Parashat Bamidbar ends with a command to take a census of all the Levites. The census begins with the descendants of Levi’s son Kehat and their jobs in transporting the mishkan. Following that, Parashat Naso commences with the census of the other two Levite families – Gershon and Merari. Why aren’t all three families included in the same parasha?
We can discover the answer if we note the order of the three families. Kehat is listed first, even though he was Levi’s second son – Gershon was the first born. As we saw many times throughout Bereshit, the oldest child is not automatically chosen for leadership and authority. While we don’t ever read the narrative that explains why Kehat surpassed his older brother, we can see what happened later, in the lives of his descendants. His grandchildren, Moshe, Aharon and Miriam led the people of Israel, and the rest of his family was tasked with carrying the holiest items in the mishkan.
However, the Torah ensures that the family of Gershon is not slighted by the elevation of Kehat’s status. In the opening of Parashat Naso, the verse states, “Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.” (Bamidbar 4:22). The word “also” [gam hem] might seem superfluous, but as several commentaries point out, it comes to soothe the concerns of Gershon, by indicating that they were also important.
An echo of this can be found in Yaakov’s blessing to his grandchildren, Menashe and Efraim. Yaakov gave preference to the younger brother, Efraim, and that troubled their father Yosef. But in response, Yaakov said, “I know, my son, I know. He too [gam hu] shall become a people, and he too [gam hu] shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.” (Bereshit 48:19)
Yaakov’s repetition of “gam hu” is parallel to the “gam hem” of Gershon, and in both cases it is used to indicate that while a younger sibling might be taking a position of leadership, the older one can take comfort that they also have an important role to play.
This was likely the reason that the Sages began Parashat Naso where they did – to continue the effort to reinforce the prestige of Gershon, and discourage dangerous rivalry between the families.
The danger of such a rivalry is hinted at in the final verses of Parashat Bamidbar. As we noted, the family of Kehat was responsible for carrying the most sacred items of the mishkan. When it comes time to move the items, the kohanim are instructed to pack them first. This is done so the Kehatites won’t see the items in an exposed state, and die as a result. The verse says:
“[The Kehatites] will then not come and see the holy [furniture] being packed, and they will not die.” (Bamidbar 4:20).
There is some debate over the word translated here as “packed.” Others suggest “dismantled” or “revealed.” The Hebrew word itself, however, is significant – “k’vala.” While this is not the likely meaning in this verse, it literally means “swallowed.” The same root appears in the story of Korach (Bamidbar 16:30, Bamidbar 16:32) to describe Korach and his followers being swallowed up by the earth and dying.
We can expand that linguistic parallel (as well as a similar use of “m’toch” [among] in Bamidbar 4:18 and Bamidbar 16:33) to a comparison between the relationship between Kehat and Gershon versus Korach and his company. While Gershon did not appear to resent the privileges that Kehat received, Korach was not as magnanimous. One of the explanations for his rebellion was that he resented his cousin Elitzafan being appointed the head of the Kehatites (Bamidbar 3:30). Elitzafan was the son of Uziel, the younger brother of Korach’s father Yitzhar.
Korach did not accept that a descendant of a younger brother should surpass the descendant of an older one, and thought he was deserving of it. As a result, he began his ill-fated rebellion, which ultimately led to members of the family of Kehat being swallowed up and dying. Had he only followed the “gam hem” approach that the Torah encouraged, that could all have been avoided.