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Beha'alotekha By :  Shira D. Epstein Former Dean of the William Davidson School, JTS Posted On May 28, 2021 / 5781 | Torah Commentary

In recent years, Jewish institutions have joined efforts to address issues of equity in the workforce, encouraging transparency in publicized pay scales, promotion criteria, and job requirements. This endeavor has been facilitated by pioneering organizations such as the Gender Equity in Hiring Project that did not exist when I negotiated salary for my first classroom teaching position. I reflect back on the hiring process, which felt at the time like a puzzle for which I was meant to know the solution but could not access; I now understand that these feelings of isolation were common, particularly when no formal pay scale existed. Today as an activist for workplace equity, I benefit from the wisdom of current advocacy; at the urging of some of our alumni, The William Davidson School weekly newsletters have recently begun to only post descriptions that include salary ranges. This seemingly small change enables a level playing field, putting employers and job candidates on more equitable negotiating grounds.  

Part of the success of such current advocacy efforts lies in educating search committees to recognize their biases in whom they view as a strong candidate, or when they might be adhering to outmoded ideas of what makes one qualified for a position. Organizations have also been challenged to rethink job descriptions. For example, how does inclusion of a line such as “must have experience with organizational budgeting” serve as a barrier to attracting a range of candidates who might not yet have this skill, but would shine in other significant areas of leadership, and would readily learn on the job?  Parashat Beha’alotekha offers an opportunity for considering bias in age and ability, in detailing one of the most ancient and structured job descriptions that exists: that of the Levite.

The Levites are a privileged group, selected for service to God. They are specially prepared for this position through intricate steps, which the Torah outlines for Moses and Aaron as their supervisors. God first instructs Moses in how he will step-by-step ready the Levites for their role: cleanse them with water of purification, shave their whole body with a razor, and wash their clothes (8: 6–10). Moses and Aaron will then bring the Levites before the Tent of Meeting, and the Israelites will be part of the ceremony and ritual that marks the moment the Levites have transitioned into this venerated position. The Levites are now distinct from the ordinary Israelites: “Thus you shall set the Levites apart from the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine” (8:14).

Immediately following this detailed description, God makes clear that this privilege and status will have a ceiling, a firm “aging out” threshold:

This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor . . . (8: 24–26)

Ramban’s commentary on the above verses highlights how age limits on one aspect of a role can bias perceptions on what makes for an overall productive and effective worker. He references Rashi’s interpretation of an earlier passage that designates a specific age-band for the Levites for carrying burdens: “from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers, 4:47), and refutes Rashi’s assertation that the Levite can also “close the gates, or…sing, or…load the wagons.” Ramban ties one core element of the Levite role (singing) to another (preparing and facilitating burnt offerings), and in doing so, makes a case for Levites aging out of all Levite roles at age 50; if their bodies could not support the laborious work of presenting offerings, they could not perform any part of the job, including singing:

. . . And this indeed appears correct [that a Levite above the age of fifty was not allowed to take part in the singing] . . . And since the Kohathites [who were the only ones permitted to carry the ark] were counted from thirty to fifty years old, even for singing, they were all counted in this manner . . . so [it is clear that] when there was [the duty of] bearing the burdens upon the shoulders, the Levites were disqualified from singing as well [after the age of fifty] . . . .

This distinct age-band (and Ramban’s position on the Levite’s mandatory retirement from all duties at age 50) beckons questions of relevance for contemporary job equity efforts. What biases might we hold today toward what qualifications and abilities should be seen as indispensable for a job? For example, many early childhood teaching positions include a line such as, “Requires heavy physical work; heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling required of objects up to 50 pounds.” Might this statement preclude a more senior candidate who possesses all other qualifications and experience to be discounted? How might we best uplift what more experienced candidates can contribute—of discernment and ability to train the next generation? The Levite job description offers opportunity for continued dialogue about expansiveness of age range, abilities, and manifold ways to contribute to Jewish community.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).