ואני הנה לקחתי את הלויים מתוך בני ישראל תחת כל בכור פטר רחם מבני ישראל והיו לי הלויים. כי לי כל בכור ביום הכותי כל בכור בארץ מצרים הקדשתי לי כל בכור בישראל מאדם עד בהמה לי יהיו אני ד'. (Nm 3:12-13)
The overarching theme of individual, family, and national identities continues to develop in the Parasha. After reviewing the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, the Torah describes the respective tasks, including limitations and access to the Mikdash, of the Kohanim and the Levites. God then reminds Moshe of His decision to substitute the Levites for the firstborn children, who heretofore were designated as God's representatives to the Jewish people. This change dates from the incident of the Golden Calf.
The expression והיו לי הלויים seems to express a new role for the Levites, slightly different from the role that the בכור/ first born, had been assigned before the episode of the Golden Calf. The first born had been dedicated and sanctified (קדש לי כל בכור) to serve as God's representative to each family in order to ensure Godly behavior among its members. It was assumed that when the Mikdash was built they would serve as protectors and facilitators, as well.
The word היו is from the root ה-י-ה which means "to be." The word בכור is from the root ב-כ-ר which means "to free productive element" by being first born. The word קדש is from the root ק-ד-ש which means "to dedicate all resources" for sanctification.
The Jewish בכור became sanctified when the tenth plague struck and killed all first born Egyptians. However, in the Golden Calf incident, when they were expected to rally to God, the בכורים did not defend God and His Torah. It was the Levites who filled that role and served as God's champions. So God took/לקחתי the Levites from among the people, in place/תחת of the first born and made them His. The Levites became special, closer to God than the rest of the people.
The word לקחתי is from the root ל-ק-ח which means "to take." The word תחת is from the root ת-ח-ת which means "to place below" or in its stead.
Nevertheless, the קדושה of the בכור was not wholly abrogated. By their non- performance on God’s behalf at the time of the Golden Calf, the first born sons forfeited their role as representatives of the people to God and the Mikdash. However their meaning and importance in the family was not affected. They continued to be the leaders of the families. In essence the consecration of the בכור has no significance or meaning for the nation. It has only symbolic meaning as it relates to the family units.
The Levites now must assume a greater and more prominent role in the nation. First and foremost they must serve as assistants to the Kohanim in the education of the people. Secondly, they represent both the Kohanim and the entire nation in משמרת/guarding of the Mikdash , and in participation in its service/עבודה. The Mikdash requires ongoing שמירה because it is the single most important treasure of the nation. However, their supervising agents are not the Kohanim, but Moshe himself. The Levites are נתונים, assigned by Moshe on behalf of the people to serve with the Kohanim.
The words משמרת, שמירה are from the root ש-מ-ר which means "to protect." The word עבודה is from the root ע-ב-ד which means "to work subject to another's will." The word נתונים is from the root ת-נ-ה which means "to present."
The Levites therefore were substituted for the first born, who retain their role as heads of families, and assigned all of the tasks that were necessary as God's representatives to the people of Israel.Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.