Parasha Naso - June 4, 2011


This section we are reading - the first Triennial Year I , verses 4: 21 - through to 5:10,

page 586 in the Hertz, and 791 in the Etz Chaim.


To some extent Carol’s dvar last week forms the backdrop of my thinking - the text we are reading is a continuation of the section at the end of Bamidbar that addresses the responsibilities of the Leviim, as well as counting them twice.


One could ask why were these separated? As in order to get a sense of this section the section on the Leviim needs to be considered in its totality.


What struck me on rereading this – what happened to Moses’ sons? We know he had 2 sons - but they disappear from the story once Moses entered Egypt. And in the assigning of responsibilities - it is Aaron’s sons and the cousins of Moses and Aaron who are named to take charge of the Tent of Meeting.


The first census introduces us to the 3 groupings, provides an overview of their responsibilities and tells us that the Leviim are counted from one month of age.– all male Leviim are counted as opposed to the general census which counts from the age of 20 when one is able to serve militarily.


According to Jacob Milgrom, who wrote a very extensive commentary on Bamidbar for the JPS Torah Series, this first census has to do mainly with guard duties, and these guard duties are lifelong, beginning in adolescence, and continuing into old age.


The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari and these are the assigned names of the three Levitical groupings, and each grouping has a different set of responsibilities.


How did their duties differ?

The Gershonites, we learn, are responsible for the external properties of the mishkan: the tent, the covering, the screen for the door and the hanging of the curtains (Num 3:25-26; 4:24-26).


The Kohathites include Aaron and his family, and Moses and his family, {keeping in mind that while Miriam, like her brothers, has Kohath as her grandfather, a woman’s clan affiliation changes when she marries.


The Kohanim therefore, were not a clan within the grouping, but are, what becomes an elite group, within the Kohath grouping. This helps explain why, in the Torah, there is some times mention of a “Levitical priesthood” and sometimes not. It also provides another perspective on why Korach was motivated to oppose Moshe. Different elites within Clan Qohat were competing with each other.


As was pointed out to me this continues even today. For example, in Syria, the Alawiites are a minority within Syria, for example, but form an elite among other Syrian tribes -- while being themselves divided into four clans which themselves are subdivided into tribes. And that completely changes what's happening in Syria today and also explains why the other Arab nations have taken a hands-off approach -- if they got involved, their own tribal alliances could fall apart.


The infighting between the clans and tribes of Israel is further addressed in the Book of Joshua.


The Kohathites were responsible to care for and move the ark, table, lampstand, altars, vessels of the sanctuary, and the screen (Numbers 3:29-31). The Kohathites held a very high risk position - and were dependent on the priesthood for their safety as they could not touch these objects and could move them until after they had been properly prepared by Aaron and his sons.


The Merarites were responsible for those items, which while important to the stability of the mishkan and Tent of Meeting, were least connected to the workings of the mishkan (they were replaceable): care of the framework - posts, crossbars, sockets, pegs, tent pegs, cords etc.




At the same time the Merarites were “richer” in oxen and wagons (having twice as many as the Gershonites for example, four wagons and eight oxen, because the Merarites had to carry the heavier items connected to the mishkan (ie items for constructing).


The second census of the Leviim gives more detail as to their responsibilities and emphasizes that those who do this work must be between the ages of 30 and 50. This is a very curious detail. Young men can go to war at 20 but cannot be in the direct service of G-D til they are 30.


The particular duties assigned to each grouping require physical strength and so these are age constrained


The age issue reminded me of the stages of a man’s life according to Hindu tradition:

The first stage - the student stage lasts until the student reaches 25 years of age. This time is a preparation for his future career, his family and his religious obligations.


The next stage is the householder stage - which is from about 25 to 50 years of age.

During this period the male earns his living, and supports a family – In the Hindu tradition religious obligations return when the male has retired from active communal and family life.


Ages 30 to 50 are considered to be a “stable period” in an individual’s life - married, rasing children, skilled at one’s job – unlikely to take chances and touch objects one should not touch; less likely to feel unappreciated in one’s position; has full strength physically to do the lifting and carrying that is required.


Did the Leviim restrict themselves to these tasks? I wondered because in the next section Moses is told to instruct the Israelites that anyone who has contracted an impurity must be removed from the camp. We know from Vayikra that it is the priests who decide whether or not someone has to be removed from the camp.  Was there at some point a sharing or assuming of tasks?


According to other readings like Chronicles for example,

The Kohathites led the people in prayer and praise when Jehoshaphat sought deliverance from the Moabites and Ammonites(2 Chronicles 20:19).

Mahath and Joel of the Kohathites helped in the purification of Israel's worship during the time of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:12).

Two Kohathite priests (Zechariah and Meshullam) helped supervise the work during Josiah's religious reforms,(2 Chronicles 34:12


Also when the Israelites returned from the Exile, we are told some of the Kohathites were placed in charge of preparing the show bread every sabbath (1 Chronicles 9:32).


Milgrom comments on this  - noting that the Leviim were responsible for the area directly outside the Tent of Meeting while the priests were responsible for the inside. We know that the average Israelite was permitted into the “entrance of the Tent of Meeting” as how else could he or she bring their offering to the priests. At this point of entry - the threshold - the Leviim and the priests “shared” their duties. Since at this point the Leviim as well as the priest could be helping prepare the offering, overtime the lines could have become further blurred.


And lastly in this section we have the foundations of restitution.”he shall confess the wrong that he has done”is the Viduy” – verbal confession and Maimonides cites this verse as the Biblical source for the mitzvah of doing Teshuva. – it establishes the obligation for every sinner to undergo the process of repentance.


Rabbi Eli Mansour raises the question why was this mitsvah based on a passage that deals with stealing and he draws on the teachings of the Ger rebbe to respond


The Ger rebbe commented that every sinner is guilty of stealing – from God. Misusing our bodies for wrongdoing is, essentially, stealing from God. Using our bodies for sin constitutes theft.

Ie if, instead of studying/praying, we engage in gossip then we have misused the bodies that God has lent to us.


Rabbi Mansour comments that our physical beings have been given to us on loan, it is not within our right to use them in violation of God’s commands.

We must ensure to use our bodies – and, in fact, all our assets, and blessings God has granted us – for Torah and Misvot, to grow spiritually and to contribute meaningfully to the world.


Shabbat Shalom