Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The Three Levite Families
The Torah goes to great length describing the three families of the Tribe of Levi – Gershon, Kehat, and Merari – and their duties bearing the mishkan (tabernacle). This can only mean that their job in maintaining the mishkan and the Temple is extremely important. Consequently, it serves as a binyan av (prototype) for our responsibilities in this world.
The bnei Kehat (sons of Kehat) merited carrying the holy vessels used in the mishkan. The most important vessel was the ark, which was located in the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim (the Holy of Holies), and bore the Tablets and the Torah. After that was the shulchan (the Inner Table), symbolizing parnasah (livelihood), whose source stems from the holy; the menorah, which represented the various chochmot (the worldly sciences), which also derive from the holy; the mizbayakh ha’penimi (Inner Altar), symbolizing prayer and longing for God; and the mizbayakh ha’chitzoni (Outer Altar), which expressed Israel’s misirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for their faith in God.
In any collective arrangement, there are those who warrant dealing with the main and primary issues, and those who assist them. Bnei Kehat merited performing the primary function – carrying the holy vessels – through which all the sacred values were conveyed.
Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron the HaKohen – from whom all the kohanim originate, come from the Kehat family.
Bnei Gershon carried the covering of the Tabernacle – its’ tapestries, the over-tent and roof, and the enclosure’s hangings. The outer covering of the mishkan is also very important. True, the primary interest is what goes on inside the Tabernacle through the use of the vessels, but all of the vessels received their stimulus from their surroundings.
In other words, the Tabernacle’s vessels allude to ohr ha’penimi (the inner-light), and the Tabernacle’s tapestries allude to ohr makif (surrounding light). In order to understand this concept, it must first be explained that God’s light (life-force) with which He illuminates the world, is divided into two: ohr penimi, and ohr makif. The comprehensible portion is the ohr penimi, which we are able to assimilate in our thoughts and feelings, and actually guides our lives.
The portion that is beyond our ability to comprehend acts as an ohr makif, and although we are unable to encompass it, nevertheless, it envelops us and has a decisively influential inspiration on our lives. Indeed, the Tabernacle’s tapestries were especially beautiful, giving expression to matters that are beyond our comprehension, but envelop and surround us, offering us inspiration.
One of the tasks of the Levites was to sing and play music at the time sacrifices were performed. Songs give expression to a longing for something beyond our perception. Kehat deal with the comprehensible, while bnei Gershon express the longing for what is beyond the explicable. Even their name alludes to this: Gershon from the Hebrew word ger (stranger), for man is like a stranger in this world, his soul longing for closeness to God and Divinity. These yearnings are expressed in song.
The hard work was left for bnei Merari – to carry the Tabernacle’s beams, crossbars, pillars, and bases. The beams and the crossbars were extremely heavy. True, Merari was given four carts to assist them in their work, but seeing as the carts were relatively small, their benefit was apparently limited. The majority of the burden they had to carry on their shoulders, through all the difficult and arduous paths in the desert.
On the face of it, bnei Merari were pitiful. Even their name alludes to this: Merari in Hebrew implies bitterness. They seemingly have a thankless job. The important vessels, which alluded to the ohr penimi, were in the hands of bnei Kehat. The beautiful tapestries, suggesting the ohr makif, were in the hands of bnei Gershon. Bnei Merari was left to carry the heavy beams, which hardly anyone saw, because the tapestries hid them from the sight of anyone standing outside the Tabernacle. Only the few kohanim who entered the Tabernacle to perform their tasks with the vessels carried by bnei Kehat, could see the beams that bnei Merari bore with the sweat of their brow.
Nevertheless, the beams were the foundation of the Tabernacle. They are the pillars upon which everything stands.
Bnei Merari represents all those seemingly unpretentious people who in truth are the foundations of the world. They are willing to do the tough, dirty work. By the looks of it, the others reap all the glory; but without Merari, nothing would exist.
Three Types of Jews in the Synagogue
In the typical synagogue, the Kehatim are those people who are able to pray with full concentration, paying attention to every single word they utter. They are the ones who present the sermons and answer questions in halakha (Jewish law).
The Gershonim are people who pray with deep meaning and intense enthusiasm; they are the ones who sing with yearning and devotion.
Bnei Merari, on the other hand, finds it difficult to concentrate on every single word of their prayers at all times – the melodies don’t even rouse them that much. But nevertheless, they arrive at synagogue, day in and day out, reciting all that is required. Sometimes it is extremely difficult for them – their thoughts wander in all directions, and they find it hard to concentrate on their prayers. But faithful to God their Lord, they fulfill their duty. They are the foundations of the world.
If dues must be paid to the synagogue – they are the first to pay. If the synagogue needs to be cleaned – they will clean it. If prayer books need to be returned to their shelves and chairs need arranging – they do it. If a volunteer is needed to prepare tea for those learning at night – they offer their services. If someone needs to wake up early to open the synagogue – they will arise early.
Here in this world they appear to be simple; but in the upper worlds, they are lofty. They express emunah (faith) whose roots are deeper than all the insights of bnei Kehat, and more profound than all the emotions of bnei Gershon.
