"To Stand before God and to Serve Him

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein








"To Stand before God to Serve Him"

Summarized by Binyamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



At the very end of last week's parasha, Bamidbar (chapter 4), we read of the command to Moshe and Aharon:


"Take the number of the sons of Kehat from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers' households." (4:2)


The beginning of our parasha, Naso, seems to be a direct continuation:


"Take the number of the sons of Gershon, too, by their fathers' households, by their families" (4:22)


And further on, there is a similar command concerning Merari:


"The sons of Merari, by their families, by their fathers' households, shall you number them" (4:29).


This raises the question of why the division between parashat Bamidbar and parashat Naso falls in the middle of what is seemingly a single command. Would it not make more sense for the break to come either prior to or after the command concerning all three Levite families?


For an initial answer to this question we may point to the nature of parashat Bamidbar, which has as its theme the sanctity of the camp. This theme is embodied by the children of Kehat to a greater extent than it is by the other Levite families, since it is they who carry the holy vessels.


While this answer is not entirely satisfactory, let us dwell for a moment on the differences between the family of Kehat, on the one hand, and Gershon and Merari, on the other. The children of Kehat bear on their shoulders the holy vessels of the Mishkan, while the children of Gershon and Merari are entrusted with the curtains and the poles, which they transport in special wagons (7:4-9). Since the functions differ considerably, we might have expected that every Levite might choose for himself which sort of work he prefers. However, the Rambam speaks out strongly against such a mindset:


"The entire progeny of Levi is set aside for the service of the Sanctuary, as it is written, 'At that time God set aside the tribe of Levi' (Devarim 10:8), and it is a positive commandment for the Leviim to be available and ready for Sanctuary service, whether they so desired or not, as it is written, 'And the Levites shall perform the service of the Tent of Meeting' (Bamidbar 18:23). A Levite who accepted upon himself all the Levite commandments except for one matter, is not accepted until he accepts everything." (Hilkhot Klei Ha-Mikdash 3:1)


If a Levite comes and asks to be assigned a specific task – perhaps carrying the boards, or the Menora, during the period of the Mishkan, or singing or guard-duty later on, during the period of the Temple – he is not accepted for that service. Why may a person not have the choice of which type of service to perform?


Apparently, according to the Rambam, the law of Levite service is "for the Leviim to be available and ready for Sanctuary service, whether they so desired or not." In other words, it is obligatory for the Levi to be entirely, completely available for any service whatsoever. The point here is not that some specific service will be carried out, but rather that the person will be ready to serve wherever he needs to.


In his shiur "Teki'a ve-shira ba-mikdash," Rav Soloveitchik discusses, inter alia, the difference between a Kohen and a Levi when it comes to sounding the shofar (Shiurim Le-Zekher Abba Mari z"l, vol. 2, p. 73). Addressing the Rambam's words above, he writes:


"In explaining this, it would seem that a special law of distinction applies to the Leviim, requiring them to count themselves ready for some service, and each of the Leviim is separated and appointed to a particular service – one is a gatekeeper, another is a singer, etc. The 'acceptance' that the Rambam is talking about, then, means a formal status of appointment to service in general and designation for a particular role in the service. Hence, his appointment to any particular service is dependent and conditional upon his readiness to devote himself to all of the Levite commandments. If he specifically wants, for example, to be appointed as a singer, and not as a gatekeeper, then he is not appointed to what he prefers to do."


Not only is he not appointed to his preferred task:


"Moreover, it would seem that the need for the preparation and appointment of the Levi is what invokes the concept of 'foreignness' (zarut) concerning the service of the Leviim, for someone who is not appointed … is defined as a 'zar' owing to his non-appointment."


In any event, we see that what is required of a Levi is absolute devotion and a complete readiness to fulfill whatever function is required of him.


Let us try to understand the meaning of this demand for devotion by drawing a comparison with a different sort of "labor army." Let us imagine the following situation: Upon reaching the age of service in the Mishkan, many Leviim are observed to be full of combat spirit, practicing for months prior to the assignation to Temple service, carrying around "dummy Arks" and "dummy Menoras" in order to prepare themselves to carry the real vessels. At the same time, there are other young Leviim who imagine themselves in the driving seat of air-conditioned wagons, carrying the boards of the Mishkan without exerting any effort. Of course, both sorts of candidates would be applying well in advance to Elitzafan ben Uziel and other authorities in order to obtain the "protektzia" needed for acceptance to their desired positions.


But what could this sort of situation lead to? After some time, we would hear the combat-spirited candidates who had not been accepted to Bnei Kehat issuing the same sort of statements that we sometimes hear today: "Either I'm in Sayeret Matkal (an elite IDF unit), or I'm not going to serve at all." Similarly, there would be threats on the opposite side. During the interviews for the yeshiva last year, I heard from many students that they wanted to serve specifically in army intelligence, backing this up with the ultimate explanation: "I'm suited to it." One confided to me that the Hesder program didn't seem moral to him. When I asked what he was planning to do in the army, he answered, "Intelligence." Even without weighing up a full year and four months of combat service against a short work day, five days a week, for three years, this high-school student still didn't think there was any moral problem with spending his army service sitting in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office while others were literally spitting blood, their mothers sleepless for weeks on end.


This phenomenon is caused by one single thing: the search for "What suits me" or "what is convenient for me." Some people don't understand that what is required of them is to serve the country, and they must do what the state sees fit to ask of them. Hesder yeshiva students must know that if they are required to serve as cooks in IDF kitchens, then that is what they should do, willingly, with the same eagerness with which they would serve in Sayeret Matkal or in Intelligence.


It is important to emphasize that this service orientation applies not only to the army, but also to civilian life. When Rav Soloveitchik passed away, it was a Thursday, at 8 PM in America – 3 AM here in Israel. When my mother received the news by telephone, she had only a short window of time until Shabbat, because Sunday was already Erev Yom Tov, and overseas the festival would be two days. Right away my mother called a travel agent overseas, since for them it was still working hours. In the morning, the travel agent we knew here in Israel arrived and asked why we hadn't called him to order the ticket. My mother told him, "Because it was 3 o'clock at night!" His response astonished me: "Wouldn't you call a doctor at 3 AM?!"


This person worked in a seemingly mundane position; despite this, he felt with his whole being that his job required him to exert his best efforts. Perhaps the great majority of his time was spent on standard orders that required no special degree of commitment, but those few special cases where he was required to demonstrate a real service orientation, testified to his general approach and to the true nature and importance of his conduct.


The fact that a person is an idealistic and has a sense of mission does not express itself only in the fact that he devotes free time to Torah study and gives shiurim in the workplace, no matter how lofty this may be. It manifests itself in his readiness to stand at the disposal of Am Yisrael, in whatever way he is needed, and not necessarily in a way that will help advance him. This consciousness is well anchored in the Rambam's formulation, "for the Leviim to be available and ready."


If we, too, attain this meaningful consciousness, then with God's help we will merit what Rambam tells us:


"And not only the tribe of Levi, but any individual whatsoever whose spirit moves him and whose thinking leads him to separate himself to stand before God, to serve Him and to worship Him, to know God and to walk uprightly as God made him, and who breaks from upon his neck the yoke of the many accountings that people pursue, then he is sanctified as a holy of holies, and God will be his portion and his inheritance forever and for eternity, and He will provide him in this world with his needs." (Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:13)


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Bamidbar 5770 [2010].)