Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

A soldier for all seasons

In January 1776, as the American Revolutionary War was just about getting off the ground, the philosopher Thomas Paine anonymously published the first of a series of pamphlets that would have an enormous impact on the fledgling nation. The pamphlets are known as the Crisis series, and were aimed to inspire and encourage the American colonists in their fight against the British. The pamphlet began with a memorable introduction, with a poignant reference to two different types of soldiers:

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

There are those, said Paine, who only stand by their people, their friends, and their ideals, when it's smooth sailing; when it's convenient, and enjoyable. They are fair-weather friends; summer soldiers; sunshine patriots. If the weather is fine, they will be here for you. The true patriot will bear any storm and stick around through any season.

In the story of our people, too, we have “summer Jews” and “sunshine supporters.” But today I want to sing an ode to one group of Jews—whose numbers are sadly decreasing by the day and whose sacred memory we must forever keep alive.

Three Counts

Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, had three sons, Gershon, Kehas and Merari, and a daughter, Yocheved. While Yocheved mothered Miriam, Moses and Aaron, the prophetess, leader and High Priest of Israel, her three brothers fathered the three constituent families of the tribe of Levi.[1] Eventually, the Levites were set apart from the rest of the Jewish people, dedicated to the Tabernacle and Temple service, assisting the Priests, the Kohanim—which was the family of Aaron.

While the national counting of Jewish men eligible for military service took place in last week’s reading (Bamidbar), the census of Temple service-eligible Levites is spread out over these two weeks’ portions. Towards the end of Bamidbar, and the beginning of Naso—which means ‘count’—we read of the census of the three Levite families, and their induction into the Temple service.

Throughout the Israelite’s 40 year sojourn in the desert, these families were charged with the mission of carrying the Tabernacle and its accessories: The Kehathites (the family of Kehos, the first son of Levi), carried the holiest items of the Tabernacle: the ark, candelabra, table, altars and all their utensils. The Gershonites (the family of Gershon, the second son of Levi) were given the job of carrying the coverings and curtains of the Tabernacle. The third of the Levite families, Merari, was responsible to carry the planks, bars, pillars and sockets of the Tabernacle structure.

But curiously, the language used for the command to count each of the three families is different each time. The first command from G-d to Moses to count, in Bamidbar reads thus:

נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי קְהָת מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם:

Make a count of the sons of Kohath from among the children of Levi by their families, according to their fathers' houses.[2]

The second reads thus:

נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם:

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers' houses, according to their families.[3]

Then you have the third one:

בְּנֵי מְרָרִי לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם תִּפְקֹד אֹתָם:

[As for] the sons of Merari, you shall count them by their families, according to their fathers' houses.[4]

The first glaring difference is the use of the word ‘naso.’ The literal meaning of the word is to ‘raise,’ or ‘lift.’ In this context, it refers to ‘taking’ a census, as it is designed to accentuate the value of each individual counted, to lift up his head. Strangely, though, while the word is used for the first two families, when it comes to Merari, the standard word for counting, ‘tifkod,’ is used. With this family, no heads are uplifted!

But the first two families are still not quite the same either: When it comes to the family of Kehos Moses is told to count them. “Take a census of the children of Kehos.” When it comes to the family of Gershon, Moses is told to count them “as well,” “them too,” as though they were almost an afterthought. What could be the meaning of this? Is the census taking of the Gershonites somehow secondary to that of the Kehatites? Why does it simply not say, “Take a census of the children of Gershon?”

The Insight by the Chasam Sofer

Today we will share a moving insight by one of the most illustrious Rabbis of the 19th century, Rabbi Moshe Sofer.

Rabbbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), known to his own community and Jewish posterity in the Hebrew translation as Moshe Sofer, also known by his main work Chasam Sofer (translated “Seal of the Scribe” and acronym for “Chiddushei Toras Moshe Sofer”), was one of the leading rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century. As Rabbi of Pressburg, today Bratislava, in the Austrian Empire, he established a yeshiva, the Pressburg Yeshiva, which became the most influential Yeshiva in Central Europe, producing hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry. (This Yeshiva continued to function until World War II; afterward, it was relocated to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Chasam Sofer's great-grandson, Rabbi Akiva Sofer, known as the Daas Sofer.)

