“The Noble Calling of the Levites: Serving as an Exemplar for the Jewish People”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, we learn of the cities that were set aside for the Levites in the land of Canaan.

G-d speaks to Moses in the Plains of Moab, by the Jordan, at Jericho, saying, Numbers 35:2, צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתְנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִנַּחֲלַת אֲחֻזָּתָם עָרִים לָשָׁבֶת, וּמִגְרָשׁ לֶעָרִים סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם, Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling, and open spaces for the cities all around them shall you give to the Levites.

In Numbers 35:7 we learn that the total number of cities that the other tribes are to give the Levites was 48 cities.

The Torah makes it clear that the Levites are a special tribe, a holy and consecrated tribe. They are not expected to serve in the army of Israel or to fight in wars against the nations with whom Israel is to do battle. Instead, they are to serve in the army of G-d. Therefore, they are not even counted in the census of the Children of Israel.

The tribe of Levi did not receive a tribal portion in the land of Canaan, as did the other twelve tribes. Since their main function was to minister in the Temple and serve the People of Israel, these 48 cities were to be their dwelling places.

The commentators state that the 48 cities were spread all over the country and among all of the tribes, in order to expose the tribes of Israel to the “legion of G-d.” It was hoped that all the tribes of Israel and their children would learn from the example of the Levites, and be influenced by their noble actions. Consequently, it was the sacred mission of the Levites to constantly elevate themselves, so that they could influence the others more effectively.

Although it seems coincidental, the Torah clearly states that the cities are to include open spaces. The Torah in Numbers 35:4 declares: וּמִגְרְשֵׁי הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתְּנוּ לַלְוִיִּם מִקִּיר הָעִיר וָחוּצָה, אֶלֶף אַמָּה סָבִיב, Each Levite city must have open space that should extend from the wall of the city outward, a thousand cubits all around. These open spaces should be for the animals, for the peoples’ possessions and for all their needs. It seems clear that the Torah insists on open space for all these cities, so that this undeveloped land left for the people, will enable the residents to enjoy a stroll in the “park,” to have an opportunity to look at the trees and to gain a greater appreciation of nature.

Unexpectedly, in Numbers 35:6, the Torah states that of the 48 cities bequeathed to the Levites, six should be designated as “cities of refuge,” to which those Israelites who are accused of murder shall flee until the matters are adjudicated. Through the rabbinical interpretations, we learn that all 48 cities served as cities of refuge for those who were accused of accidental homicide.

The May’am Lo’ez gives an overview of the role of the Levites. First the May’am Lo’ez asks, Why did the Levites not merit to inherit land in the land of Israel? He explains that the Levites were separated from the rest of the nation in order to do the service of G-d. The Al-mighty commanded that the Levites must always be prepared to do His service, to function as guards for the Holy Sanctuary, the Temple, to serve as doormen for the Gates of Jerusalem, and to open and close the gates of the Temple.

The Levites also functioned as singers and members of the Temple choir, who sang at the sacrificial altars while the sacrifices burned. Employing a range of musical instruments, drums and timbrels, the Levites set the joyous tone for the Temple services.

Underscoring the fact that the Levites were specifically instructed to serve as models and teachers to the People of Israel, the May’am Lo’ez notes that this is why the Levites were separated from the normal workings of the nation and the people. They were intentionally not involved in battle and were not to take possession of any of the lands of Israel. Those who served in the army of G-d, received their compensation not from land, but from Heaven. The May’am Lo’ez concludes with a final observation, noting that anyone, even non-Levites, who are moved to serve G-d, can join the Levites in an unofficial capacity, to serve with them, with their full devotion.

One cannot overestimate the exceptional nature of this idea. G-d designates a particular tribe to dwell among all the Children of Israel so that they can serve as a positive influence on all the tribes. And of all the tribes, He picked the tribe of Levi!

Indeed, the choice of the tribe of Levi was rather odd! After all, the tribes of Simeon and Levi were the two tribes who came to the defense of their sister, Dinah, when she was raped by Chamor in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34). After rescuing their sister, they proceeded to murder all the males of Shechem. Jacob was deeply chagrined by their deed, and was certain that the surrounding nations would reciprocate with a vengeance. But they never came. Scripture testifies that the fear of G-d kept the enemies at bay.

To his last breath Jacob never forgot what Simeon and Levi had done. When Jacob blessed his children at the end of his life, he seemingly cursed both Simeon and Levi. Genesis 49:5-7:

Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy, may My soul not enter! With their congregation, do not join O My honor! For in their rage they murdered people, and at their whim they maimed an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

The fate of the tribe of Simeon is not clear except for the fact that they did not receive their own land, and were mostly incorporated into the land of the tribe of Judah. But, we do know the fate of the Levites.

The descendants of Levi, who, himself was so violent in Shechem, proved to be the only tribe of Israel who remained loyal during the sin of the Golden Calf, and were eventually rewarded by being chosen to minister in the Temple. In effect, they served as the “paradigmatic penitent.” The Levites sublimated their extreme passion into a passion to serve G-d. They learned to control their anger and turned their intense emotionality into the sublime poetry of the Psalms, composing and singing the beautiful songs that wafted through the Temple Mount. The transformation from violent actors to fully penitent loyal servants was complete, resulting in being perfectly fit to serve as models for all of Israel.

Not only did the Levites serve as models for all of Israel, they also served as models for all accidental murderers, who fled to one of the 48 cities where the Levites resided. In those cities the murderers were inevitably exposed to the religious passions of the Levites, to their songs, their dance, their music, to their beautiful prayers, to their preparedness to serve fully and joyously, even to carry the Tabernacle and its furnishings on their own shoulders. Eager to work day-and-night erecting and disassembling the Tabernacle, they made certain that every one of the Tabernacle’s thousands of parts was in its proper place.

At the end of Moses’ life, Moses “rewrote” the harsh words that Jacob had for his sons, Simeon and Levi, into a very special blessing for the tribe of Levi. On the last day of his life, Moses cried out to the Levites, Deuteronomy 33:10, יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב, וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, “They [the Levites] shall teach Your [G-d’s] ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel. They shall place incense before Your presence and burnt offerings on Your altar.”

The tribe of Levi is transformed from violent avengers and murderers into sweet singers and exemplars of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Thursday, July 16th and all day Friday, July 17th. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon“–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.