Each year, year in and year out, just as we finish celebrating Purim and start getting ready for Passover, we are confronted in our annual Torah reading cycle with the Book of Leviticus. Most people will tell you that Leviticus is the least accessible of the five books of Torah. It is filled with ancient and arcane laws, most of them connected to the sacrificial cult operated by the Priests – the Kohanim – some 2500 years ago. So much of Leviticus deals with priestly material that the talmudic sages actually referred to the book as Torat-Kohanim – which you could translate literally as the Torah for the Priests. In other words, these are exclusive rules, made for an exclusive club, and the regular Jew doesn’t even need to read it. So what is a poor rabbi to do with these Torah portions?
And I thought I might think with you for a few minutes this morning about that very fact – that the Priestly group is exclusive, a closed club which one only becomes a member of through inheritance. There is an old joke which probably doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to, about a young man who makes an appointment with his rabbi. On such and such a day at such and such a time the he shows up at the rabbi’s office. When he has settled into a chair, the rabbi asks ‘how can I help you?’
‘Well Rabbi,’ the young man replied. ‘I’ve done well in my business, and I’ve come today to make you an offer. I will donate 25K to the shul if you will make me a Kohen.’ The rabbi, a bit nonplussed, says ‘That is very generous, but I am sorry, I can’t make you into a Kohen.’ ‘OK, Rabbi,’ the young man says, ‘it is so important to me to be a Kohen that I am prepared to pay you 50K!’ Again the rabbi responds ‘I am truly sorry, but it is something that is out of my hands. I cannot make you into a Kohen.’ The young man gets up in anger, and as he is walking out the door, the rabbi asks him: ‘By the way, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?’ ‘Because,’ the young man replied, ‘my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I also want to be a Kohen.’ ‘Ah, I understand,’ said the rabbi. ‘Lets talk about that 50K.’
The punch line of course is that the young man was already a Kohen, because if his father was a Kohen, he is a Kohen. It is automatic. But the undercurrent of the joke is the idea that there are some things in life that you simply can’t buy. You could have all the money in the world, and it won’t make you into a Kohen.
I’ve been thinking about that joke over the last couple of weeks since the news broke about the college admissions scandal. I am sure you have followed the story, it has been hard to miss. A man named William Rick Singer was running a college ‘consulting’ business, a business that has become fairly common these days, where a family hires a consultant to manage their child’s college admissions process. What Singer did that – I hope – most college admissions consultants don’t do – is bribe college admissions officials and college coaches, basically just paying them to admit students that would otherwise not have qualified. He also ran more elaborate schemes, to include changing SAT test scores, sometimes sending someone else to take the SAT test, and even photoshopping the faces of some of his clients onto the bodies of athletes.
Mr. Singer didn’t have trouble finding clients, and he was by all reports doing quite a business. At this point more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with his schemes, a number of them prominent and wealthy actors who, like the young man who walked into the rabbi’s office, were willing to pay pretty much whatever it took to get what they wanted, in this case, their child into a particular college.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that we think we can acquire status by paying for it. After all there is some truth to that in our culture today. A fancier and more expensive car has a certain amount of status attached to it. So does a big fancy house in the neighborhood. So does a country club membership. And these are all things that are for sale, it is just a matter of having enough money to pay for them. But what Mr. Singer and his clients clearly lost track of – what they forgot – is something that it might be good for all of us to reflect on and to remember – which is that somethings just are not for sale.
We’ve known this for a while now. There have been a number of research studies completed in the last few years that demonstrate that happiness is not directly correlated to the amount of money that you have. The four wealthiest nations in the world are the US, China, Japan, and Germany. None of them rank in the top 10 in happiness ratings. When you look at the annual rankings of happiest countries, you find the Nordic states at the top of the list – the most recent ranking is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. None of them are wealthy countries. Individuals in those countries live in small homes, drive small cars, and compared to Americans own very little in terms of material goods. What those countries have in common is – One – they are progressive, particularly socially progressive. Second thing – the social service infrastructure in those countries is strong. Also, and probably most importantly, they all foster a much stronger sense of community for their citizens. People in those countries feel cared for and supported.
It works the same way for individuals. Research shows that happiness – or maybe a better way to say it is satisfaction with your life – comes from a variety of sources. One is the quality of your relationships. Another is your sense of having a place, of belonging to something that is greater than you – as an example, people who are connected to their synagogue, church, or mosque report a higher level of satisfaction with their lives. Another ingredient is giving back – people who feel they are giving something back to their community, giving to others who need help, feel happier, more fulfilled, and more grateful. Isn’t that interesting – when you give something back, you feel grateful.
And none of those things are for sale. It is true that you can pay to belong to a synagogue, but you can’t buy a feeling of connection to it – that only comes from being involved. You certainly can’t buy relationships – I’ve known – and I am sure you have too – many families who have plenty of money, but can’t figure out how to get along with each other. There are some things in life – and I would argue they are the most important things – that you cannot buy. Instead, they require hard work, honest effort, integrity, generosity, self awareness, and self sacrifice, among other things.
Judaism has known this for a long time. To get back to the priestly class for a moment, you can’t pay to be a member – you’ve either inherited it from your father, or you haven’t. There is that famous mishnaic statement, symbolized by the four crowns you see on the outside of the wall behind me. There is the crown of Torah, earned through many years of study. The crown of the Priesthood, that can only be inherited. There is a crown of royalty that only comes to a few. But the larger crown at the top is the כתר שם טוב – the crown of a good name. That crown you cannot inherit, you certainly cannot buy it – it can only be earned. Imagine what the world would be like if more people in it were working to earn that crown?