Judaism: Levite Leverage
At the completion of the Mishkan, the tribe of Levi who would be in service in the Sanctuary were to be inaugurated to this service. Moshe was to take them and purify them for this service. The ritual was involved, containing elements that allude to the purification of a metzorah (leper) as well as to the rituals of sacrificial offerings.
Like the metzorah, the Levites are to shave their entire bodies; like the grain offerings and the lulav, the Levites are to be waved in all directions, and like the animal offerings, first Bnei Yisroel are to lay their hands upon the Levites and then the Levites are to lay their hands on the sacrificial animals. The reasons behind these allusions to other rituals must be probed if we are to gain an appreciation of the wisdom inherent in the ritual
The Levites were now entering into a holy service. They had been chosen for this service because they had refrained from sinning with the golden calf and rose to champion loyalty to Hashem. They had not sinned. Why then are they to undergo a process reflecting the purification of the sinning metzorah?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that since the Levites were taking the place of all the firstborn who had sinned and who were therefore disqualified from serving in the Sanctuary, the Leviim would now, as Rashi explains, go through a purification process instead of the sinners themselves whom they were replacing.
Rashi cites Rav Moshe Hadarshan in explaining the connection between the Levites atoning for those who sinned with the golden calf and a metzorah. The Metzorah, says Rashi, is considered as one dead, and those who worship idols are worshipping lifeless, dead objects. Therefore, to atone for this sin, the Levites were given a process similar to the purification process of a metzorah.
But the kohanim who performed the primary service in the Sanctuary did not undergo this purification process. Rabbi Munk discusses this difference using ideas from Kabbalah. Hashem created and administers the world through two different attributes, chessed loving kindness, and din justice. The kohanim represent the attribute of loving kindness and were therefore appropriate vehicles to channel Hashem’s benevolence to the world through their service.
The Levites, on the other hand, represented justice. The Levites were the ones who carried out God’s justice and killed those who had worshipped the golden calf. If they were to represent Bnei Yisroel in invoking Hashem’s benevolence toward Bnei Yisroel, they would need to be stripped of the quality of harsh judgment. Therefore they shaved themselves, symbolically stripping themselves of that layer of their persona. Then they were waved around to shake up their inner character, and finally, Bnei Yisroel placed their hands on the Levites to complete the procedure of transformation from judgment to mercy and loving kindness.
Nevertheless, shaving the body seems somewhat extreme. It is a sign of degradation, points out Rabbi Dunner, in Mikdash Halevi. This is precisely the point Rav Dunner makes. It would be entirely possible that the Levites would experience a sense of arrogance at taking the place of the sinning firstborns. To counteract this haughtiness, Hashem wanted to instill a sense of humility in the Leviim by having them undergo a degrading ritual associated with sinners. Similarly, in our own service to the Almighty, we must also act and pray with a sense of humility.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different insight into the reasons for the Levite as well as the metzorah to shave their bodies. Rav Hirsch also sees the shaving ritual as a means of stripping oneself of other elements. Rav Hirsch, however, sees the hair as a protective element, separating man from the outside world.
In the case of the leper, the leper was egotistical and concerned only with himself and thereby fell into the sin of loshon horo. But the Levite did not sin in any way; he was by right living his life privately. Yet, just as the metzorah must now remove the self protective shield to reintegrate into society, so must the Levite now abandon his totally private life and enter the realm of public service. However, since the metzorah shirked his duty, the kohain shaves him reminding him of his duty in society, while the Levite who is now voluntarily giving up his private life shaves himself.
When the Torah says to “take” someone, Rashi often comments that one should take him with words, talking to him gently and bringing him around to your point of view. Here too, Moshe was told to take the Levites. Why would they have to be persuaded to undertake this prestigious position?
Rabbi Hofstedter, the Dorash Dovid, offers us a wonderful psychological insight. He points out that people are usually happy and even excited to take on a one time commitment, to head a short term committee, to do a one-time chessed. But when one is asked to take on this responsibility as a permanent commitment, one often balks and is unwilling to do so. Therefore, Moshe had to convince the Leviim to take on this role as a permanent responsibility, and to do so besimcha, with joy.
