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The Commitment and Devotion of the Levi’im

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Translated by Kaeren Fish
The end of Parashat Bamidbar and the beginning of Parashat Naso tell us about the different tasks performed by the Levi’im and the division of labor among them: The family of Kehat bear the sanctified vessels on their shoulders, while the families of Gershon and Merari carry the curtains and the boards, using the wagons given to them by the princes of the tribes.
Since a variety of different tasks is presented, we might have expected that the individual be permitted to choose whichever suits him best. However, the Rambam rules this out:
The descendants of Levi are collectively appointed for the service of the Sanctuary, as it is written, At that time, God separated the tribe of Levi” (Devarim 10:8). It is a positive commandment for the Levi’im to be available and ready for service of the Sanctuary, whether they desire it or not, as it is written, “And the Levi shall perform the service of the Tent of Meeting” (Bamidbar 18:23). If a Levi accepts upon himself all the mitzvot applying to Levi’im except for one single matter, he is not accepted, until he accepts them all. (Laws of the Vessels of the Temple 3:1)
If a Levi asks not to engage in a certain task (at the time of the Mishkan, carrying the boards or the menora; during the time of the Temple, singing or guarding), he is not accepted. The question is, why is the individual not given the choice as to which specific service he will perform?
It seems that in the Rambam’s view, the essence of the law of the Levi’im’s service is that they should be “available and ready for service of the Sanctuary, whether they desire it or not. In other words, a Levi has an obligation to be entirely ready and prepared for any service at all. The point here is not that the specific task is carried out, but rather that the individual himself be ready to serve in whatever position he is assigned.
R. Soloveitchik, in his Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, discusses the difference between a Kohen and a Levi with regard to sounding the shofar. Citing the Rambam above, he writes:
It appears that a special law of singling out applies to the Levi’im, such that they are appointed to be ready for one of the types of service, and each of the Levi’im is distinct and entrusted with a specific task: one as a gatekeeper, another as a singer, etc. The parallel that the Rambam draws is thus the dedication of the individual to the [Sanctuary] service in general, and his assignment to one specific service in particular, and it follows from this that his assignment to a specific task is dependent on his readiness to devote himself to all the commandments pertaining to the Levi’im. [Thus,] if he seeks specifically to be appointed, for example, as a singer and not as a gatekeeper, he is not appointed. (Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari, vol. II)
R. Soloveitchik insists that this is not merely proper guidance or instruction. The validity of the appointment as a servant in the Sanctuary (for some specific task) is dependent on the Levi’s readiness to carry out any task with which he is entrusted.
R. Soloveitchik continues:
It would further seem that it is the need for the preparedness and appointment of the Levi that renders anyone else a “stranger” with regard to the service of the Levi’im, for anyone who is not appointed (obviously, only a Levi can be appointed, but a “stranger” is defined as someone who is not [specifically] appointed, and not just someone who is not a Levi) is a “stranger” owing to his lack of appointment.
Not only is a Levi not appointed if he is not agreeable to accepting any task at all, but in the absence of an appointment, he falls into the category of a “stranger,” who is forbidden to perform the relevant task!
We see that a Levi is required to display absolute devotion and complete readiness to perform any task that is necessary. What is the reason for this requirement? Let us try to understand its significance by reference to a different system of service.
Imagine the following situation: As they approach the age of service in the Sanctuary, many Levi’im, filled with fiery combative enthusiasm, spend the months prior to the selection for service going about carrying “imitation arks” and “imitation menoras” to prepare themselves for bearing the holy vessels. At the same time, other young Levi’im are already imagining themselves driving wagons, transporting the boards of the Mishkan quickly and easily from one station to the next. Of course, members of both groups are appealing to Elitzafan ben Uziel and others in charge, attempting to “use their contacts” to assure themselves appointments to their desired positions.
After a while, some of the “combative” types who were ultimately not selected for service with the family of Kehat might start voicing the sort of attitude that we hear today: “Either I serve in the most prestigious/physically demanding unit or I’ll do only the simplest, least responsible job…” Others, of course, voice the opposite demand.
Over the years, several students in the yeshiva have told me prior to their IDF enlistment that they specifically want to serve in the Intelligence Corps, citing the ultimate justification: “It’s right for me.” One student even told me that the whole hesder arrangement, whereby yeshiva students devote several years to full-time study and perform a shortened period of military service, did not seem quite right to him. When asked what he intended to do in the army, he answered, “Intelligence.” Even if we set aside the comparison between full combat service over a period of a year and four months to a short work-day, five days a week, for three years, this student saw no problem in sitting in an air-conditioned office, in front of a computer, while others would be putting their lives on the line, day after day.
This phenomenon is caused by a quest for “what’s right for me.” Hesder yeshiva students must know that if they are required to serve as cooks in IDF kitchens, they must do so just as willingly as they would serve in an elite combat unit or in the Intelligence Corps.
It is important to emphasize that this service orientation applies not only to army service, but also in civilian life. The fact that we are charged with a mission need not necessarily be expressed in teaching words of Torah at one’s workplace and the like; it is a more general approach, with a willingness to devote oneself and put oneself at the service of Am Yisrael in whatever way we are needed – not necessarily in a way that will aid our personal progress. This attitude is firmly anchored in the Rambam’s terminology: “for the Levi’im to be available and ready for service.” If we can inculcate within ourselves this most significant orientation, then we too will merit what the Rambam describes:
Not only the tribe of Levi, but anyone in the world whose spirit motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings that people seek – he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be his portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world, as He provides for the Kohanim and the Levi’im…” (Laws of Shemitta and Yovel 13:13)