Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 May 2021 / 4 Sivan 5781

Parashat Bamidbar

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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To the Manner Born

After the description of the national census and the formation of the camp, the Torah describes the nature of the service of the Leviim and the manner of their counting.

The Leviim are appointed as guardians. Their mission is described as various forms of guardianship: of the Sanctuary, of Aharon [the Kohanim], of the entire community. Preparing the nation for, and educating it to the Sanctuary, is integral to the mission of the Levite guard. In this capacity, the Levi assists the Kohen, whose essential task is to direct and educate the people. (The linguistic root of Kohen means to prepare and direct.)

The position of the Leviim was initially given to the firstborn of each family. The firstborn in each family was in a way responsible for fulfilling G-d’s Will within his family circle. As the Jewish people emerged from Egypt, they were gathered in groups of tribes, families and households. In order that these separate groups should remain united in a common mission, G-d appointed the firstborn within the families and homes to bear, cultivate and defend G-d’s Will in the midst of families. In this way, each family was connected to the Divine mission of the national community. This is why the firstborn were consecrated to G-d. (Shemot 3:13)

Now, when this common element of Divine mission was given symbolic expression through the Sanctuary housing the Torah, it was necessary to appoint guardians. The firstborn, who had already been sanctified, were the natural choice. But they had forfeited this position when they failed to prove themselves the champions and guardians of Torah during the sin of the Golden Calf. What was expected of them was done by the Leviim — only the Leviim had rallied to the call of Moshe to stand up for the honor of G-d. In return, G-d raised the Leviim and assigned to them the task of the firstborn, which they had earned by virtue of their staunch commitment.

The Leviim are not counted from the age of twenty, as is the rest of the population, but rather from the age of one month — the legal age of viability. This indicates that their calling as Leviim entails far more than the performance of service assigned to them in the Sanctuary. This service — guarding the Sanctuary during the encampments, transporting the Tabernacle components and furnishings during travel — is only an outgrowth of their essential mission. For that work, the Leviim are counted from age thirty and upwards. (Bamidbar 4:33). But for their essential mission — securing the Torah which the Sanctuary represents — they are counted from one month old.

Because there were always more Leviim than necessary to fill the shifts required for service in the Temple, the Leviim had much spare time on their hands — time intended, and indeed used, for them to immerse themselves in Torah scholarship. In this way they became great Torah scholars and brought the Torah back to the people. This is the way they performed their most essential function of safeguarding the Torah. And for this vital task, training from the cradle was required to guide and direct the infant to a loftier and higher calling.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 3:6-15

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