“The Tribe of Levi–the Master Enablers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, we learn about the structure and formation of the Israelites in the wilderness. We are told how Moses, Aaron, the Levites and the twelve tribes encamped around the Tabernacle, and the signals that were provided for the people of Israel to travel or to stop and set up camp. Since the tribe of Levi, together with their cousins the Cohanim (Priests), were responsible for carrying and transporting the Tabernacle, a good part of parashat Bamidbar concerns the Levites and their duties.

Except for the first 5 verses of Numbers chapter 3 which speaks of Aaron and his two sons, all the remaining verses of Parashat Bamidbar focus on the Levites. G-d says to Moses (Numbers 3:6): “Hak’rayv et mah’tay Levi, v’ha’ah’mah’d’ta o’toh lif’nay Aharon ha’Cohen, v’shayr’too o’toh,” Bring the tribe of Levi near, and have them stand before Aaron, the Priest, and they shall serve him. We are then told that the Levites are charged with caring for and protecting the Tent of Meeting and its vessels. We are also informed about the specific roles of the three Levite families–Gershon, Kehat, and Merari, as they assist in performing the service of the Tabernacle.

The focus on the Levites does not end with Parashat Bamidbar but continues through the end of Chapter 4 of parashat Naso. In chapter 8 of Numbers, the Torah returns its attention to the Levites, describing the consecration ceremony that officially authorizes the Levites to serve the people of Israel and assist the Cohanim.

Who are the Levites and how did they merit this special role among all the tribes of Israel?

From the moment of his birth, it was obvious that Levi was special. In chapters 29 and 30 of Genesis, we are informed that Leah herself names all her children (“va’tikra“). When it comes to Levi, scripture however says (Genesis 29:34): “Al kayn kah’rah sheh’mo Levi,” therefore, he called his name Levi. The rabbis conclude that it was the angel Gabriel who named the child. Obviously, Levi was a man with a calling.

Expounding on her newborn child’s name, Leah says (Genesis 29:34), “Ah’tah ha’pahm yee’lah’veh ee’shee ay’lai,” now my husband will certainly be drawn toward me. Finding this literal meaning rather untoward, the rabbis reinterpret the verse to mean that this child (Levi) will eventually “accompany and lead many children to their Father in Heaven” (Yalkuk Shimoni).

As the family history of the twelve tribes unfolds, we learn that two of Jacob’s children, Simeon and Levi, have a strong propensity for zealotry. Both of them are passionate about their sister Dinah who had been raped in Shechem, and murder all the male inhabitants of the city. But there the similarities end. Levi proves to be zealous to all enemies, both external (the men of Shechem) and internal (the Golden Calf). Simeon however actually leads an internal rebellion against G-d (it was Zimri the son of Salu, the leader of the tribe of Simeon, who confronted Moses by publicly performing a lewd sex act with the Amonite princess, Kozbi, Numbers 25).

Although the bechorim, the first born, were biologically first, and were originally intended to be the ministers to G-d, they did not have what it took to be spiritually first. The tribe of Levi, however, is able to redirect and sublimate its zealotry, eventually emerging as the spiritual leaders of Israel, turning away from sword and toward spiritual teaching.

Profound lessons may be learnt from the Levites. While the Levites were talented, they did not generally assume temporal leadership roles, choosing rather to work behind the scenes. The Levites were not meant to be star performers; they were enablers who empowered others, the Cohanim, to perform. They were not composers; they were singers. They taught the law, but did not write the law.

It is the Levites who teach the people how to maximize their returns on their spiritual investments. Few human beings have the stature or the talents of a Moses, or of Aaron and his sons. They are all singularly rare individuals. By serving as surrogates of others greater than themselves, the Levites made it possible to maximize the influence of these great leaders. It’s not enough to have just one master operating alone who can influence hundreds, perhaps, at most, thousands. Those who serve as enablers, like the Levites, make it possible for the master’s words and the messages that he is conveying in the name of G-d, to be transmitted to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews.

We learn from the Levites that while we may not be able to compose beautiful psalms like King David, we certainly can sing those songs in a way that will enchant, so that their message may have a profound impact on all the people of Israel. The sons of Levi are not creative geniuses, but they are, however, logistical geniuses. It’s almost as if they proclaim, “If you don’t come to our Tabernacle, we’ll bring the Tabernacle to you. If you don’t come to our synagogue, we’ll bring the synagogue to you. We’ll make you an offer that you can’t refuse and we will not take no for an answer. We will make certain that everyone in Israel is exposed to Torah learning, at his/her level and at his/her pace. If this particular subject does not interest you, we’ll find another subject, and we will not rest until we are certain that you are engaged in G-d’s law.”

And so when our sages teach us that the angel Gabriel gave the baby Levi his name, we see immediately the special nature of the Levites. The tribe of Levi was a tribe with a Divine mission. This was a tribe that was prepared to use its talents to reach out to others. The Midrash was right when it said, “Ah’teed zeh l’la’vot bah’neem la’ah’veehem sheh’ba’sha’mayim,” this child shall surely accompany the children and bring them [closer] to their Father in heaven.

May you be blessed.

This year Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed on Tuesday evening, May 15th through Wednesday night, May 16th. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the reunification of the city.