“Playing the Subordinate Role: A Lesson from the Levites”

by Rabbi Ephaim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, continues the description of the role of the Levites, whose task it was to set up the Tabernacle and dismantle and transport it when the people traveled.

The last chapter of last week’s parasha, Bamidbar, recounts the census of the Levitic family of Kohath and their responsibility to care for the most sacred items in the Tabernacle. The Torah, in Numbers 4, records that when it was time for the Israelites to travel, Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons would enter the Tabernacle to cover all the holy furnishings, the Ark, the Table of Showbread, the Golden Menorah and the Golden Altar, to ready them for transport.

Once all the furnishings were covered, the Kohathites would enter the sanctuary and carry them as the tribes of Israel began to move. It was considered a supreme honor for the Kohathites to care for these most sacred items.

In this week’s parasha, Naso, we learn of the responsibilities of the other two Levitic families, Gershon and Merari. Particularly, when compared to the Kohathites, the Gershonites and the Merarites seem to have had rather pedestrian responsibilities. The Gershonites were responsible for the Tabernacle coverings– the skins and the curtains; the Merarites were responsible for the heavy items–the columns of the Tabernacle, the poles of the courtyard, the pegs and the ropes.

In Numbers 7, the Torah records that the twelve tribal chieftains contributed six wagons and twelve oxen to the Tabernacle for the Levites to use when transporting the Tabernacle. Two wagons and four oxen were given to the Gershonites, and four wagons and eight oxen were given to the Merarites. Because of the holiness of Tabernacle furnishings, the Kohathites were not given wagons and were to carry the holy objects on their shoulders. While it was certainly not an easy task, it was the most honorable of all the tasks assigned to the Levites.

It is probably correct to presume that the Gershonites and the Merarites must have felt somewhat put out with their assigned responsibilities, which were likely seen by others to be so much less significant than the responsibilities of the Kohathites. Additionally, the Gershonites and Merarites must have also felt disrespected to some measure, since Gershon was the oldest son of Levi, and yet the children of the younger son, Kohath, were given the more honorable responsibilities.

When describing the tasks of the Gershonites, the Torah, in Numbers 4:22, states, “Naso eht rohsh b’nay Gershon, gam haym,” Take a census of the sons of Gershon, as well (or, they too).

Rashi indicates that the seemingly extra words, “gam haym,” they too, applies to taking the census. Just as the Kohathites had been counted, so must the children of Gershon and, probably, Merari, be counted.

Samson Raphael Hirsch says that “they too” comes to teach that one should not say that the Gershonites are inferior because they were counted second.

In Darash Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points to these seemingly extraneous words in the verse and offers a particularly cogent insight. He explains that the expression, “gam haym,” they too, implies that there is no difference between the task assigned to the sons of Kohath, who carried the holy Ark, and the tasks assigned to the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari, who cared for items of lesser holiness, for they all fulfill the will of G-d in their tasks and make it possible for the Tabernacle to function properly.

Rabbi Feinstein’s comments actually have bearing on the major social issue of personal self-esteem. It is not only that Rabbi Feinstein’s interpretation asserts that all the tasks performed by the Levites, whether carrying the Ark, the curtains or the heavy columns, perform the will of G-d, but rather that each task is regarded as equally important.

Issues of self-esteem are faced by many every day. Is the scholar who teaches the highest level in the Yeshiva more important, or to be more honored, than those who teach the youngest children how to read? Is the athlete who plays offense on a soccer or a hockey team more important than a defensive player or the goalie?

When Rabbi Feinstein states that all tasks are of equal importance, he is likely alluding to the fact that all the Levitic roles are equal in G-d’s eyes, as long as they are performed for the sake of Heaven and with a full heart.

Who plays the more essential role in the family, the father who labors to support his family, or the mother who remains at home to nurture the children? Is the infantry soldier less significant than the paratrooper or the jet fighter pilot? Is the conductor of an orchestra more important than the violin player?

According to Rabbi Feinstein, the Torah teaches that each person is to see him or herself as being of infinite value. The baseball team cannot play without the catcher, nor can the manager of the automobile assembly plant consider himself more significant than the rivetter. To accomplish the ultimate goal, each team member is essential. That is why it is necessary for each person to think of him or herself as being of infinite value.

This issue brings to mind a poem that was brought to my attention many years ago. I do not recall the poem’s author or origins, but its powerful and germane message resonates with me.

We hear about the clever man,
The man who leads the line,
But seldom do we hear about
The other ninety-nine.
The men who bravely battle
In the world of enterprise,
Who form the stepping stones
On which, another man may rise.

Co-operation is the word
That’s worthy of a thought,
By that alone can all men gain
The brotherhood long sought.
Each man has got his part to play,
Each man can hope to shine,
The man who leads, most surely needs,
The other ninety-nine.

While it is obviously impossible for everyone to be a leader, those who support the leaders are crucially important. In order for the team to properly function, some will have to play seemingly subordinate roles. The blessing that G-d gave the Gershonites and the Merarites was the ability to feel fulfilled while performing a task that others might see as subordinate, menial or demeaning, but is really not! Instead of envying those in higher positions, it is far more beneficial to recognize that without the “little cogs,” those in higher positions would be unable to fulfill their tasks.

So, are they really little?

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3325 years ago, is observed this year on Tuesday evening, May 14th, and continues through Thursday night, May 16th, 2013.