The Chasam Sofer’s published works include more than a thousand responsa, a commentary on the Torah titled “Toras Moshe,” a commentary on the Talmud, sermons, and religious poetry. He is an oft-quoted authority in Jewish scholarship and his Torah chiddushim (original Torah insights) sparked a new style in rabbinic commentary.

He died in 1839, one century before the destruction of European Jewry, yet his following insight is hauntingly relevant to the generation of our parents and grandparents, victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

Three State Solution

The dedicated servants of the Temple, the Levite tribe, are representative of the Jewish people as a whole. They were not numbered amongst the 12 Tribes, and had their census taken separately, because they are not associated with a particular part of the Jewish people, but as the agents of the entire nation.

The names and functions of the three families of Levi, Gershon, Kehos, and Merari, explains the Chasam Sofer, may be understood as alluding to three phases in the story of the Jewish people.

The name Kehos in Hebrew means “gathering.” [5]

The name Gershon means “expulsion.”

The name Merari means “bitterness.”[6]

Home and Away

The first to be counted, and the family charged with carrying the holy vessels of the Tabernacle, was the Kehos family. Kehos (meaning gathering) represents the Jewish people in their most idealized state; unified, and gathered in their own homeland, integrated and linked by a shared geographical and spiritual identity. “Kehos” symbolizes the times when our people were gathered together in the Holy Land, their deepest spiritual and national potential expressed in the spiritual epicenter of the world—the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Take a look at the names of all of the four children of Kehos—Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel—and you will notice the same pattern: Am-Ram means an exalted nation; Yitzhar means a shining light;[7] Chevron means cohesion; Uziel means “My confidence from G-d.” They all embody one phase of Jewish history, glimmers of which we experience in our past, when our people were unified, exalted, glowing, connected, and confident—as G-d’s ambassadors to sanctify His world.

When the census and mission of Kehos is introduced in the Torah, it is unsurprising that the word “Naso”—lift up—Is used for this elevated state of the people.

Phase Two

But Jewish history was not one long glow. Phase two of our narrative is encapsulated in the name of the second family of Levi, Gershon, which means expulsion. (In the Talmud a divorce, creating separation between two people, is titled “gerushin.”)

Gershon symbolizes the era when the Jewish people were banished from their homeland, separated from G-d's home and His sacred Temple. The destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of our people occurred because the lack of “Kehos,” because our lack of unity and respect for each other, and because of our estrangement from our unified moral and spiritual mission.[8]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it thus:[9] It is hard to understand the depth of the crisis into which the destruction of the First Temple plunged the Jewish people. Their very existence was predicated on a relationship with G-d symbolized by the worship that took place daily in Jerusalem. With the Babylonian conquest, Jews lost not only their land and sovereignty. In losing the Temple it was as if they had lost hope itself. For their hope lay in G-d, and how could they turn to G-d if the very place where they served Him was in ruins?

It was then that an answer began to take shape. The Temple no longer stood, but its memory remained, and this was strong enough to bring Jews together in collective worship. In exile, in Babylon, Jews began to gather to expound Torah, articulate a collective hope of return, and recall the Temple and its service.

The prophet Ezekiel was one of those who shaped a vision of return and restoration, and it is to him we owe the first oblique reference to a radically new institution that eventually became known as the Beit HaKnesset, the synagogue, or the shul: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet I have become to them a small sanctuary [mikdash me'at] in the countries where they have gone'.[10] The central sanctuary had been destroyed, but a small echo, a miniature, remained.

The synagogue is one of the most remarkable icons of the Jewish story. The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of faith—that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine presence can be found, for G-d is everywhere. Psalm 139 states:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

This is the story of Gershon—the Jewish story in exile. Despite physical expulsion, military defeat, loss of political and spiritual sovereignty, our people succeeded in keeping the memory of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple alive.

On the Rivers of Babylon

The experience—the crisis and the solution—is so movingly expressed in Psalms chapter 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, we also wept when we remembered Zion.

On willows in its midst we hung our harps.

For there our captors asked us for words of song and our tormentors [asked of us] mirth, "Sing for us of the song of Zion."

"How shall we sing the song of the Lord on foreign soil?"

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill].

May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy.

For these Jews, “Yom Yerushalayim” was every day—each day, three times a day, they gathered to pray, facing Jerusalem, remembering Jerusalem, praying for its rebuilding and our return to Zion.

