By Zwi Reznik, June 18, 2022, Sivan 19, 5782
As is often the case this weeks Parsha covers a number of different topics. These range from lighting arrangements, the levites and their terms and conditions of service, Passover offerings, the divine cloud over the Tabernacle, Trumpets and their use, and of course Jews complaining about food, and the “inlaw” Miriam complaining about her brother’s wife.
What I wish to do today is talk about the Levites. I’ll note that I had a rather self centered thought about that since I’m Levi. However as I gave the topic further thought I noticed some other items of interest. Two weeks ago we looked at the assembling of the first Israeli army. In fact, Mitch Miller, our Darshan provided an interesting analysis of the size of that army. Chapter 8 of the Parsha provides a good deal of detailed information about the assembling of a different sort of military force—the Levites. An earlier view of the Levites may allow one to think of them as an army—e.g. The incident of the Golden Calf. Exodus 32:26 And Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, to me!” And the Levites gathered round him. 27And he said to them, “Thus said the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp, and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin.’” 28And the Levites did according to the word of Moses, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day.
However in today’s Parsha we clearly move on to a very different view of the Levites and how they are to conduct themselves.
I also find myself considering some of the original Hebrew and how it appears in Modern translations. I find appealing an idea I first heard here for how God can change his mind on occasion when in conversation with Moses. That there is the Torah given to Moses and that there is a Torah in Heaven. While the Torah given to Moses is fixed the letters of the one in Heaven keep moving around. I want to apply that idea to some of the text. I like to think of that in the context of another recent Drash, given by Rabbi Laemmle last week, wherein she spoke of making a gender change in reference to the Birkat Cohanim. That reminded me that I often append the word אלמן to whenever אלמנה appears in our prayers, as when we note that God watches over the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
Consider the name of our Parsha, בהעלתך. It appears in Numbers 8:2 in the Alter translation as: ‘.2“Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘When you light up the lamps, opposite the front of the lamp stand shall the seven lamps give light.’” In the JPS translation we get “2Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” If we look up בהעלתך in a modern Hebrew dictionary we see the definitions: to raise, to elevate, to hoist, to reveal, to bring to light, to bring immigrants to Israel….So which is it. Turns out that the title of the Parsha shares the root lettersעלה with the root of the verb להעלות which is of course to raise, to elevate, to bring up; .Seeing this varied understanding of the Parsha title casts a different light on how to interpret it.
When we move on to the section specifically dealing with the Levites we see in 8:11 in the Alter Translation “11And Aaron shall make of the Levites an elevation offering before the LORD from the Israelites, and they shall serve to do the work of the LORD. The JPS translation is similar with:” 11and let Aaron designate the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the LORD. The original Hebrew is: 8: 11וְהֵנִיף֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־ הַלְוִיִּ֤ם תְּנוּפָה֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָי֕וּ לַעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־ עֲבֹדַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃. If you have some familiarity with Hebrew consider the meanings, in context, of the verb הניף and the noun תנופה.
Now the phrase Elevation Offering has a plain meaning. It’s an offering made by a priest by raising it in his hands. Clearly there’s something else going on here. Aaron is not physically lifting up the Levites. However there is an act of elevation of some kind taking place. To what end is that. Well, God can speak for himself: 16For wholly given they are to Me from the midst of the Israelites instead of the breach of every womb, firstborn of all of the Israelites, I have taken them to Me. 17For Mine is every firstborn among the Israelites, in man and in beast, on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them to Me. 18And I took the Levites instead of every firstborn among the Israelites. I would add my own interpretation here and say that there is a spiritual elevation and transformation taking place.
Moving on to the terms and conditions of employment. That is a phrase I learned when I was conducting negotiations on behalf of the faculty I represented at my college. Clearly God is not negotiating in this parsha, but he is specifying terms and conditions of employment when dealing with the Levites. What are those: 23And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24“This is what regards the Levites: from twenty-five years old and up, each shall come to do army service in the work of the Tent of Meeting. 25And from fifty years old he shall come back from the army work and shall work no more. 26And he shall serve his brothers in the Tent of Meeting to keep watch, but work he shall not do. So shall you do to the Levites in their watch.” By the way the JPS translation uses the term “work force” rather than “army service” as Alter does. You may want to look at the orginal and see what you think.
In his commentary on Verse 25 Alter observes: The provision made here is for a kind of phased retirement. The defining term of difference is “work.” From the age of fifty, the Levite is relieved of heavy labor within the sanctuary, the responsibilities that were undertaken as a kind of equivalent for military service, but he continues to assist his brother Levites, evidently outside the sanctuary, in their guard duty. I find his use of the term “phased retirement” interesting since the California Community College System, which I’m retired from, also offers a sort of phased retirement which involves a reduced teaching load. Also note the phrase “guard duty”, clearly a military term.
At this point the Parsha is largely done with the Levites and I am largely done with my Drash. Things do not always go well for some of the Levites. Parshat Korach is coming up in two weeks and we already know what happens. The levites, of course, continue to come up in Jewish History. As we know everything changes after the destruction of the second temple and the role of the Levites is largely moot. We don’t even get preferential placement on the Aliyah list in many synagogues. One of the articles I read in preparation for this Drash notes that: The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah to the people when it was publicly read. Another, even quotes an orthodox Rabbi, Menachem HaKohen Risikoff, in a short volume written after Kristallnacht titled The Priests and the Levites: “Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood. … Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.”
Let’s take a different view of what Rabbi Risikoff means by writing “Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.” As I noted above, the duties of the levites, and the kohanim, have been moot for almost two millennia. However, even when the Temple existed the Levites were not merely the attendants and servants of the Kohanim. They were the armed Guardians of the Temple. For myself I would like to think that there is a now, shall we say, a Levitical responsibility that applies to all of us, Levi or not. Teaching, as a member of this community, is an essential part of that responsibility. With that I’ll close my Drash.
4)Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
5)Jewish Publication Society of America. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures–The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society. Kindle Edition.
6)Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 8900-8902). . Kindle Edition.