Shevet Levi of Today
In this week’s parsha the Torah highlights the special role and status of
the tribe of Levi. They are counted separately from the rest of the tribes
of Israel. Their status in society is that they are engaged in work in the
Temple, have their own separate cities distributed throughout the Land of
Israel and are to be supported by the tithe (ten percent of the crop
produced from the agriculturally based economy of the Jewish society)
contributed to their upkeep and economic well being. They are, so to speak,
the elite class of the Jewish people, the beneficiaries of the apparently
unearned largesse of the working class.
Now, why would the Torah countenance and even prescribe such an uneven
societal status? Especially in our time when the current, yet always
fleeting, political correctness of society strives for the ultimately equal
distribution of wealth and national responsibilities, this Levite
exceptionalism seems anachronistic. I imagine that in the current particular
expression of demonization, the tribe of Levi would be labeled as being
“parasites.” And yet the Torah ordains and demands such a societal condition.
The tribe of Levi, which included the descendants of Aharon – the kohanim,
was the smallest of all of the tribes of Israel numerically. Their
exceptionalism began already in the land of Egypt when they were exempted
from the hard labor that was endured by their fellow Jews. Yet we find that
there was little opposition recorded in the Torah to this special treatment
of the tribe of Levi.
Even Korach, who claimed to be the champion of equal treatment for all Jews,
really only wanted to replace Moshe and Aharon with himself and other
Levites. I think that all of this has basic relevance to our current Jewish
society and its vexing challenges.
Not every one has the opportunity to devote one’s self to full-time Torah
study or to constant public or religious service. Not everyone has the
ability to create a start-up technological company. Not everyone has the
ability or inclination to be a university professor or a medical doctor or
technician. Not everyone can be a successful storekeeper or business manger.
Yet there is no doubt that our Jewish society here in the state of Israel
needs full-time Torah students, religious and social service volunteers and
professionals, start-up geniuses and computer geeks, professors, physicians,
auto mechanics and all sorts of technicians, plumbers and builders,
storekeepers and even rabbis.
In the times of the Temples, the Torah made it easy by classifying, so to
speak, who was who and specifically identified the tribe of Levi for
constant Torah study and teaching and full-time Temple service. In our
current society this process of identification is more difficult, inexact
and even confusing. Yet it is basically one of the most important issues
that we must successfully deal with.
In the current society we certainly need “Levites” – Jews who are
exclusively devoted to Torah study, teaching and public religious service.
The problem is in identifying these “Levites” and nurturing them. That is
really the core of the issue after all of the political smoke dissipates and
wafts into the passing air.
Rabbi Berel Wein