Written by: Rabbi Allan Houben, Instructional Leader, US Judaic Studies
The odds of winning a standard 6 number lottery are 1 in 14 million. That means if you would buy one lottery ticket every week, you can expect to win approximately once every 269 years. For the more high stakes lotteries like Mega Millions, however, your odds plummet to approximately 1 in 176 million. That means you are approximately 20,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the Mega Millions jackpot. And yet, in this week’s parsha everyone wins the lottery in an odds defying display. I am referring to the lottery by which the land of Israel was split up among the tribes of Israel.
The Torah, in Massei, the second of this week’s double parsha, makes reference to the dispersal of lands through a lottery. In chapter 33 verse 54, the Torah tells us that the land will be divided through a lottery, and that the tribes with greater population will receive a larger inheritance and those with smaller populations will receive a smaller section of the land.
The Gemara in Bava Batra goes into more detail about the process of splitting up the land, informing us that not only was there a lottery, but that Elazar the Kohen Gadol would also declare which tribe was destined for which section of land through prophecy.
Why was there a need for a lottery in addition to a prophetic declaration? What could the lottery possibly add to the communication of Hashem’s intent through prophecy?
To answer this question we must first understand what is the goal, the message, of a lottery. While our gut reaction may be to say that a lottery is random, I like to think a lottery forces us to give up control and acknowledge there are many possible outcomes. Entering a lottery we need to be amenable to whichever outcome wins out. This crucial point, of giving up control and accepting the fate of the lottery, the hidden hand of Hashem working behind the scenes, is the difference between prophecy and lottery.
Why does this matter? Why did the tribes need to be ok with whichever piece of land they received?
Aside from the obvious, there is something deeper at play. The land of Israel is called “שער השמים,” the “Gateway to the Heavens,” when Yaakov encounters Hashem in his vision of the ladder, just before he leaves the land. This has been homiletically understood to mean that the land itself represents the various pathways of עבודת השם, serving Hashem, and that each section of land that the tribes would inherit represents a unique way of serving and relating to Hashem. The tribes each wanted to receive the area that would mirror their form of עבודת השם, and that is indeed what occurred and what was decreed by the Kohen Gadol. Hashem, however, wanted to ensure that each tribe understood that while their approach to עבודת השם worked for them, it was not better than the approach of any other tribe. By requiring a lottery, it forced the tribes to face the possibility of receiving any of the portions, any of the forms of עבודת השם. This ensured a sense of mutual respect and understanding.
We today face a similar challenge to the tribes all those years ago. We all choose to live and pray in communities and shuls that best fit our way in עבודת השם. While we align ourselves with like-minded friends and communities, it is important that we never look down on others who do things differently. No matter where we fit in on the spectrum of Judaism, no matter what form our personal or communal עבודת השם takes, we cannot lose sight of the fact that ours is one of many. We must follow and model this mutual respect and understanding, accepting all types of Jews and Jewish practice, if we are to accomplish the unity we all strive for- especially at this time of year. May we always remember that there is so much more we have in common than, so much more that unites us than divides us, and may we merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash speedily in our days.
Rabbi Allan Houben