Parashat BeMidbar contains one of the most seminal moments in Jewish history: God’s command to appoint the Leviyim as the eternal servants of Hashem in the Mishkan. Yet, as defining a moment as this was for the Leviyim, the definition and purpose of their service is actually quite unclear. Hashem, in communicating the Leviyim’s purpose to Moshe, declares (BeMidbar 3:7-8), “VeShameru Et Mishmarto VeEt Mishmeret Kol HaEidah Lifnei Ohel Mo’eid LaAvod Et Avodat HaMishkan. VeShameru Et Kol Kelei Ohel Mo’eid VeEt Mishmeret Bnei Yisrael LaAvod Et Avodat HaMishkan” “And they shall safeguard its charge and the charge of the entire assembly before the Ohel Mo’eid, to perform the service of the Mishkan. And they shall safeguard all the utensils of the Ohel Mo’eid and the charge of Bnei Yisrael, to perform the service of the Mishkan.” Hashem stresses the idea of “Shemirah,” safeguarding, but exactly what the Leviyim are supposed to safeguard is quite unclear. What exactly is the “Mishmeret” of Aharon, the Eidah, and Bnei Yisrael?
Another perplexing aspect of the commandment is God’s emphasis on the “assignment” of the Leviyim to Aharon. Initially, God communicates to Moshe that the Leviim will “Shartu Oto” (3:5), will serve Aharon, and later, He emphasizes the point by commanding Moshe, with striking double language, “VeNatatah Et HaLeviyim LeAharon LeVanav Netunim Netunim Heim Lo Mei’eit Bnei Yisrael” “And you shall assign the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; assigned, assigned they are to him, from Bnei Yisrael” (3:9). Why exactly does the Torah feel the need to stress that the Leviyim will be assigned to Aharon?
In order to explain both the Leviyim’s objective as Hashem’s servants and the Torah’s emphasis on their assignment to Aharon, we must pinpoint the defining qualities of both Aharon and the Leviyim. Levi, the third son of Yaakov, first comes on the Biblical scene in the story of Dinah and Shechem (BeReishit 34), in which Levi’s sister Dinah is raped by the prince of Shechem. In response to Shechem’s immorality, Levi and his brother Shimon respond with remarkable zeal: they murder all of the city’s males and plunder the city of all its wealth. Problematically, the Torah notes, Levi and Shimon were not zealous for God; rather, they were zealous for their family’s pride. The Torah clearly spells this out in its description of the story. Initially, as Shimon and Levi are venturing out to decimate the city, the Torah describes Shimon and Levi as “Achei Dinah,” “the brothers of Dinah,” (34:25) indicating that their actions were linked to the stigma caused by their sister’s defilement; likewise, the text later notes that the two brothers decimated the city “Asher Tim’u Achotam” “that defiled their sister” (34: 27); and, most compellingly, the brothers defended their actions to Yaakov with the rhetorical question, “HaChezona Ya’aseh Et Achoteinu” “Should we [let them] treat our sister like a harlot?”(34:31), clearly indicating that they were acting for the sake of family pride. Yaakov, however, berates them not only for disgracing his name but also (albeit implicitly), disgracing the name of Hashem. Evidently, in this early stage of Levi’s tribal history, though Levi demonstrated tremendous zeal, he directed that zeal towards his family, instead of to God, and thus desecrated God’s name.
In the Cheit HaEigel narrative (Shemot 32), Levi succeeds in overcoming this flaw. Inflamed by the nation’s worship of the Golden Calf, Moshe, a descendant of Levi, exhorts the nation, “Mi LaShem Elai” “Whoever is for Hashem should join me” (32:26). Without hesitation, the Leviyim assemble around Moshe who then instructs them, “Hirgu Ish Et Achiv VeIsh Et Rei’eihu VeIsh Et Kerovo” “Let every man kill his brother, neighbor, and kin” (32:27). The Leviyim, despite the fact that this command pits them against their own borthers, carry out the command with zeal, killing 3,000 sinners. Evidently, in this narrative, the tribe of Levi not only demonstrated remarkable zeal, but succeeded in directing that zeal towards God, instead of towards the family; in this case, Levi even directed its zeal against its family. In acting on behalf of God and against his people, Levi recognized the prime importance of the covenant between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. That is to say, Levi understood that the continuity of the Jewish people ultimately rests in the providence of God, not in the physical survival of people.
Moreover, it is important to note that in contrast to the Leviyim, both Aharon and Bnei Yisrael displayed significant spiritual deficiencies in the Cheit HaEigel narrative. Aharon foundered under pressure from the people and complied with their request to fashion a golden calf. In this case, Aharon, lauded by the Rabbis as “Oheiv Shalom VeRodeif Shalom” “loving peace and pursuing peace” (Avot 1:12), embraced his family – Am Yisrael– over the will of Hashem. In doing so, he revealed a deficiency in his trust and passion for God. Likewise, Bnei Yisrael’s desire for an Eigel Zahav revealed that their faith in God was incomplete; the nation allowed its entire faith to be breached by a mere psychological desire for the physical presence of a leader.
Levi’s strength, clearly, is his indomitable trust and zeal for God; Aharon’s and Bnei Yisrael’s weakness, in contrast, is their incomplete faith in God. This understanding opens a window into Levi’s purpose in the Mishkan. On a metaphysical level, the “Mishmeret” of Aharon and Bnei Yisrael are perhaps their respective relationships with Hashem. Levi’s purpose as servants of Hashem, then, is to “safeguard” the Kohanim’s and the nation’s faith in God. When the nation’s faith in God falters, the Leviyim should act as their spiritual anchor, reminding the people that the survival of the Jewish nation rests in their covenant with Hashem, and inspiring them to have complete faith in God.
Accordingly, while the Kohanim’s strength is Shalom, fostering peace and harmony among the nation, the Leviyim’s strength is Bitachon, faith in God. In light of this, we can understand why the Torah stresses that the Leviyim are assigned to Aharon, the totem of the Kohanim. Perhaps, if the Torah merely stated that the Leviyim “should serve in the Mishkan,” we would think of the Leviyim as subordinates to the already instated Kohanim. In turn, this would give the impression that Shalom is more important than Bitachon. But by emphasizing that the Leviyim are “Netunim Netunim” to the Kohanim, the Torah conveys that the Leviyim are going to be joining the Kohanim as full-fledged members, of equal importance and stature, on the Mishkan team. Together, the Kohanim and Leviyim form the complete package of supreme social sensitivity and unwavering faith in God. Thus, by stressing the assignment of the Leviim, the Torah conveys that the virtues of “shalom” and “bitachon” are of equal import.
This Kohanim-Leviyim team model should be the model for our Avodat Hashem. Like Aharon, we must strive for Shalom, to love our brethren and foster harmony among our people; like Levi, we must also demonstrate Bitachon, unwavering faith in and zeal for God, never allowing competing desires or foreign influences to breach our faith. Ultimately, striking this balance will allow us to fulfill our complete potential in our Avodat Hashem.
Thank you to my mother, Mrs. Rachel Friedman, for sharing her insights with me for this article.