A Portable Homeland

One of the prophets who lived during that time, Malachi, made a fascinating and disturbing statement:

מלאכי א, יא: ממזרח שמש ועד מבואו גדול שמי בגוים ובכל מקום מוקטר מוגש לשמי ומנחה טהורה...

Malachi 1:11: For, from the rising of the sun until its setting, My Name is great among the nations, and everywhere offerings are burnt and offered up to My Name.

מנחות קי, ב: בכל מקום סלקא דעתך?! אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר' יונתן אלו תלמידי חכמים העוסקים בתורה בכל מקום מעלה אני עליהן כאילו מקטירין ומגישין לשמי. מאי דכתיב (ויקרא ז, לז) זאת התורה לעולה למנחה ולחטאת ולאשם... אמר רבא כל העוסק בתורה אינו צריך לא עולה ולא חטאת ולא מנחה ולא אשם. אמר רבי יצחק מאי דכתיב (ויקרא ו, יח) זאת תורת החטאת וזאת תורת האשם כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאילו הקריב חטאת וכל העוסק בתורת אשם כאילו הקריב אשם:

The Talmud[11] is disturbed by the statement of Malachi that “everywhere offerings are offered up to my name.” This, ostensibly, is contrary to Jewish law. Offerings may be brought only in the Holy Temple.

The solution of the Talmud—a solution that has shaped Jewish identity throughout the last 2500 years—is that the prophet is referring to the study of Torah. When I study about the offerings it is as though I have brought them. And the study of Torah is not limited to geography, just as prayer and good deeds bring G-d into our heart and into the world wherever we may be.

Our people committed themselves to study the laws of the offerings, of the service in the Temple, and the laws governing the land of Israel, wherever they were, and the flame of hope continued to burn. Torah, said the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, was the “portable homeland” of the Jew.

The Link to the Past

This glorious notion, “the portable homeland,” is symbolized by the family and name of Gershon. Hence the words of the Torah:

נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם:

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers' houses, according to their families.

Gershon’s introduction now is understood: “Naso—lift up--Gershon as well, to their fathers’ house…”

The implication here is that even in the state of exile, if it is properly contended with, and if a link to the Torah tradition is preserved, the Gershonites can also be elevated to the state and consciousness of earlier generations, just as though they were still at home; just like Kehos. With the living link to the past, through Torah, prayer, and mitzvos, tradition and faith, we may be geographically expelled, but not internally displaced.

So too, do the names of Gershon’s children—Livni and Shimi—reflect this struggle, and the ability to contend with it: Livni means to become cleansed and whitened; Shimi means to listen. True, when the Jews are expelled they do not have the Temple and the offerings to cleanse them, yet the same cleansing may still occur as long as there is “Shimi”—they are attuned, they are listening and absorbing, the words and teachings of the Torah and its sages who carry it in each generation.

The Third Phase

But there was a third phase in Jewish history, too painful to even address, but one experienced by our people eighty years ago. This is the milieu of Merari.

The name Merari, as you recall, means bitter, like the word Maror. The names of Merari’s children—Machli and Mushi—reflect this reality: Machli means an ailment (as the term Machalah), and Mushi means removed. Merari represents the Jewish people at their nadir: not only banished from their homeland, but hunted down. Merari represents the darkest chapters in our history, known as “dor hashmad”—when our foes wanted nothing more than the utter destruction of G-d’s people. From Pharaoh to Anteyachus, through the cruel fist of Roman persecution, Crusades, Inquisitions, massacres, pogroms, Soviet oppression, the Nazi holocaust, Islamist wars and terror —Merari symbolizes the bitterest, most painful moments in our story when our foes aspired to put an end to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

When it comes to Merari, there is no uplifting introduction, as signaled by the word “Naso.” Unlike Gershon, we do not “lift them up” and link them to their fathers, to their past. Why? Says the Chasam Sofer—because they are infinitely higher than their fathers! They do not need to be uplifted, since they can’t reach any higher. As the Talmud puts it as far as the martyrs of Lud,[12] "no man can stand within their spiritual realm." These Jews who have drunk from the cup of bitterness are the greatest and holiest of all. They have no equal. To be in their presence is holy, to gaze at their eyes is sacred, to listen to their words is a privilege.

For these are the Jews who instead of witnessing Exodus they witnessed Auschwitz. Instead of the splitting of the sea, they endured Treblinka. Instead of Manna from heaven, they lived through Dachau, Bergen Belzen, and Mauthausen.

