I don't think this was one of my stronger efforts, though people did compliment me on it. I wanted to start with the parsha (specifically the fourth aliya, Num 3:1-13) and get to Shavuot; maybe that was too limiting a goal.
This week's portion lays out special roles for certain people. The Levites and kohanim are set aside, by divine command, for service in the mishkan; we tend to view this role as an honor. While we have no temple today, in traditional congregations we still see vestiges of this -- a kohein gets the first aliya and a Levite the second when the torah is read, and kohanim give the priestly blessing on festivals.
These special roles are based entirely on ancestry, not merit. While certain flaws can disqualify a kohein or Levite from service, there is no required level of achievement or skill. It's all about who your father is. This rankles those of us with an egalitarian outlook; we focus more on skill and merit and are not much impressed by accidents of birth. We see this most significantly with gender roles; I am leading you today because our movement says that this role is not barred to women. But our movement has also eliminated the special status of kohanim and Levites as a matter of egalitarian principle. We reject heredity as a measure of standing and assign roles based on individual capabilities.
Fortunately, the torah does not assign status based only on lineage; it also assigns it based on merit. The portion I read today begins oddly; it says "these are the generations of Aharon and Moshe", and then goes on to list Aharon's sons. In a tradition that stresses the importance of raising children (sometimes to the frustation of non-parents), this seems out of place. What is Moshe's role? How does he rate getting "credit" for Aharon's line? Moshe isn't their father.
The answer, according to Rashi, is that one who teaches torah to someone is like a parent. When we have such a special teacher, who guides and mentors us, the talmud tells us that we are obligated to honor him in the same ways we honor our parents. He's not a parent, but when it comes to how we relate to each other, he might as well be.
What's the point? That the torah clearly lays out a special role that is based on actions, not ancestry. This role is open to any of us if we choose it; it is not limited by tribe or by family status. And it's not just about teaching children; it is also important to teach adults, both within the Jewish community and more broadly. Teaching can be informal, and we teach indirectly by the example we set. When we teach in this way, we begin to fulfill our obligation to be an am segula and a light to the nations.
Thursday night and Friday we will celebrate matan torah -- the giving of the torah and the beginning of our people's special role. What better time to begin thinking about how we teach others the values we hold so dearly? The torah might tell us that we have a special role due to ancestry, but instead let us earn it through the merit of our actions.