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 majesty.
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
11Shemitah v’Yovel 13:13
12 Bamidbar 4:4,23.30
13 Bamidbar 4:26
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org