A Topsy-Turvy World
In regards to such matters, our Sages said that in the World to Come everything is in reverse – “the upper [class] is underneath, and the lower on top” (Pesachim 50a). This is because in our world, people are measured according to their achievements. However, in the World to Come – the world of truth – people are measured according to the amount of effort and dedication they exert. And accurately so, because a person’s achievements in this world depend heavily on the help of God; but the effort exerted is dependent on the individual.
People resembling bnei Merari are God-fearing and humble, and fear is the rosh (head) of chochmah (wisdom), as it is written: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), and humility is on an even higher level, as it is written: “[The] ekev (heel) of humility is fear of God” (Proverbs 22:4). Thus, the fear of God, which is the “head” of wisdom, reaches only the “heel” of humility” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 1:9).
Everyone has a bit of Kehat, Gershon, and Merari
These three prototypes exist in each individual. At work, for example, occasionally a person is able to make an important discovery – his feeling of satisfaction is in then in the sense of Kehat. From time to time, one experiences an emotional awakening, and at that moment his feeling of happiness is in the sense of Gershon. But most of the time, one has to do the difficult work – to carefully check all of his thoughts, weeding out the inaccuracies, correcting, and clarifying them. There is no joy while doing the hard legwork, and at that point in time, he resembles Merari. In the long term, however, one receives the greatest satisfaction precisely from the hard work.
On occasion, a person runs out of strength being a Merari, and subsequently becomes old and starts to decline. If he does not come to his senses – he will collapse. Without the pillars, even the most sacred tabernacle will eventually collapse.
Without Merari, Everything Collapses
Every society, enterprise, family, and community, encompasses these three types of people. People resembling Kehat characterize the content; those resembling Gershon depict the yearning for what is beyond the present, and those resembling Merari bear on their shoulders the burden of the entire system itself. Without them, the system would collapse.
A mother caring for her children definitely has moments of deep awareness with her children (Kehat); and there are also magical, emotional moments (Gershon). But most of the time, childcare is routine and demanding, devoid of any deep understandings or special feelings (Merari). However, this type of nurturing is the essence, for it expresses a love and responsibility towards the children. This is what the children will remember forever, and cling to in moments of crisis in their lives – even when they are old. Without this attention, children will grow up wild; all their parents’ insights and emotions will be of no help – they will hate their parents, and themselves.
The Status of the Levites
For years, a question has bothered me concerning the status of the Levites. They seem disadvantaged compared to Kohanim (priests) and Yisraelim (Israelites). In contrast to the Kohanim who were engaged in the Temple service itself, the Levites merely guarded the gates of the Temple and sang while the sacrifices were brought. Even their economic conditions were poorer than those of the Kohanim, who received far more gifts than they did, and in contrast to Yisraelim, who received an inheritance in the Land of Israel, while the Levites lived in forty-eight cities scattered across the country.
Moreover, the Levites allude to midat ha’din (attribute of strict justice), the Kohanim allude to the attribute of chesed (loving kindness), and the Yisraelim to tifferet (beauty, or harmony). And as is well known, one must always attempt to minimize midat ha’din, while on the other hand, increase midat ha’chesed and tifferet, given that midat ha’din is too relentless, accusing all that is not perfect.
The Levites are Moshe Rabbeinu’s Successors
Recently, it came to me: Moshe Rabbeinu was a Levite! Israel’s greatest personality was a Levite – and if so, the Levites themselves were greater than all. And indeed, this was the role of all the members of the Levite tribe – to continue in the path of Moshe Rabbeinu, teaching Torah to the Jewish nation. They taught the children, and were the local rabbis all over the country.
They also engaged in the rehabilitation of prisoners who were exiled to an ir miklat (city of refuge). They were also worthy of being modest and humble – character traits that lead to morality, and a pure heart. This was Moshe Rabbeinu’s attribute – ‘the most humble of all man upon the face of the earth.’
Moshe Rabbeinu devoted his entire life for the sake of Israel, putting aside his family, possessions, and even his portion in the World to Come to sustain Israel. Likewise, the Levites relinquish their honor and worldly pleasures in order to teach Israel Torah.
The Final Redemption Depends on Midat Ha’Din and Bnei Merari
While it is true that midat ha’din is severe, nevertheless, the entire purpose of Creation is to reveal chesed precisely by means of it. In other words, a person should develop to such a degree that through his own good deeds, he will be entitled ba’din (rightfully) to all the kindness God grants him, and after that, ‘God will rejoice over us, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride’.
This is what our Sages said – that at first, God thought to create the world with midat ha’din, and only when He saw that the world was unable to withstand its severity, did He partner it with midat ha’rachamim (the attribute of mercy). However, in the future, the world will be able to withstand midat ha’din, and this will be the complete tikun (perfection).
This is the special quality of bnei Merari, who must carry the beams on their backs, giving the impression their actions have no pomp and circumstance, but in truth, they are the foundations of the earth, improvers of the world. Presently, when the world has yet to be perfected, their lives seem bitter. However, in the future, everyone will recognize that all the blessings and joy come in their merit.