Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!

Note:

In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.

 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Equality Before God

  1. conwayparkour

    I agree with this post and think it’s quite a good lesson, a good reminder. However, I don’t think “serving Gd” is really our mission – what could we possibly do that would affect Gd, or what could we do that He could not!? Maybe I’m choosing something not on topic with the post, but I think people loosely throw around the phrase “to serve Gd.”

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Hey Conway, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I don’t think “Service of God” has to be understood as something that affects God, but rather is shorthand for one who obeys God, like in Deut. 34:35, 2 Samuel 7:5, or Psalm 116:16.

      There are many who do see performing the commandments as affecting God somehow, or the Shekhina (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shekhinah) , just as there are others who think this is impossible, but I think most would agree that whatever their theological positions on this question, “servant of God” is something to aspire to.

      Likewise, it isn’t meant to imply that we can do something God cannot, even though it shouldn’t be considered a judgement on this question either. Assuming God is perfect, could He be imperfect for a time? (I don’t want to get into this more without research, but I think Ralbag/Gersonides’ position on divine providence for individuals ties into this point-it would entail some imperfection on God’s part, and this is impossible.)

      I might throw this around a bit, and I apologize if I do, but I really do think that without getting into specifics, “servant of God” is really something to aspire to as an Orthodox Jew, even if I can’t always define what that service is, or what kind of affect it has.

      Again, thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I asked a Jewish person to pray for someone near me who was dying and he replied
    Who are you that I should pray for you?
    Does he mean a Jewish man can’t pray for a non-Jew?

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