5769 - #33
THE CONGREGATION (Part 2)
Notwithstanding the problem inherent in an eidah (translated as congregation – see Part 1) that was revealed through the behaviour of the spies, God still sees value in this grouping. The addition of the mitzvah of tzitzit, the personal reminder, is presented to solve that problem. Yet, Korach’s rebellion shows that it is not a complete solution. Now a new ‘evil’ congregation awakens: the congregation that can only see the over-simplified social good, which does not want individuality. Indeed, God said, “one statute for you and for the stranger,”1 meaning statutes “intended…for all people at all times.”2 And since “the whole congregation is holy,”3 shouldn’t the whole congregation be treated equally?
The problem here is that a society thrives on diversity. Isn’t this unjust, on a purely individualistic level? There will be kings and there will be jesters. Both are necessary, but one is generally a more coveted position than the other. Why should I have to be jester when he gets to be king? Such thinking seems selfish, but if you look down at your tzitzit and remind yourself to consider things on a social level, you may be compelled to see things as Korach and his men did: perfect equality for all. If no one is ‘following his own heart or eyes,’ what is there to distinguish one from another?
It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened had Korach’s eidah of 250 men been reduced to a group of just nine.4 They already had their fringes hanging from their clothes—they knew enough to think socially. But perhaps they would have seen that everyone had tzitzit—everyone was thinking socially. ‘What is my potential role as tiebreaker?’ each might wonder. Here, by definition, the individual is shown to be relevant, because it is the individual who will determine the outcome of the vote. But, again, God does not give up on the eidah. Instead, he adds a social reminder: the fire-pan curtain.5
At a certain point, wouldn’t the most logical course of action be to outlaw congregating altogether? Rashi tells us that Moshe was not commanded to send spies into Israel.6 After it went awry, however, God did not say to Moshe, “I never obligated you to send spies—from now on, no more congregations.” He reprimands and severely punishes the ‘evil congregations,’ but he does not say that the very act of congregating was a sin, neither with the spies nor with Korach. As it is known, not only does God allow us to congregate, he has obligated us to congregate by giving us laws that we can only fulfill with a minyan.
It is apparent that the congregations in Shelach and Korach, though similar, erred in different ways. In Shelach, the eidah was distracted by individual fears and desires. God tells them to keep their eyes on the bigger picture. In Korach, the eidah is driven by a value for social
homogeneity. God tells them to recognize and respect diversity.
An eidah, a minyan, requires a balance of the two aspects that were lacking in compounding the faults of the spies and Korach’s men: it needs to put the social good above the individual good while accepting the fact that different people will have different roles within the community. Although it is always tempting to believe that we are a long way from the sins of our ancient past, it is important to look honestly at the qualities of our minyanim and ask, objectively, if either of the above criteria is being ignored.But, as was written in Part 1, we learn something positive from these two congregations: specifically, that ten men make a minyan. For all their faults, these two congregations give us something to admire: they were one unit, undivided. At the start of Parshat Shelach, the Torah makes specific mention of each of the spies by name.7 But after that, they are known only as a single entity — they even speak in the plural form (i.e., we, us). Even though they were each driven by personal perceptions (and would have benefited from tzitzit to guide them), they act as a unified force.8 As we learnt from both stories, great men do not necessarily form great congregations. The eidah must be examined as a unit. With witnesses, if one member is disqualified, the entire group is invalid. So too it should be seen with the eidah. But, in forming a unit, like with witnesses, the eidah is called upon to greet the world as though through one set of eyes. A minyan is not a group of judges. It is (in its basic form) even-numbered because it is not meant to be a platform for debate. An eidah would be the wrong group to approach for adjudication — this would be contrary to the essence and purpose of the congregation. Among ten men, there is no tiebreaker.9 This, naturally, lends itself to ‘mob mentality’ — and it is part of what allowed honourable men to act in dishonourable ways in the stories discussed — but it is also a large part of what makes an eidah function properly. When part of an eidah, we must be careful not to lose sight of this complex balance. We must remember how easy it is to sacrifice (or distort) the social good, how easy it is to disregard the need for diversity, how easy it is, generally speaking, to get caught up in the passion of the collective and lose hold of our ideals. But with our personal and social reminders to guide us, perhaps we can avoid the mistakes of our ancestors. And, in so doing, let us learn what we can from what they did right.
Chai Hecht e-mail
1 Bamidbar c. 15:15.
2 Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:34.
3 Bamidbar 16:3.
4 This method was applied to the spies in Part 1. Here, it is still, hopefully illuminating.
5 See, also, Chinuch, Mitzvoth 388-396. It is not difficult to argue that all of these mitzvoth pertain to the need to have unique individual roles within a greater social context. Consider Mitzvah 389: “This work must be strongly guarded from abdication, laziness and forgetfulness. Now, there is no doubt that with any work imposed on two people or more, forgetfulness happens more frequently than with a task imposed on one alone. For many times, the two of them will rely each on the other, and the work will be left undone between them.” Or 394: “All the work of the place should be done by [known, honourable men]. For it is not fitting for a king that he should change the ministering servants before him every day, and that all should thus make use of the crown of ministry to the king.” (Translation, C. Wengrov)
6 Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2, d.h. Shelach-Lechah, and Bamidbar 13:3, d.h. Al Pi.
7 Bamidbar 13:4-16
8 The same applies to Korach’s men, although they are not introduced by name at any point.
9 The very fact that minyanim generally employ a Rabbi should be sufficient indication that this is, ideally, the case. The Rabbi’s role is to rule on Halachic (and, perhaps, social) issues as they arise. If there is a question, for example, about what prayers should be said, it is the Rabbi’s decision, not the congregation’s. If any member of the congregation disagrees with the decision, he/she can find another minyan. (If all members disagree with the decision, they will find another Rabbi.) If there is a larger matter to deal with, an outside (Jewish) court should be consulted. The eidah itself cannot be seen as a beit din.
(c) Nishma, 2009
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