Shaya Cohen -


Top Down or Bottom Up?

The Torah shows how events affect every layer of a hierarchy. For example, G-d says that he will destroy, “all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Ex. 12:29)

In death, so, too, in life. We are commanded to consecrate our first-borns– not only the first-born people but our livestock and even the first fruits of the harvest. From the largest to the smallest, the same principle applies: what is true for the nation is true for each person.

Similarly, the Torah tells us that we should have flags (Num. 1 and 2) for the Jewish people when we camped and marched in the wilderness. What possible importance would come with rallying under a tribal flag? I think the answer remains the same – there were not only flags for our tribes, but also for each group of tribes, and for each clan. Depending on the translation, it can even represent each individual: “And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man with his own camp, and every man with his own flag, according to their hosts.” (Num. 1:52)

The message is quite simple: Just as there is a Jewish nation, so, too, there are different groups of tribes, each serving G-d in their way. And what is true at that level continues all the way down, to each and every person. Each person has their own relationship with G-d, just as does each clan and tribe. No two people are supposed to be the same, just as each tribe is different from another.

The flags, then, do not serve as a means of reinforcing mindless tribalism, but instead mindful connections between each person and G-d at every level. It is a reinforcement of the equally important individual and group identities, each Jew being simultaneously connected at the personal level, and at the familial level, all the way up. This might also go some way toward explaining why the G-d tells Moshe to count the Jewish people – to tell us that within every grouping (no matter how large), each person still matters and is counted.


The Torah, however, describes all of the events of Sinai and the receiving of the Torah  from the top down. It starts on a mountaintop, with the commandments brought down from On High. The priests and Levites were shown as a higher level. The tabernacle itself, the holiest place on earth, radiated its power outward from a source, just as the people grouped themselves around it.

But if the Torah is given at Sinai, and meant to be applicable at every level, then we have a problem. After all, the Torah was not given equally at every level. So where is the bottom up? Where is the focus on each person growing upward, the mirror image of the events at Sinai? How do we see equality within the layers of society if the Torah is given in a purely hierarchical way?

The answer is found in the events after Sinai. Every generation, every marriage, every child who learns how to read the Shema, is another brick in the growth of the Jewish people in this world, trying to reach back to Sinai, echoing the glory of the initial revelation. The rest of Jewish history after the wilderness is the Jewish people connecting back to G-d, and from the bottom up.

This is reflected in the yearly cycle as well. Pesach happened to us – we were essentially passive recipients, with G-d doing all the heavy lifting. The Jews had to do the barest minimum in order to be redeemed. But the counting of the Omer, the days up to Sinai and the festival of Shavuos, represent the first step of the Jewish people trying to climb upward and connect to G-d. That was the template for the rest of Jewish history, a history that started in the wilderness, at the bottom. The growth from the bottom up continues in every generation, and with each and every person.

Comments are welcome!

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