Trudging Along on the Spiritual Fast Track1
At first, the psukim look like a group of different work
assignments. Upon further examination, they are maze of shifted word
usages and subtle nuance. When you finally grasp the inner message of the
parshah of the three sons of Levi, you will appreciate different
ways of serving Hashem, and why all people do not derive the same sense of
satisfaction from it. You will learn why some people derive no sense of
elevation at all.
The Bais Avrohom fully understood it, and laid bare the pattern of
three archetypes in avodas Hashem.
Eveyone’s favorite son is Kehas. His children carry the kelim of
greatest kedushah: the aron, the menorah, the
shulchan. They were never without the thrill of immediate
connection with holiness at its richest, with the electric shock of caring
for the objects that most directly serve the King. It is no wonder that
they are warned in especially chilling terms, “Thus shall you do for them
so that they shall live and not die when they approach the holy of
holies.”2 Living on the spiritual
edge, their souls could take flight at any moment, as their souls are
overcome with the fear of standing in His presence, and the sense of His
One level down stands Gershon. His name gives it away. Immediately
perceptible is the word gr”sh, in the sense of “they have driven me
away/ gershuni this day from attaching myself to the heritage of
Hashem.”3 Unlike Kehas, Gershon does
not experience unremitting attachment and satisfaction. Some of the time,
he feels the same spiritual high as Kehas. At other times, though, he
feels driven away from Hashem’s presence, even when he reaches out to Him.
Standing on the lowest rung is Merari. His name as well indicates his
fate. His life is full of bitterness, merirus. He plods on like
an ox pulling a plow, feeling nothing but toil and pain in his labor. He
never feels any special closeness to Hashem, not even when he learns or
davens. He never quite seems to pull himself out of spiritual
doldrums, not even on days supercharged with spiritual potential, like
Shabbos and Yom Tov.
This tripartite arrangement is supported by a host of cues in the text.
In the counting of both Kehas and Gershon, the Torah commands “naso es
rosh.”4 The word rosh
conveys the primary meaning of “sum,” but is laced with overtones
of “chief,” and “importance.” Not unexpectedly, the word rosh has
no application to Merari; the Torah simply provides his number5 without the introductory command. The
sense of coming out ahead, or standing out in importance lacks thoroughly
in the Merari experience.
Kehas’ role is called avodah6 –
in the sense of serving Hashem in the most rewarding and decorous manner.
Gershon’s avodah carries with it a qualifier: la’avod u-
l’ma’asah/ to serve and to carry.7
At times, Gershon feels the excitement of pure avodah. At others,
however, he simply carries a weight, dutifully discharging his obligation,
but without a sense of connection. Far more prosaic is the description of
Merari’s role: “their watch of carrying.”8 Merari toils, but no one writes rhapsodic
descriptions of his sense of devekus while he labors away.
The role of all other Jews contrasts sharply with that of Levi. Regarding
the others, the Torah writes, “everyone who goes out to the
legion.”9 This is remarkably
descriptive of the task of Jews in general – to go out and confront the
external foes, the temptations and tendencies that are external to the
pure and pristine nature of our holy souls. This is the battle all of us
need to wage with whatever the yetzer hora throws at us; to a large
extent, it is a program of avoiding evil, of sur mera.
Levi represents a different stance. His very name connotes
devekus, harking back to Leah’s feelings in generating his
name: “this time my husband will become attached to me.”10 Levi’s role is explicated by Rambam:11 He is set aside to serve Hashem and to minister to
Him. Therefore he is to be separated from all the ordinary ways of the
world...They are Hashem’s soldiers….” Levi does not “go out” like the rest
of Klal Yisroel. Rather, all three families are described as “coming
in”12 to the legion. Levi comes in,
penetrates further in the quest for pure ruchniyus. Having “gone
out” and successfully waged the battle against the externals and
superficialities of life, he moves inward, towards greater
penimiyus, and comes into the more elite army.
Rambam goes on to say that the life of Levi is not restricted to the
descendents of that tribe. Anyone who wishes can assume the same role,
live the same lifestyle. Unburdened of the pedestrian concerns of other
people, he can live on the holiest plane, and become part of Hashem’s
choicest portion, as it were.
All can become Levi. But not all of Levi become Kehas. It is possible to
live amongst those who choose a more spiritual existence and still not
feel the euphoria of constant, or even intermittent, elation! Even those
who live like Merari are from the spiritual elite when they voluntarily
take upon themselves lives of service to Hashem and His causes.
The three archetypes do not necessarily take form as three different
people, but can often found in the same person, displaying themselves at
different times. At times, Hashem assists us with clarity and
enlightenment, and we feel like Bnei Kehas must have, on a
spiritual fast track. At other times, we pull ourselves along like the ox
with plow in tow. We plod onwards, but feel nothing inside.
The general rule is that avodah must start from the more basic –
and more difficult – level. We must first learn to produce for Hashem,
laboring under the greatest of difficulties while giving no thought at all
to the spiritual dividends we would like to reap. (This, too, is part of
what Chazal mean by kol hahaschalos kashos – all beginnings are
difficult.) Once we master this avodah, we can climb to the other forms,
the levels of Gershon and Kehas. If we change the order, we are likely to
find a foothold at a level that is really not where we are. We will slip
and fall. Sometimes when we fall, we fall all the way.
The bottom line is also in our parshah. After providing the
particulars about three choices, the Torah revisits them in a
retrospective: “all those counted of the Leviim….“13 All three are legitimate forms of avodash
Hashem; they can all be merged together. They all express the
yearning of a person to serve Him. Some will be fortunate to relate to Him
as Kehas did. Others will find their way to a Gershon or Merari position.
We cannot know why Hashem assigns one person the role of Kehas, while He
turns another into a Merari, for a while or for a lifetime. Each task has
its challenges, and each its accomplishments. We do see from our
parshah that the person who continues onward with his avodah
with constancy and devotion should not fault himself for not feeling the
thrill of devekus and connection. That, too, it is part of His
Will and part of the challenge. A person can only do what is in his
power. Which ever way he does it, he brings equal satisfaction to HKBH.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 23-26
2 Bamidbar 4:19
3 Shmuel1 26:19
4 Bamidbar 4:2,22
5 Bamidbar 4:29
6 Bamidbar 4:4
7 Bamidbar 4:24
8 Bamidbar 4:32
9 Bamidbar 1:3
10 Bereishis 29:34
11 Shemitah v’Yovel 13:13
12 Bamidbar 4:4,23.30
13 Bamidbar 4:26
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org