June 5, 2019

One verse, fiv voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.” –Numbers 3:11-12

Miriam Yerushalmi
CEO of SANE, counselor, author

At the close of Sefer Bereishis (Genesis), Yaakov blesses all his sons. He specifically calls Shimon and Levi “brothers,” criticizing the seemingly negative character trait those two sons shared. “Cursed be their anger … and their fury,” their father pronounces, promising to “disperse them throughout Yaakov and scatter them throughout Israel.” Yet later on, in the wilderness, HaShem takes Levi’s descendants as His own, “in place of all the firstborn.” Why was Shimon not similarly honored? 

When Yaakov’s sons were in Mitzrayim, the tribe of Levi didn’t join the others in working for Pharaoh. They stayed home and learned Torah. After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites, who had not participated in this idolatrous ceremony, acted together to uphold God’s honor and prevent the people from further transgressions. They utilized their trait of fiery passion properly as the nation’s spiritual guardians. 

Yaakov’s words manifested in a most positive way: Levi was dispersed throughout the tribes — as representatives of HaShem. Shimon’s passion, however, led him into sin and scattered his tribe. Shimon and Levi came from “the womb” sharing a characteristic that caused them to err; yet with Torah, Levi learned from his mistakes and directed his passionate nature to serve HaShem. Shimon allowed that fiery trait to direct him. 

Whatever our innate traits, whatever our missteps, through Torah and mitzvos we can develop ourselves to become true servants of HaShem. Every apparent negative can become positive. When we make an effort toward teshuvah (atonement), HaShem helps us to succeed.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Why does God specifically choose the Leviim in place of the firstborns? Our Midrash explains that God intended for the firstborns to perform the Mishkan (Tabernacle) service. But when they participated in building the golden calf — a sin from which the Leviim refrained — God replaced the firstborns with the Leviim. 

In choosing the Leviim, God makes a remarkable statement about leadership: It’s not inherited, but earned. Since Bereshit, God has rejected the primacy of the firstborns — a primacy that every society was built on. This is a countercultural value that the Torah brings to the moral stage of history. By shifting leadership from the firstborns because of their involvement in the sin of the golden calf, God communicates that leadership must be merited and cherished as a privilege — one that also can be lost. 

Today, this focus holds our leaders accountable for their actions. Rabbis and teachers are not kings but servants of God who must continually merit the opportunity to serve His people. And when leadership is abused, there are consequences. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Leviim still have their own lineage, which includes their service. But nevertheless, I would argue that the thinking behind their chosen-ness is revolutionary. In the Midrash, God created a precedent that our choices and actions — not birth order — define us. This value system extends far beyond the Mishkan and into ouar personal lives today. How do our own actions in leadership — as parents, teachers, professionals — define us?

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am, Senior Rabbi

To be claimed. A treasure? Or a prison? According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, it is both. In “Mating in Captivity,” she describes marriage as a constraint, a rejection of all others, chosen captivity … from which joy and ecstasy can emerge. But when you are another’s “only,” limitations come with the singularity. 

Did the tribe of Levi feel this paradox? They will be priests, royalty of the sacred, God’s chosen among the chosen. The Levites will lead the people in worship and service, but might they be mating in captivity? 

Their treasure comes in exchange for the firstborns, who “earned” their chosen-ness by being saved, and therefore owing God in perpetuity. It is a chosen-ness that is born from obligation. The Levites will never suffer from hunger, as their provisions are guaranteed. But they have no land. Nothing to inherit or bequeath, aside service itself. 

According to Bereishit Rabba, originally it was Reuven, the true firstborn, who would replace “the firstborns” as living a life of service to God. Reuven’s impetuosity ruined his chances for priestly greatness. But as Yaacov blesses Levi at the end of his life, and transfers Reuven’s primacy to him, it comes with earned critique about Levi’s hostility and volatility. He may be a priest, but he is no angel. So this “gift” of belonging to God is part liberation from mundane duties, and also part of the rope that keeps Levi contained. 

Make your anchors and your tethers as holy and liberating as they can be. And remember that any fantasized liberation comes with its own fetters.

Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org, teaches at Happy Minyan

The Levites got a bum deal. Put up the Tabernacle. Sing sweet songs in the Tabernacle. Take down the Tabernacle. Carry the load of the Tabernacle. But when you get to the Promised Land, you don’t even get a little plot to grow tomatoes. Nothing. Just some dividends off the granary — if you come, maybe we’ll give you some. 

But that’s OK, right? You’ll keep singing those sweet songs. Because you’re a Levite. 

So Maimonides has something really neat to say about the Levites. He writes that anybody — literally anybody who enters this world — can be a Levite, in a spiritual sense. The formula is simple: You just forgo the pursuit of material acquisition and dedicate your life to serving your Maker. 

Which implies that being a Levite is a really good thing. 

Maybe we have to redefine what is a good thing. If life is about dying with more toys and Facebook likes than anyone else, then toys and Facebook are a good thing. But if you consider life an opportunity for closeness with the Source of Life, then, mazel tov! You’re a (virtual) Levite and God says, “You are mine!” 

How do you come close to the Source of Life? You treasure life, you give life, you nurture life. Instead of chasing what feels good for you, you ask what you’re good for. Instead of “What do I need?” you ask, “What am I needed for?” Love and you will be loved. 

Then you will sing about life, because you’ve made life worthwhile.

Havah E. Jaffe
Children’s Shabbat Program Director, Hebrew Discovery Center

Among all peoples of the world, there are traditions to determine who is chosen for the ranks of priesthood. During the generation of the Exodus, the Israelites traveled through the land of idol worshippers for 40 years on the way to the Promised Land. As a safeguard to adopting the ways of the surrounding nations, God taught Moses that all firstborn sons who “open the womb” belonged to God as payback for sparing their lives during the Plague of the Firstborn in Egypt. 

This mitzvah was in stark contrast to the ways of the neighboring Midianites and Moabites, who worshipped a god called molech. This disgusting “deity” was gratified by the fiery sacrifice of firstborn children. Conversely, God wanted the Israelites to internalize how fortunate we were to know that the Creator of the Universe would never ask new mothers to offer their babies as human sacrifice; in fact, firstborn sons were to be the priests! 

God further instructed Moses that rather than those firstborn sons becoming priests as previously taught, the males of the tribe of Levi would replace them as God’s servants. With the mitzvah updated to the Levites as priests, the Israelites could also internalize how fortunate we are to know that the Sustainer of the Universe cares about the pain a new mother would feel if separated from her baby. Instead, priestly service would remain within one tribe, thus keeping families together. As Moses was taught, the family unit is sacred in and of itself. 

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