The unique charm of Sefer Bamidbar is the blending of narrative material with legal text. It’s the only volume of Chumash where stories are intertwined with laws. Of course, the Sages help out with their careful organization of the text into cohesive weekly readings. This week’s Torah readings is a powerful case in point. Our parsha begins with a cautionary tale about thirst for power and honor. The challenge to Moshe and Aharon comes mainly from within their own tribe, Levi. The latter part of the parsha lists responsibilities and rewards for the religious requirements of that same tribe. The overall message is a bit different than ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. It’s more like, ‘you serve the nation, not rule it’.
This whole situation resulted from the previously stated idea that the tribe of Levi would take over the religious role previously fulfilled by the BECHOR, first born. Back in Breishit, the BECHOR led all family religious services. That’s what Ya’akov was buying from Esav with that pot of lentil soup, and that’s, most likely, what the Coat of Many Colors represented to Ya’akov and Yosef. But earlier in Bamidbar, we were told: As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all firstborns among the children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites shall be Mine (Bamidbar 3:12).
When Moshe focuses his ire on the members of the Tribe of Levi who were attempting a coup, he declares: you have taken too much upon yourselves (RAV LACHEM), sons of Levi (16:7). What does that mean? Rav Ovadia Sforno explains that the tribe of Levi already had great honor within the nation, and was wrong to ask for more. We praise those who are content with their lot. I agree with that analysis, but I’d like to fine-tune the message.
Later in the parsha, we conclude this weekly reading with a list of the rights and privileges of the Levi’im. We discuss both their role and the gifts of B’nei Yisrael to support them in these communal efforts. In this quite detailed material, there’s one term which appears 8 times in the first 8 verses. It’s variations on the word MISHMERET. This word also appears 4 times in chapter 3, when the Levi’im are counted separately from the rest of the nation.
This noun, based on the verb SHAMAR (guard or observe), is variously translated trust, watch, duties, charge, guard, needs, obligation, responsibilities, concerns. In case you didn’t think that was enough options, I have another suggestion. I believe that the best translation for MISHMERET is ‘status quo. The job of the Levi’im is to keep the situation in the OHEL MOED, MISHKAN, and, eventually, BEIT HaMIKDASH stable and unchanging.
There are other areas of Judaism where change is necessary, like government and society. But the many incarnations of the Temple must remain as stable, pristine and authentic, as possible. There are kings and rabbinic courts to implement innovations, but the tribe of Levi must maintain the status quo in the sanctuary and tradition.
Actually, the Levi’im do have a broader role in education and maintaining religious norms. The Rambam explains that the Levi’im didn’t receive tribal portions ‘Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgment (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel, 13:12).’ In other words, the Levi’im give up involvement in business, politics and the military to be supported by the community and provide religious services for all the Jews.
What’s fascinating to me is that in the next paragraph, the Rambam adds: Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God (Halacha 13). In other words, anyone can act like the Levi’im and minister to the community. However, remember the Rambam says that this behavior must be motivated by ‘generosity’ (NEDIVUT).
Those who want to be like the Levi’im, and be supported by the community, must do it out of this sense of giving. Anyone taking charity funds to study Torah must be imbued with a sense of responsibility, MISHMERET, never entitlement.
We are a generation blessed with many people learning Torah. If they take public funds, I hope they’re also teaching Torah and giving back to the society which funds them. Otherwise, we should say to them, ‘RAV LACHEM!’