Knowing our place. That phrase seems to have gained a lot of negative connotations over the years. It has become a put down, a criticism of "uppity" people who disturb the "order" of the system, whatever it might be.
Here in our "free" and "democratic" society, we look with public horror upon systems in "other places" where "keeping one's place" is de rigueur. South African apartheid. Hindu caste systems in India. And we try to distance ourselves from the feudal, slave-owning, religious and other systems of America's European past.
Yet we are not so free of "knowing one's place" as we believe ourselves to be. Our society, though its barriers grow more permeable over time, still has barriers, still discourages "level-hopping." More on this later.
On the other side of this question is assimilation, conformity, complacency. In the ideal "melting pot" model (which has always been and always will be a chimera) we seek to overcome differences by simply saying there aren't any. This is as foolish an idea as subscribing to the belief that people should "know their place" and stay in it. Each of us is unique. A society that attempts to treat everyone exactly the same ignores that we are all different from one another. Somewhere between anarchistic equality and rigid caste systems there is a balanced and reasonable approach.
The reasonableness and value of equal rights and similar concepts is somewhat self-apparent (and, if nothing else, the idea that we are all b'tzelem Elokim supports the case.) Our Torah is wise. From it we learn about chukim and mishpatim. Laws that are obvious and laws with less easily discernible purposes. So it is with "know your place." Its value is less discernible than "equal rights" for people.
Yet it does have a value. In this parasha, Bemidbar, the Israelites are told to gather each under their ancestral banner-to stand with their clan-to take their appropriate place. Some of the rabbis speculate that, in light of this parasha's regular proximity to Shavuot, it is a sign that before Israel could receive the Torah, each Israelite had to know his/her place, and be in it - each with their own tribe, each tribe in it assigned place, and certain special tribes with their assigned duties.
If there was one lesson repeated over and over in my theological training, it was that before we could properly begin to understand where others were coming from, we had to know our context, and where we were coming from. That is the positive meaning of "knowing our place." It is an acknowledgement that before we can even begin to unravel the mysteries of Torah, we need to recognize our place in the world, and be in it.
It's often hard to know who we are, where we belong. But I believe that, until we embark on the process of discovering that, that it is futile to embark on a discovery of Torah and Judaism as well. No doubt, the two are intertwined. As Jews, it is our destiny to understand that we cannot complete one journey without the other.
Before I close, an additional challenge to those who wish it-to look at our world, our "free" society, and see how it still has barriers, still likes people to know their place and stay in it. Specialists vs. generalists. Socio-economic classes. Even in Judaism we like to be able to neatly classify people as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Secular, Zionist, etc. Well, people, no less than Torah, are worthy of being turned and turned again, to discover what is inside, often each time, finding something new.
This Shabbat, try to know who you are. Find your banner and stand with it. Then explore from there. This way, when you get confused, lost, derailed, you will always know where you can go back to and start again.
Finally, as a bonus, I offer a related Bemidbar musing from 5758, as an example of looking at the same thing slightly differently. Enjoy.
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
Knowing who we are, and with whom we stand. It's a good thing to do.
Like the tribes of ancient Israel, each of us has a place among our people, and our people their place in all Israel. While the ancient tribal lineages may be blurred, hard to discern, perhaps even untraceable for many, we can surely still find our place.
Look how specific and organized Gd had to be (and ask Moshe to be) in assembling the tribes of Israel, counting them, and assigning them their place and positions. And only 12 to deal with. Imagine trying, in this day and age, to assemble the countless "tribes" of Jews in the wilderness to prepare them for a sojourn. Our ancestors had the advantage of knowing, easily, with which tribe they stood. So the counting and placing was made easier.
Well, we are still on Gd's sojourn. Maybe we can make it a little easier for ourselves and for Gd by determining our place in klal Yisrael, so when the time comes to be counted and told where to camp, we will know where to go.
This Shabbat, why not take the time to identify your "tribe." Perhaps by reading the description of the "attributes" of the various tribes in Torah, you can select the one which fits. Or perhaps your tribe is one not yet known or listed (our having all been at Sinai doesn't preclude this, in my view) so it's time to create your own standard and mark your place.
Gd will surely call on us again to be counted and take our place. Let's be ready.
A Shabbat Shalom and a good Shavuot to you all.
©1998 and 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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