Being a Levi
The term that the Torah uses for counting the Levite family of Gershon is
nasso – to raise and lift up. The word can also mean to carry and bear a
burden. It can also mean to lead. When such words appear in the Torah with
multiple, differing meanings – and Hebrew is replete with so many of them –
the commentators remark that all of the possible meanings of that word are
nuanced and meant to be part of the verse of the Torah itself.
I think this insight is especially pertinent regarding the word nasso as it
appears in this week’s parsha. The family of Gershon, as is the tribe of
Levi generally, is quite small in number but nevertheless laden with great
responsibilities. It can use its paucity in numbers as an excuse for
shirking its responsibilities and for refusing to perform the holy tasks
assigned to it. But since it is meant to assume a leadership role in Jewish
society, it is bidden to rise to the occasion.
There is no question that this role of leadership will be burdensome and
frustrating. Yet it is enjoined at the beginning of its public service to
bear up under the yoke of the Jewish people and to serve as the leaders,
role models and mentors of the generations of the Jewish people. The Levites
are not to shirk their duties and role but rather are to proudly lift
themselves up to a higher level of Torah dedication and service to all of
Israel. All of this is implicit in the word nasso that introduces this
week’s parsha to our attention.
Rambam, in a famous statement from his Mishne Torah, states, in effect, that
all human beings who enter this world can reach the spiritual status of
being a Levite. One must devote one’s self to the service of God and of man,
practice compassion and goodness and be satisfied and not too over ambitious
with one’s physical lot in life, in order to aspire to such a status. The
Levites were the bearers of the Torah both literally and figuratively.
Rambam indicates that they avoided the petty foolishness in our daily lives
and instead concentrated on the holy and noble task to which God assigned them.
The tasks and goals of the Levites were clearly delineated for them by the
Torah. And even in our time when the service of the Temple is not yet
present within Jewish society, the uniqueness of the role of the Levites in
our midst has been preserved. At the time of the Golden Calf, when all of
Israel was threatened with physical destruction and spiritual annihilation,
it was the tribe of Levi that redressed the situation.
In the difficult times and circumstances that surround us today we are also
in need of potential Levites who will rise to the occasion and its
challenges. One cannot alter one’s genealogy but one’s spiritual aspirations
to become a Levite have no limits or restraints.
Rabbi Berel Wein