These are the Jewish soldiers who protected their people and their homeland in consecutive wars attempted to destroy our people—watching so many of their brothers and sisters struck down. These are the victims of terror and their families, who suffered so much agony only because they are Jewish.

As such, their very bodies, their very existence is the holiest of the holy. The sanctity of the greatest scholars and most pious Jews cannot be compared to them—for their very being is one big “Kiddush Hashem,” their very existence carries the eternal flame of the Jewish people, its Torah and its G-d.

That is why when it came to the family of Merori the Torah does not say “Lift up their heads too to their fathers’ families”—as they transcend all previous generations of Jews. The very blood flowing in their sinews, for which they have been targeted, projects unparalleled holiness, G-dliness and goodness.

A Blessing

When the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, came to Israel, a Jew came and asked him for a blessing before his departure. This Jew expressed the fear that after the Satmar Rebbe returned to America, there would be no one worthy to ask for a blessing.

The Satmar Rebbe told him "Go to any Jew that has a number tattooed on his arm and ask him for a blessing! If you are looking for a tzaddik, go to a Jew with a number…”

The Tattoo

There's a story about a young returnee to the ways of Judaism who had a humongous tattoo etched on to his body, a reminder of his “wild” days. He avoided all situations where it might be seen, as in Judaism tattoos are not a way to define your body. On the eve of Yom Kippur when so many are visiting the local Mikvah (ritual bath) he adopted the strategy to arrive early and jump in swiftly to avoid the rush and the risk of being seen by many observant Jews who are not accustomed to the sight of a large tattoo.

His worst fears were realized when one year, while hurrying on the slippery tiles down into the Mikvah, his feet flew out from underneath him, and he slipped. Trying to get himself together, people started to enter the mikvah and could not help but notice his tattoo. The shameful symbol of his ill-spent youth became exposed to all. The embarrassment was deep. Then an elderly man entering the mikvah approached him.

Pointing to his arm, the man said: Here, I also have a tattoo. These numbers were needled into my arm when I entered the gates of Auschwitz. As he lifted the fellow from the floor, he said: "This was my taste of hell. Each of us had his challenging past. Now let us go into the water together to begin a new future!"

You Inspire Us

To me, this story sums up the generation of the survivors. With their very existence, they inspired us in extraordinary ways. With their determination to open a new chapter in their turbulent lives, to build families, to create memories, to construct successful lives, they have taught us all how we can uplift ourselves, under all circumstances, and kindle a flame of hope, love and faith.

To be sure, many of them suffered untold trauma, and their children and even grandchildren are often victims of that trauma. But that, exactly, is the point. Despite this unfathomable agony and suffering, most of the Holocaust survivors did all they could to rebuild their lives and give their children some sense of safety they never had. With the tools they had, they were the best of men and women.

No! Says the Chasam Sofer, the survivors need not be uplifted to the spiritual state of their ancestors, for it is their ancestors who crave to be uplifted to their state. It is hundreds of generations of Jews of the past who look at the survivors and have only one word to say:


You have created life out of six million piles of ashes. You have managed to find love in your hearts—hearts which have observed endless hate and cruelty. You have managed to still believe in the promise of human dignity and majesty, when you have seen what humans are capable of.

So all of Jewish history, all past generations of Jews, melt away in awe and reverence before the generation we all were privileged to be part of—the generation of “shearit hapleita,” the survivors of the Nazi death camps, who were dragged into the abyss, who saw and heard things none of us will ever fathom, and yet, with an unbelievable and incredible zest which will be recounted for eternity, went on to live and love.

We are privileged to know you. We are lucky to be your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren, your friends, your students, and your admirers. A nation comprised of individuals like you, we know, will not only continue to thrive, but will witness our ultimate redemption, through Moshiach Tzidkenu, speedily in our days, Amen![13]


[1] Yocheved married her nephew, Amram, the son of Kehos.

[2] Bamidbar 4:2

[3] 4:22

[4] 4:29

[5] See Bereishis 49:10

[6] These three interpretations of the names are found one generation earlier in Likkutei Torah (By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) Parshas Naso.

[7] As in Genesis 6:16

[8] See Yuma 9b

[9] Essay published here: http://www.ww.ouradio.org/torah/article/a_portable_home#.U4izZPldWwM

[10] Ezek. 11: 16

[11] Menachos 110b

[12] Pesachim 50a

[13] My thanks to Boruch Werdiger for his assistance.