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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat B'midbar 5755
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
June 3, 1995    5 Sivan 5755

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Though the Jerusalem Temple is long gone, time has not erased the threefold division of ancient Israel into Kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim. Ritual, as it so often does, helps to preserve collective memory. In many synagogues, the first two aliyot to the Torah are still given to a Kohen and a Levi. Yisraelim, who constitute the majority of us, are not called to the Torah until the third aliyah. On Passover the three matzot that bedeck our seder plates are named (from top to bottom) Kohen, Levi and Yisrael. In old cemeteries, a pair of hands symbolic of the priestly benediction often mark the tombstone of a Kohen, while the grave of a Levi whose task was to pour water over the hands of the priests before the recitation of the blessing, is signified by a tilted pitcher.

In contrast to our primary status as Jews, which is determined matrilineally, our secondary status as Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael is handed down patrilineally. Nevertheless, a first–born son of a mother who is a Kohen or Levi, but whose father is not, need not be freed from the divine service corps through the rite of Pidyon ha–Ben, in which the father gives five silver coins to a Kohen on the 31st day after the child's birth (more on this later). I am neither a Kohen nor Levi and hence neither are my children, but since my wife is the daughter of a Levi, our first–born son required no redemption.

According to the Talmud, the number three is a basic pattern of the revelation experience. In the third month of the year (Sivan), God revealed at Sinai a text divided into Torah, Prophets and Writings to a nation divided into Priests, Levites and Israelites through Moses, the third child of Amram and Yocheved, after Miriam and Aaron, on the third day of Israel's preparation for revelation.

As you might suspect, it is the parasha that prompts me to reflect on Israel's threefold religious structure. The reason is that it is only with the book of Numbers, which we start this week, that the Torah adds the Levites to our picture of Israel in the wilderness. Till now we have had only a glimpse of the Levites as a clan. The Torah shares with us the fact that the parents of Moses both hailed from the tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1). And it may well be that connection which explains why this tribe alone rallied to Moses when he descended from Mt. Sinai to find his people sunk in celebration before their molten calf. At his command, the Levites seized their swords and put some 3000 revelers to death (Exodus 32:26–29). The book of Leviticus, with its priestly focus, makes no mention of the Levites.

When the Torah finally returns to the Levites at the beginning of Numbers, they appear wholly set apart. God tells Moses not to include them in the census of the tribes, and the Torah lists no chieftain at their helm as it does for the others. Their function is not to defend the camp or participate in the conquest of the land, but to guard the Tabernacle from human defilement, "Any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death (Numbers 1:51)." They are also assigned to the life–threatening task of dismantling and erecting the Tabernacle as Israel moves through the wilderness. When they are counted in their own census, their numbers are far smaller than those of any one of the 12 tribes.

A couple of midrashic nuggets try to account for these anomalies. Why were the Levites the smallest of the tribes? Because they had escaped the ordeal of forced labor in Egypt. To frustrate Pharaoh's will, God made sure that each tribe increased in proportion to its suffering. The Levites did not suffer. They were a bookish clan and Pharaoh permitted them to be Israel's spiritual leaders. The midrash hints darkly at a different origin for the tribe of Levi, a staple of modern scholarship.

Similarly, why were the Levites excluded from the general census? God distanced them because their fate was to be different. God foresaw that unlike their brethren they would not succumb to despair at the report of the spies returning from Canaan. Hence they were not sentenced to die in the wilderness, but would live to enter the promised land. Had they been listed in the same census as the rest of Israel, the angel of death would have killed them with all the Israelites. Once recorded, they were all subject to the same fate. I suspect the midrash may point to the fear which traditionally inhibited Jews from counting, except with negative integers – "not one, not two, not three..." To be counted is to be registered and therefore to be more visible and vulnerable.

The midrash goes on to speculate why the Levites were singled out to serve God. The original plan was to have the clergy come from the pool of all first–born males as a memorial to the miracle of the tenth plague. By sparing the first–born of Israel, God laid claim to their lives for service in the Tabernacle. Our parasha testifies to a mid–course correction. The Levites were now to replace the first–born who would gain their release through a one–time payment of five shekels to Aaron. It is this precedent which became the basis for the rite of Pidyon ha–Ben (Numbers 3:11–13, 44–51).

But why the substitution? The midrash suggests that the Levites were chosen because they remained loyal to God when all Israel had embraced idolatry, the cardinal sin. They alone were without blemish, worthy of serving the Almighty daily and intimately. "Those who have drawn Me close to them, I will draw close to Me." The shock of the golden calf induced God to staff and surround the Tabernacle—the Kohanim on the inside and the Leviim on the outside—with a hereditary clergy that would lower the risk from the rabble.

In return for this singular privilege, the Levites gave up any share in the land, other than the 48 towns to be granted them for residence. They did not fight in the military or amass wealth or inherit land. God alone sustained them, "I am your portion and your share among the Israelites (Numbers 18:20)."

Indeed, in a remarkable flourish in his great legal code, Maimonides portrays the Levites as a universal and ideal type for all people of pure faith, ready to abandon the world in order to cultivate a life of inner tranquility and supreme wisdom.

Not only the tribe of Levi but every single individual from among the world's inhabitants, whose spirit moved him and whose intelligence gave him the understanding to withdraw from the world in order to stand before God to serve and minister to Him, and to know God, and who walked upright in the manner in which God made him, shaking off from his neck the yoke of the manifold contrivances which men seek – behold, this person has been totally consecrated, and God will be his portion and inheritance forever and ever. God will acquire for him sufficient goods in this world just as He did for the priests and the Levites.... (I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, pp. 441–2).

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat B'midbar are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.