of Vonnegut’s anthology, I had to figure out a way to weave it into my little missive. I just liked the imagery.