The Crown Of Torah: A Legacy For All Who Earn It

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

All content is provided courtesy of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which has been established with a mission to promote the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Sacks zt”l as a Teacher of Torah, a Moral Voice, and a Leader of Leaders.

"The fact that his successor was not a child of Moshe, but rather Yehoshua, his disciple, meant that one form of leadership – historically and spiritually the most important of the three crowns – could be an aspiration for everyone. Dignity is not a privilege of birth. Honor is not confined to those with the right parents. In the world defined and created by Torah, everyone is a potential leader. We can all earn the right to wear the crown."

The Torah tells us of a man named Tzelophchad who died leaving no male heirs. His five daughters went to Moshe with a question. It had been decided that sons would inherit their portion of the land of Israel from their fathers, but since this man had left no sons, his daughters asked if they might instead inherit from their father. Moshe asked God and the request was granted. Then Moshe asked a question of his own:  

“May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over this community … so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Bamidbar 27: 16-17)

Why does Moshe’s question come right after the request of Tzelophchad’s daughters? The Sages found a connection, and an important revelation, in both Moshe’s question and God’s answer. 

Moshe had recently lost his siblings Miriam and Aharon, and he knew that he, too, would not live long enough to lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel. God had also just informed Moshe he was at his last resting place. His thoughts were therefore firmly on his own mortality, and how he would not live to cross the Jordan and bring the people into the land, which would have been the fulfillment of his life’s work.      

Now, he asked God who would take over the leadership role.

Moshe reasoned: The time is right for me to make my own request. If this man’s daughters can inherit, it is surely right that my sons should inherit my glory

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him:

“He who keeps the fig tree shall eat its fruit.” (Mishlei 27:18) Your sons sat idly by and did not study the Torah. Yehoshua served you faithfully and showed you great honor. It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Assembly. He used to arrange the benches and spread the mats. Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward.” (Sifsei Chachamim on Bamdibar 27:16)

It must have seemed like everyone else was able to pass on a legacy to their children. All of Aharon’s children were to become Kohanim, even to this day. Tzelophechad’s daughters also were able to inherit from their father. But for Moshe this wasn’t merely a desire to be able to give his sons a job or status. 

When a child takes over a parent’s legacy it is as if it is the parent continuing it themselves. It’s a kind of eternity achieved when the next generation continues in the path you have set, and it means that your name and your ideas will continue beyond your death. Everyone wants to know their life is meaningful and will not be forgotten, and this may feel like a way to guarantee that. 

In Nedarim 81a, the Sages  said: 

“Why is it not usual for scholars to give birth to children who are scholars?So that it should not be said that the Torah is their inheritance.” 

The fact that Moshe’s son did not automatically receive the job of leader means that everyone stands an equal chance, and is seen as equally valued in the eyes of God. This meritocracy is what an egalitarian society looks like. Moshe’s personal tragedy was Israel’s consolation. The Torah could be inherited by all the people he led, and all of their descendants. 

“With three crowns was Israel crowned, with the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Kingship. The crown of Priesthood was bestowed upon Aharon and his descendants. The crown of Kingship was conferred on David and his successors. But the crown of Torah is for all Israel. Whoever wishes, let them come and take it. Do not suppose that the other two crowns are greater than that of Torah… The crown of Torah is greater than the other two crowns.” (Yoma 72b:6)

Throughout most of the biblical era, all three crowns were in operation. In addition to Prophets, Israel had Kings and an active Priesthood serving in the Temple. The dynastic principle –  leadership passing from father to son – still dominated two of the three roles. But with the destruction of the Second Temple, Kingship and a functioning Priesthood ceased. Leadership passed to the Sages who saw themselves as heirs to the Prophets.

In biblical Israel, though, it was the Priests and not the Prophets who were the primary guardians and teachers of Torah. It would therefore, on the face of it, have been a natural step from Priest to Rabbi, but the Sages instead defined themselves as successors to the Prophets. 

Why did the Sages not see themselves as heirs to Aharon and the Priesthood? There are many reasons, but one is surely this: the Priesthood was a dynasty. It was not open to everyone. It was restricted by birth. Prophetic leadership, by contrast, could never be predicted in advance.

The proof was Yehoshua ben Nun, whose actions allowed him to become the next prophet after Moshe. It meant that anyone, by discipleship and dedication, could aspire to Rabbinic leadership and the crown of Torah. 

The fact that his successor was not a child of Moshe, but rather Yehoshua, his disciple, meant that one form of leadership – historically and spiritually the most important of the three crowns – could be an aspiration for everyone. Dignity is not a privilege of birth. Honor is not confined to those with the right parents. In the world defined and created by Torah, everyone is a potential leader. We can all earn the right to wear the crown.

Universal education is predicated on the value that all people deserve access to education as a basic human right, because all people are equally important in the eyes of society. Some ancient societies believed only the elite deserved education, or that it was only worthwhile educating those who were intelligent enough to receive that education. Judaism believes all people fall into this category.   

As H.G. Wells noted in his Outline of History:

“The Jewish religion, because it was a literature-sustained religion, led to the first efforts to provide elementary education for all children in the community.” 

By contrast, universal compulsory education did not exist in England until 1870. There was nothing remotely similar in the ancient world. Even the great academies of ancient Greece were confined to an elite. Rabbinic Judaism set itself to achieve a society of universal literacy.

Paul Johnson calls it an “ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” 

Education gives an individual power and dignity in society. All democratic systems are founded on an educated society. In this respect it is a universal human right, thus ensured by all democratic nations. This was instituted generations earlier in Jewish Talmudic society.

There is no hierarchy in Judaism when it comes to connecting to God or serving God. Jewish education and Torah learning is open to everyone and encouraged for everyone.

Hence, we find in the sources a paradox. On the one hand, the Torah describes itself as an inheritance:

“Moshe commanded us the Torah as an inheritance [morasha] of the congregation of Jacob.” (Devarim 33:4).

On the other hand, the Sages were insistent that Torah is not an inheritance:

“R. Yose said: Prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not given to you as an inheritance [yerusha].” (Pirkei Avot 2:12)

The simplest resolution of the contradiction is that there are two kinds of inheritance. Biblical Hebrew contains two different words for what we receive as a legacy: yerusha/morasha and nachala. Nachala is related to the word nachal, “a river.” It signifies something passed down automatically through the generations, as river water naturally flows downstream. Yerusha comes from the root yarash, meaning “to take possession.” It refers to something to which you have legitimate title, but which you need positive action to acquire. 

Daily Goals:
Torah study is a required part of Jewish life as a daily activity even for adults who have learned for many years. We study Torah again and again, and the more we learn, the more we discover. A hereditary title, such as being a duke or an earl, is passed from parent to child. So too is a family business. The difference is that the first needs no effort on the part of the heir, but the second requires hard work if the business is to continue to be worth something. Torah is like a business, not a title. It must be earned if it is to be sustained. This is the Torah, our inheritance, that we must work hard to earn. In order to fully acquire the Torah we must study and engage with it all of our lives.

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