“Finding Value in Every Task”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the Torah describes the structure and layout of the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The locations of the encampments of each of the 12 tribes are delineated, the roles of the three Levitic families are assigned, and their tasks and responsibilities in the Tabernacle are recorded.

In Numbers 4, the Torah assigns the role of the first of the three Levitic families, the Kohathites, who are responsible for the most sanctified furnishings in the Tabernacle.

G-d speaks to Moses and Aaron saying, Numbers 4:18-20,אַל תַּכְרִיתוּ אֶת שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי מִתּוֹךְ הַלְוִיִּם. וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּגִשְׁתָּם אֶת קֹדֶשׁ  הַקֳּדָשִׁים: אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו יָבֹאוּ וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְאֶל מַשָּׂאוֹ. וְלֹא יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ, Do not cause the tribe of the Kohathite families to be cut off from among the Levites. Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: When they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden. But they shall not come and look as the Holy things are being covered, lest they die.

The more than 22,000 Levites who were charged with caring for the Tabernacle faced a rather daunting task. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of separate parts to the Tabernacle. Each part had to be properly marked and labeled, so that when the Tabernacle would be taken down and erected, reassembled and rebuilt, each of the thousands of parts would be in its proper location.

The three Levitic families, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, who cared for the Tabernacle, were each assigned separate functions and responsibilities. Merari was responsible for the heaviest items in the Tabernacle, the wooden planks that were used for the walls of the Tabernacle, the columns for the curtains and for the courtyard walls, the bases and the sockets. To assist in the transportation of their assignment, they were given four wagons and eight oxen. The Gershonites, who were in charge of the curtains that covered the wooden structure, the divider curtain, the entrance curtains of the Tabernacle and the courtyard, were given two wagons and four oxen. The Kohathites were in charge of all the holy furnishings, the Ark, the Table of Showbread, the Menorah-candelabra, the Golden Altar, the earthen sacrificial Altar and the Laver. The holy furnishings in their charge were to be transported on the Kohathites’ shoulders.

The role of the Kohathites was the most honored role, but also the most dangerous, since improper handling of the holy furnishings could be lethal. The Torah, therefore, warned the Kohathites that they not enter the Tabernacle until the priests had completely covered each of the furnishings with their specially prepared covers. This prevented actual viewing of the furnishings while they were being transported.

The Sforno takes the words, (Numbers 4:19) אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, to mean that every man must do the specific task assigned to him. For this reason, each Levite, and especially members of the family of Kohath, was assigned a specific task in an organized fashion, together with the other Levite members. This assured that the Levites would not compete with one another, or rush to enter the Tabernacle, lest they jostle one another and desecrate the Temple, thereby bringing death upon themselves.

Maimonides, in Laws of the Temple Vessels 3:10-11, derives from this verse that the priest must not only appoint the Kohathite family members to perform specific tasks, he must also personally supervise them, making certain that they not overstep their bounds and die.

Recognizing the immense sanctity of the Tabernacle furnishings and the respect that must be shown to them, the Midrash, in Bamidbar Rabbah 5:1, describes the possible impact of the fear of death upon the Kohathies. Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat is of the opinion that because of the dangers associated with the Ark, the Kohathites were not eager to carry the Ark. That is why the priests had to appoint specific Levites from the family of Kohath to bear the Ark.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani argues otherwise, stating that the Levites were so eager to be assigned the honor of bearing the Ark, that there needed to be designated carriers for the Ark, in order to make certain that the other furnishings of the Tabernacle were not neglected.

This Midrash suggests that there were two classes of Temple attendants, those who were afraid to fulfill the task because of the intense holiness of the furnishings, and another group who was eager to only do the most prestigious work, but not the less prestigious work.

It might also be assumed that there were workers with other attitudes. There were probably those who were slovenly and not eager to work at all, who would rather be back on their farms, tending to their sheep or their fields. There were probably also those who felt themselves unworthy of fulfilling the sacred task of carrying the holy furnishings of the Tabernacle.

By stating אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, the Torah teaches, that not only must every man do his work and recognize the specialness of the task at hand, but that every task, whether in the Tabernacle, at home or in the office, must be seen as a sacred and vital task. Menial tasks must also be regarded as important, because without them, the major tasks could not be completed.

While many aspire to be leaders, unfortunately, few appreciate the contributions of the followers and the support teams. Regretfully, it is very common for people to frequently place values on what they perceive as “important” tasks. But, in the eyes of the Al-mighty, a task that is fulfilled with a full heart, whether large or small, is what is most valued and most significant.

This discussion brings to mind an elderly widow, Mrs. Chernick, whom I first met in the early years of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Mrs. Chernick, who had no children, marched to the beat of her own drummer. She would often tell all who would listen that her greatest aspiration was to serve as the cleaning woman in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Although, being a “cleaning woman” does not really rank as a particularly prestigious job for a nice Jewish boy or girl, I have a distinct feeling that there may be many who would quickly volunteer to assist Mrs. Chernick in her cleaning duties, should the opportunity arise.

With the upcoming festival of Shavuot, זְמַן מַתַּן תּוֹרָתֵנוּ, the time of the giving of our Torah, we have a unique opportunity to display our full-hearted devotion to Torah. May the Al-mighty witness our exceptional devotion during the coming holiday, and in its merit reward us with the opportunity to start cleaning the rebuilt Temple very soon.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3328 years ago, is observed this year on Saturday evening, May 23rd, and continues through Monday night, May 25th, 2015.