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Honor and Obligation

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Honor and Obligation

Summarized by David Silverberg


The Torah associates the special status of the Tribe of Levi with "nesi'ut" ("Naso et rosh..." - Bamidbar 4:22), a term denoting both counting and elevating. Similarly, a variation of this phrase is used in the very beginning of Bemidbar (1:2), with reference to all of Benei Yisrael. What does this specific terminology connote, and why is it used here in Sefer Bemidbar?

While all commentators agree that this word relates to elevation and/or exaltation, they argue as to its import in this context. Ramban (1:3) cites a midrash from a version of Rashi's commentary (not found in our standard edition) which features a strikingly negative outlook on this particular "nesi'ut." The midrash likens the counting of each member of Benei Yisrael to a king's instruction to an executioner, "Raise up his head to be hung!"

Ramban offers an opposing explanation, viewing "nesi'ut" as denoting social and spiritual distinction, a designation of exalted status upon a given collective. As a basis for this definition, Ramban turns to the usage of this term in Bereishit 40:13, regarding Pharaoh's reinstatement of the chief butler.

Ramban then suggests that nesi'ut in our context may, in fact, contain a dual meaning. Benei Yisrael's unique position among the nations confers the potential for spiritual pre-eminence. The "am segula" quality can result in a nation representing God's message and leading the rest of the world toward recognition and service of the Creator. At the same time, however, this unique title places an immense responsibility upon its bearers and holds them to a more exacting standard. Benei Yisrael were indeed bidden to carry the divine message and act accordingly. Misused, the "raising" of Benei Yisrael could easily become their downfall. If they fail in their mission, then the king orders the executioner, "Raise their heads!"

The singling out of a particular group from a collective whole demands a dual response on the part of that group. On the one hand, the recipients of this distinction must feel an intense sense of pride and good-fortune in their having been selected. They must proceed with a constant awareness of the prominence of their position and the possibilities it offers them. However, this pride can be easily mishandled and turn into empty, superficial arrogance. Instead, this "ga'ava" (pride) should translate into a sense of purpose and mission. The select few must recognize their responsibility toward the whole, rather than concentrating on their own distinction.

In the opening verse of Parashat Naso, God orders Moshe, "Count ALSO the sons of Gershon..." Perhaps there is a comparison here between the elevation of the Levi'im vis-a-vis the rest of Am Yisrael and that of the entire Jewish nation with respect to the rest of the world. Just as Am Yisrael's chosenness carries both limitless potential and dreadful dangers, so must Moshe caution the Levi'im of the dichotomy of their nesi'ut. As the "guardians of the sacred," they are destined to become the spiritual leaders of the nation. They will be the national role models, offering guidance and leadership on all levels. On the other hand, they must be acutely aware of the delicacy of the "sacred service." The Temple service must be seen as service to the nation; it charges the tribe of Levi with the responsibility of enhancing the spiritual character of the entire nation.

Likewise, benei yeshiva (yeshiva students) must carry with them this dual message. They must develop a deep-rooted awareness and consciousness of "Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu" (How fortunate are we, how good is our lot), a sense of gratitude for having merited the most sacred of positions, a dweller of the beit midrash. At no point should the ben Torah feel any reservations regarding his choice to join the ranks of lomdei Torah (those who study the Torah). Rather, he must live with a steadfast sense of "pride" in his lot. Yet he must never lose sight of the responsibility which this entails and the high standards to which he is irrevocably committed.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Naso 5755 [1995].)


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