Further, says Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch in Peninei Daas, there is a certain fear and awe of serving in the Beit Hamikdosh. It is understandable that the Leviim would feel some trepidation, and Moshe would need to allay their fears so they could commit to serving Hashem with joy.
Similarly, says Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv HaTorah, when one is trying to bring someone closer to religious observance, or to teach one’s children about living a Jewish life, one is more effective when telling him how fortunate he is to have this opportunity rather than telling him that it is his duty.
Then the kohanim are to wave the Leviim in front of Bnei Yisroel as a permanent reminder, says Rav Hirsch, of the heights Bnei Yisroel could have reached after receiving the Torah and the potential they squandered by worshipping the golden calf.
The waving is a physical act signifying the Levite commitment to Bnei Yisroel and to Divine service, of disconnecting from the land in which they will have no portion and upon their reliance on Bnei Yisroel for their support, writes Rav Yosef Zvi Dunner in Mikdash Halevi. The tenufah, the waving of the Levites, is another aspect of their transition from private life to the public sector.
The Torah continues with explaining why the Leviim were chosen for this service – “Ki nitunim nitunim heymoh li … for they are given given to me … instead of every firstborn of Bnei Yisroel.” The Levites are “given” to Me twice, implying an extreme sense of devotion to God, a feeling that comes from deep within themselves, says Rabbi Nachman Goldstein in Lashon Chasidim. It is this feeling of connection and devotion that Hashem wants from all of us, that He wants us to feel in every mitzvah we do, whether it is a seemingly simple mitzvah or a difficult mitzvah, and our reward will be based on the depth of this feeling.
Because the Leviim epitomized this emotional attachment to Hashem and acted on this attachment, and because they felt an overriding sense of responsibility for their brothers and sisters in the nation, they were destined to live scattered through all of Bnei Yisroel and be their teachers. This is the kind of responsibility teachers must feel for each of their students, says Rav Yisroel Belsky in Einei Yisroel. This was the connection Shimon and Levy felt to their sister and the responsibility to take action to uphold her honor when she was defiled by Shechem.
A sense of connection is the very essence of the name Levi- hapaam yeloveh ishi elei – this time my husband will become attached to me – stated his mother Leah when she named him.
The idea of all of Bnei Yisroel being responsible for each other is by no means limited to the Leviim and kohanim, although that was their primary function. Rabbi Avrohom Halevi Schorr points out in Halekach Vehalebuv that as a corollary to this concept, when one of us sins, the entire body of Klal Yisroel is affected. Similarly, when one of us does teshuvah, all are forgiven.
If we bear this idea in mind, if we love each other as we love ourselves and take responsibility for each other, it will be easier for us to avoid temptation into sin. Within this rubric also lies the possibility and the responsibility to pray for our fellow Jew when he finds himself in difficult circumstances, especially to pray that someone find his connection to God. Through their service, the Leviim had the responsibility of praying for Bnei Yisroel and maintaining that connection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
The purification process was also meant to sensitize the Leviim to the feelings of others and keep them from arrogance at their position. Rav Freiman in Shaarei Derech gives us several examples of our leaders in recent Jewish history who were acutely sensitive to others.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein, the mashgiach of the yeshiva of Lodz, gave up a lucrative position as a pharmacist because he was uncomfortable earning his living at the expense of the sick. We may not be able to reach these levels, but, says the Sabba of Kelm, we can certainly pray for others until they have completely recovered, not just until they leave the hospital.
We each have the ability to form a connection to Hashem and to others. These are lessons we can learn from the purification rituals of the Leviim. We can feel joy in this connection, and in our service to Hashem, we can feel the pain of others and pray to alleviate their suffering.
Each time we act with sensitivity and love to each other and joy in our service to Hashem, we help elevate the world in a similar way that the Leviim did through their service.
Summaritzed by Chani Koplowitz-Stein