Behaalotecha: The Song of the Levites

What is holiness, and do the Levites possess more of it?

One whom God takes unto Godself is “holy,” and such a rare privilege entails great obligation!

Table for Five: Behaalotecha

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself. And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.

-Num. 8:17-18

Nili Isenberg, Judaics Faculty, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am

As a “Bat Levi” (daughter of a Levite) and an “Eshet Kohen” (wife of a Kohen), I have wondered what this “yichus” (Jewish pedigree) means. From the fact that this tradition has been passed down for generations, we must deduce that it has been of value. In Orthodox circles, there are ritual tasks reserved for these groups, in memory of their service in the Temple. For my father (z”l) and father-in-law, these designations have been a source of pride. Still…

In many Conservative synagogues, and certainly in Reform synagogues, the ritual responsibilities of the priests have been discontinued. As Rabbi Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary explains, “The notion of hereditary holiness—that one segment of the Jewish people is set apart from others, given ceremonial privileges—conflicts with our egalitarian ethos.” Still…

Why does the Torah distinguish a path of greater responsibility and closeness to God for one group above the others? The Levites were originally chosen because of their abstention from the sin of the Golden Calf, but history has unfortunately made abundantly clear that electing the Levites instead of the firstborn males did not ultimately resolve the problem of corruption or abuse of power.

Today, while we can still be embraced by the priestly blessing if it is recited by our friends and family members in our synagogues, we can also turn to the words of Rabbi Meir (Avodah Zara 3a) who stated that “even a gentile who engages in Torah study is considered like a High Priest.”

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

The Torah is a revolutionary work. It upended the prevailing values of the ancient world. The tenth plague, death of the first-born, served not merely to instill terror in the Egyptian populace and convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites. It directly attacked the societal structure of the ancient world’s greatest power. Egypt’s strength rested on a stratified society, where birth determined fate. The first-born son of a king became king, but the children of slaves were doomed to remain slaves. God destroys Egypt’s first-born, thereby destroying a social structure predicated on injustice.

Since God spared the Israelite first-born, their lives were sanctified to God, not for special privilege, but to serve Him. The Torah describes the first-born as “petirat rechem,” opening the womb. The word rechem implies rachamim, which in Hebrew means mercy and in Aramaic means love. A first-born child opens its parents’ capacity for love and mercy, as their loving and protective instincts for their newborn awaken their realization that they exist not solely for themselves. Accordingly, God called upon the first-born to serve Israel.

Alas, the Israelite first-borns failed to internalize this message. They, like their fellow Israelites, sinned with the Golden Calf. Only the Levites resisted. The Levites, descendants of Jacob’s third-born, demonstrated that merit is not a function of birth-order but of moral character, thus bringing God’s revolution against the ancient world-order full circle. The value of a human being stems not from accidents of birth but from the moral dignity imbued in every individual.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

A revelatory idea that emerges from these verses is that to be acquired by God is to be made holy. When God saves the firstborn Israelites from the plague of the firstborn, they become His and are thereby sanctified to Him. The Levites who are taken in place of the firstborn are likewise rendered a holy tribe whose only occupation is God’s service. This dynamic is also apparent in the language describing the building of the Tabernacle, a portable sanctified space. The verse specifies that the donated offerings of materials for the Tabernacle be “for me,” i.e. specifically for God, so as to become “my offerings” (Ex. 25:2). The Tabernacle gains its holiness by belonging to God, the source and defining principle of all that is holy.

In light of this, we must understand the various phrases found in scripture and liturgy asserting God as the “possessor of all” to mean that all of existence is in fact holy. If this is so, what differentiates the pigeons and their perches from the Levites and the Tabernacle? How is the profane world not in fact holy? The answer is that nothing is truly profane except in our recognition of it as such. Everything we experience and come in contact with is holy because it represents a potential mitzvah. Even evil becomes holy in our rejection of it. We must look for opportunities to make the world God’s world, to render manifest the holiness inherent in ourselves and in the world around us.

Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha

My life changed when my sons were born. When I heard the mohel call their names, I heard myself called as the father to sons rather than as a son to my own father. For all first-time parents, this inner change is radical. We recognize that our actions have consequences for generations, take on a different sense of responsibility as teachers for our children, and think of those children before ourselves. Or at least, we should.

We are taught that when God dictated that the first-born Egyptians were to die, those elder sons went to their fathers and to Pharaoh, pleading to let the Hebrews go, for the sake of their lives. (Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Bo 18:1). But they were turned away, and ultimately died. An extreme example of father/son relationships gone wrong, all starting with fathers not thinking of their sons first.

Conversely, the Levites joyously sanctify their sons to God, teaching them the values of the priesthood as commanded. The fathers gratefully pass on the Divine obligation of service, and the culture prospers as a result of the priority being placed on children.

Father’s Day is only a few weeks away, and these verses remind us to reject Pharoah’s self-indulgent hatred; and rather to be like Levites, always placing our children first, teaching them righteousness, and leading them to serve God joyously.

May we all be righteous parents raising responsible children, and may we love our children more than we ever hate enemies. And as a result, may we have true peace between father and son, and between nations. L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation.

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York, NY

To be a Levite! What if you carried the burden of the Jewish People across a vast wilderness? Broke it down, set it up, schlepped it up hills, over bluffs and marched across rock-beds of dried-up streams? Levites knew how to set up the portable tabernacle where Jews prayed in the wilderness.

I imagine they passed that wisdom onto later generations even when the Temples stood. Give an ear – listen for the parents of our past, those of levitical children, whispering to their kin how the Kehatis, the Gernshonites, the Meraris embraced their parts so devotedly. When they put their children to sleep they sang liturgical lullabies, to teach them how to become part of the sacred choir.

Those stories and songs of wilderness worship must have inspired Temple-time Levites to complete their daily tasks with holy kavannah, deep intentionality. Their hearts and niggunim and psalms created sacredness within our ancient, sacred Jewish precincts. Those songs of the Levites’ youth then accompanied worshippers as they brought their ritual offerings, and the Kohens kindled incense and cleaned ashes.

The Levites were at the heart of the multi-sensory experience of Israel’s longing and loving God. They raised their voices to praise God’s name and to offer hope and condolences, to validate fears, to fortify hearts. Then the First Temple was destroyed. Then the Second. Prophetic warnings and teachings were ignored. Baseless hatred erupted. Idolatry seduced us. Bloodshed increased. And we blamed it on others. Oh, when will the Levites song return?!

With thanks to Nili Isenberg, Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Rabbi Michael Barclay and Rabbi Scott N. Bolton

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

Image by Belle Co via Pexels

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