Beit Midrash

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Abnormal Normality


Rabbi Daniel Mann

As part and parcel of the division of Eretz Yisrael between the tribes and within them, the tribes were supposed to give from their portions 48 cities for the Levi’im, who did not have their own portion in the Land (Bamidbar 35:1-8). They were to be split up throughout the length and breadth of the Land in a fair and strategic manner. The Netziv (ad loc. 8) infers from the p’sukim that before the tribal sections were divided between the families of the tribe, the tribe head already had to assign cities for the Levi’im.
The basic purpose of the assignment of the cities was so there should be somewhere for the Levi’im to live. In some ways it would have made sense for them to receive cities (without the need for much agricultural land, as they were sustained by their brethren) close to Yerushalayim. However, there were reasons for them to be dispersed throughout the Land, as Yaakov had already foreseen (Bereishit 49:7). Rashi (ad loc.) cites one reason – the need to receive their share of ma’aser where the produce grew. After all, it was not feasible to bring a tenth of all the Land’s produce to Yerushalayim throughout the year.
There was an additional need to create a partnership between the Levi’im, whose main purpose was to be occupied with service of Hashem, Torah, and spirituality, and the rest of the nation, who were involved mainly in agriculture and other material professions. While part of their job was focused around the Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim, the element of teaching Torah (see Devarim 33:10 and Rambam, Shemitta V’yovel 13:12) made it important for them to be spread out among the nation, within reasonable range of all their brethren.
If integration was an important consideration, though, we could have hoped that the Levi’im would be found in each city, not in separate regional cities. However, in this matter, it seems that the model found in the encampment in the desert was preserved. There, the Levi’im were indeed all together in the section of the encampment that surrounded the Mishkan. While for the reasons we mentioned and/or others they were spread out, it was still important to maintain a situation of living among their own tribe. Indeed, in order to maintain their function of serving as Levi’im, it was proper for them to remain somewhat insular.
Arguably, people are generally more spiritually successful when they live among those of their own type. It is important for qualified spiritual leaders to be available to help even or especially those parts of the nation who have strong spiritual challenges. However, it requires a special person to live full-time among those who are quite different and still succeed in influencing rather than being influenced (This is the classic model of a rabbi of a community which is quite different from him). The Levi’im were allowed and expected to live as a tribe of their own in such a way that they would still have some impact on those around them. (This is along the more recent models of garin Torani or community kollel). Indeed, there are many ways to serve Hashem and in the process have a fruitful symbiotic relationship with others, with or without giving up the normal desire to remain with one’s tribe, literally or figuratively. One should know his strengths and weaknesses and act for the sake of Heaven.
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