By Rabbi Steven Bayar
This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, In the Wilderness, which begins the book of “Numbers.” We begin with a census of the Israelite people.
It’s time to count the people. God commands Moses to do so.
Take a census of the whole Israelite community
by the clans of its ancestral houses,
listing the names every male head by head…
Each person had to be counted. It did not matter whether they were poor or rich, whether they were famous or infamous. They had to be counted as part of the community, not only as part of the community – but as part of their “ancestral house.” The tribe they were born into.
Though this is such a simple text, we find such a profound teaching. No matter what you have become, no matter what you have gone through, no matter what – you are still part of the community. This portion proves that you can never separate yourself to the extent that we don’t count you as a part of us. You always have a home. We always have a responsibility for you.
One “ancestral tribe” was treated differently. Most people think the twelve tribes of Israel correspond to the twelve sons of Jacob. This is not entirely true. Jacob did have twelve sons. However, two sons were not included in the “tribes.” Two grandsons took their places. Joseph and Levi were removed as tribes while Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe were added.
What happened to Levi? They were given a special responsibility which took them out of the Israelite reality.
The Levites however,
were not recorded among them by their ancestral tribe…
“You shall put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle
According to the text, the Levites were given the Tabernacle as their responsibility because during the incident of the Golden Calf they were the first (and some say the only) people to support Moses. As such they held a special place in their loyalty to God. They were a part of the community, but held apart as well.
The Temple in Jerusalem is no more. The Tabernacle is no more. The “honor” of the Levites is reduced to the second “Aliyah” to the Torah (and only in the more traditional congregations) when it is read.
Yet, for all this historical fact, I would submit to you that the Levites still do exist, at least in spirit. There are those who, while part of the Jewish community, are held apart from it as well. To me, the modern Levites are those who labor to help those in need. The modern Levites are the ones who are feeding hungry people, sheltering homeless people, ransoming the captives. They are the ones who have heeded the cry, who stand against the “Golden Calf” of our day and have come to work in the Tabernacle of God.
The difference between the Levites of old and the Levites of today is that the identity of the Levites of old was determined by the identity of the father. Anyone can be a Levite of today. Anyone can find work in the Tabernacle of God.