The Book of Numbers begins just that way – with many numbers. It counts the Jews who were in the desert and assigns unique divisions for each of the tribes. Every tribe has its own flag and position among the great camp of Israel. They are strategically placed around the Mishkan, and grouped accordingly. This division is somewhat troubling. Why isn’t there a concept of a great melting pot under one flag? Moreover, the singling out of the tribe of Levi raises more questions. “Bring the tribe of Levi close and have them stand before Ahron and they shall serve him (Leviticus 3:6). The Torah relates the specific tasks of the descendents of Levi and also warns the stranger, the ordinary Israelite, against attempting to join in those tasks. Why is there further division in the ranks of Jews? Why can’t the Israelite do the task of the Kohen, and the Kohen the task of the Levi, and the Levi the task of the Israelite?
The great Arturo Toscanini was conducting Beethoven’s Symphony #3 back in the late 1930s with the NBC Symphony orchestra. The outdoor concert was held at City University’s Lewisson Stadium and was well attended. The famed trumpeter, Harry Glanz, was going to play the offstage trumpet, an integral part of the production of this piece.
People had flocked to hear the great trumpeter under the baton of the even more accomplished Toscanini. Glanz positioned himself in a corner about 50 feet behind the stage ready to blast his notes upon cue. As the recital led up to that moment Toscanini held his baton high, waiting to hear the sharp blasts of Glanz’s horn. They never came. All he saw was a burly security guard wrestling with the hapless musician on the grass behind the stage.
The guard was pointing to the stage. “You fool!” he was shouting, “what do you think you’re doing blowing that horn back here? Don’t you see there’s a concert going on up there?”
Not everybody who wants to can be up on the stage. In the concert of the Almighty, every player has his designated position that makes the symphony much more beautiful. I have a friend who travels the United States and stops for minyanim all across the country. “Often,” he exclaims, “when they ask, ‘Is there a Kohen in the house?’ I have the urge to go up there and pretend that I am a Kohen. I always wanted to know what it’s like being called up first!”
Fortunately, he, like most of us, understands that every person in the nation of Israel, whether man or woman has a unique role to play. Sometimes roles are played from the inside, sometimes from the outside, nevertheless, the offstage trumpeters are just as vital as the onstage ones. And if we rush the stage to perform out of sync, we can ruin the beautiful harmony of a carefully orchestrated concert.
The Israelite has the mitzvos that the Kohen cannot perform. He may visit the dying and assist in the burial of any deceased. It is the Israelite who gives the tithes and supports the poor. The Kohen and Levi inherit no land from which they could perform myriad commandments. True , the Israelite cannot serve in the Temple, but his trumpeting may resound as loud as his brother’s. As long as he plays it in the right position.
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.