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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Bamidbar

Parashat Bemidbar

The Levi’im - An Exalted Tribe or a Banished One?

Rabbi Yossef Carmel2 Sivan 5764
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A careful look at the p’sukim that describe the Levi’im’s appointment as functionaries in the activities of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) (Bamidbar 3:6-13) uncovers the following observations: 1) The choice of Aharon and his sons as Kohanim preceded that of the Levi’im to their job. 2) The Levi’im were "handed over" to the Kohanim to assist them in their duties. 3) The Levi’im received the responsibilities that were originally supposed to be given to the frstborn. But the p’sukim do not spell out when and why the responsibilities were transferred from the firstborn to the Levi’im. Let us search for answers.

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that when the firstborn were involved in the chet ha’egel (sin of the golden calf), whereas the Levi’im refrained from the idolatry, the Levi’im were chosen to take their place. Rashi does not mention when and why Aharon’s family was chosen as Kohanim. He also does not say that the Levi’im’s appointment was a prize for their behavior during chet ha’egel, but rather that the position was vacated when the firstborn sinned, and the Levi’im were the ones who took over. Rashi follows his major thesis that the Torah is not presented in an exact chronological sequence, and, specifically, that the instructions to construct the Mishkan followed chet ha’egel by several months (the project began right after Yom Kippur- Rashi, Shemot 31:18). Thus, we do not have a clear indication that the Levi’im’s appointment was a direct or immediate prize for their role within that crisis.

We will investigate a different aspect of the Tribe of Levi’s legacy before tying things together. The 12 tribes were blessed by two of our nation’s great leaders before the respective death of each. Yaakov, in relating to Shimon and Levi, two sons who had caused him much trouble, banished them from positions of leadership ("I will break them up in Yaakov, and I will scatter them in Israel" (Bereishit 49: 5-7). In contrast, Moshe praised the Tribe of Levi’s spiritual level, conferring upon them spiritual leadership in the service of Hashem and stressing their role of upholding the covenant in times of trial and tribulations (Devarim 33: 8-9). How do we deal with these contradictory appraisals of Levi’s standing?

We can propose two fundamental approaches. 1) The Levi’im were pushed off by Yaakov but were redeemed by Moshe because of their contribution at chet ha’egel. 2) Moshe maintained Yaakov’s misgivings toward the Levi’im, but devised a way of incorporating them into appropriate roles while neutralizing the dangers. If we take the second approach, we can explain as follows. The Kohanim were chosen first for their exalted role, not because they were from Levi but despite that fact and because of their unique qualifications as a holy family. The Kohanim could not do all the work themselves, and so assistants were sought out. The firstborn had the opportunity to get that role, but when they lost the opportunity, the Levi’im filled the void. As the Levi’im role was that of assistants, not leaders, it did not contradict Yaakov’s instructions.

Let us pray for the Levi’im’s and Kohanim’s return to their special roles.

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