Pinchas 5777 - 15 July 2017 - Equality vs Equity

Post date: Jul 14, 2017 8:43:40 PM

Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

This week we read Pinchas, a chapter which begins with God describing a brit shalom – a covenant of peace with Pinchas, son of Elezar and grandson of Aaron. This is one of the five covenants God makes in the Torah, the others being the Brit Keshet (covenant of the rainbow with all humanity - Noah), the Brit Milah (covenant of circumcision - Abraham), the Brit Sinai (covenant at Mt. Sinai with all Jews - Moses), and the Brit Kehuna (covenant of the priests with all the Kohanim). In this sense, a covenant is a sacred contract.

God then explains that an Israelite man – Zimri – was killed along with a Midianite woman. God commands the Moses to tzror et ha-midiyanim v’hi’kitem otam - Harass the Midianites, and smite them. There are two interesting verbs used here – tzror (root: tzadey-resh-resh) and hakah (root: nun-kaf-hey).

Hakah is a verb commonly used in the Torah to mean smite, hit, beat, or otherwise physically aggress toward. Tzror is also a common verb with many different meanings. In some forms, this word means to bind, tie up, or restrict. In other forms, the root can relate to a narrow place or time of distress. Mitzrayim (Egypt) is so named because it contains only a narrow strip, the Nile River, which is habitable, although many Jews have elaborated on the time of our slavery there as having been a time of confinement. In yet other usages, the word translates to showing hostility toward or vex. God goes on to explain to the Israelites that they are to tzror (harass) the Midianites ki tzoririm hem lachem – because they have harassed you! Seems to be a rather “tit for tat” situation between these rival groups.

Following this unusual commandment, God explains how inheritance (in Hebrew nachalah) is to be divided in amongst the tribes of Israel. Flying in the face of traditional feudal-type societies (where wealth is kept in the hands of the few and passed through an aristocratic class for generations), God states that, for the tribes of Israel, “land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names. To the more thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to the fewer thou shalt give the less inheritance; to each one according to those that were numbered of it shall its inheritance be given.”

In Israelite society, land and wealth are, at least to some degree, apportioned based on need, rather than status. Certainly status was not absent from the ancient Israelite society, but it appears that the medieval, feudal attitudes that would consume Western Europe for centuries had not fully been adopted at this point in history.

It seems from the early passages of this week’s parsha that there is a sense of equity, with the “tit for tat” attitude toward the Midiantes and the divvying up of wealth based on population. Equity is an interesting concept that our society has struggled with for many years and, I believe, continues to struggle with today. Illustrated in a popular meme, equity is not equality. Equality means that everyone is given an equal share – for example, everyone pays a 10% tax on their income or everyone receives $500 per month in social security benefits.

Equity, on the other hand, means that everyone attains the same level, with the expectation that it will take unequal resources to get everyone there. Debates over universal health care and public education are fundamentally debates about equity. Does everyone have a right to obtain equally good health care? Equally good education? If we believe in equality only, then the option of health care should be present for everyone, and obtaining such care will depend on your means. That is to say, people are not barred from obtaining health care – health care companies can not, for example, discriminate against particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups. But the government is not responsible for ensuring attainment of health care – that is up to individuals.

Equity, on the other hand, disregards the “how,” focusing solely on the end goal. All individuals must have health care. Yes, some people may need the government to pay for it and others may be able to afford it privately, but the ultimate goal is that everyone have care. Equity requires that some members of society take on a larger share of the burden – whether that burden is financial or something else.

In general, we seem to favor equality over equity in our society. Capitalism naturally lends itself to a country that values equality – everyone has the same, theoretical, chance to succeed and the rest is up to you. In Israelite society, there is no such understanding. In part, I think, this is because Israelites had far less control over their reproduction, health, and general safety compared to our society today. Israelite society did not see it as a choice to have a large family or a small one – you had as many children as you had, and that was due primarily to factors outside your control (maternal death, early childhood illnesses, accidents, etc.). Thus, a model where everyone “got the same” does not make sense – it is not by choice that one family has 13 children to support and another only 5. Of course the family with 13 children should “get more” – they need it. Equity is logical here.

Perhaps it is true that, since we now have control over many factors in our lives thanks to science and technology, that equity no longer makes sense and everyone truly has the exact same shot at success. I wonder, though, if there may still be some factors far outside our control that impact how much each one of us “needs” and how much each of us is able to give. If so, then perhaps we can consider a move toward a more equitable society.

Dr. Yvonne Asher

Samuel Asher