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Parashat Bemidbar

May 26, 2006

Counting the Models of Religious Leadership in The Book of Numbers
By Rabbi Rena Kieval

I would like to dedicate this dvar Torah about
religious leadership to my fellow graduates, my
teachers, and all the students at AJR, where
individuals are embarked on this path in so many
different ways and bringing a multiplicity of talents
and roles to the holy work.

What makes a religious leader? In Sefer Va-yikra
(Leviticus) we learned in exhaustive detail about
the roles of the kohanim – priests, whom the
Torah refers to as meshuchim – anointed ones
(Num. 3:3). They are God’s elite religious
functionaries who live apart from the people, who
must meet strict standards of taharah ‘ purity – and who strive for, or symbolize, perfection.

In Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers), which
we begin reading this week, God announces the
selection of another group of religious leaders, the
levi’im – levites. The Torah calls them a gift
to God, a matana (Num 18:6). Twice God
describes them as netunim, ‘given’ to God
(8:19, 18:6), and a third time the text doubles the
phrase for emphasis: they are ‘netunim
‘ (8:16) – ‘given over’ to service. Like
the kohanim, they are selected by God, but
their status is more ambiguous. They are elevated,
yet relegated to a place of servitude.

In this week’s parashah, God explicitly tells
Moshe that the levi’im are being taken,
instead of the first-born, to belong to God: ‘v’ha-
yu li
‘ – a phrase repeated three times (3:12;
3:45; 8:14). God does not explain this selection, but
Rashi and other commentators reason that although
originally the first-born were chosen to care for the
mishkan – Tabernacle, the levi’im
replaced them because they did not participate in
the sin of the Golden Calf. God’s phrase ‘v’ha’yu
‘ ‘ ‘they will be for me,’ or ‘they will be mine’
suggests an almost tender feeling towards the
levi’im. The rabbis of the midrash picked up
on that tone and commented: ‘Anyone who brings
me close, I will bring close to Me.’ (Bemidbar Rabbah
1:12). The levi’im are more than appointees:
they are engaged in relationship with God.

The levi’im stand on the threshold between
the priests and the people. They are commanded to
camp around the mishkan and to guard its
perimeters. While the kohanim protect the interior
sacred space, the levi’im are on the outside, standing
at the interface between the inner sanctum and the
camp. Thus they are the religious leaders who meet
the people. We might imagine a tension in their role
between living close to the people, yet also being
charged with keeping them out.

It is the levites’ job to care for the physical structure
of the mishkan – to carry it, dismantle and
reassemble it when the camp moves, and to maintain
all of its objects. We might think of this work
as ‘menial’ or unskilled yet the text tells us that God
cares very much that only the levi’im are to
do this work which is both humble yet filled with
kedushah – holiness.

The levi’im had still more responsibilities. They
were in charge of ‘all the furnishings’ of the Ohel
, as a ‘mishmeret Yisrael,’ a duty on
behalf of the Israelites. Rashi explains that, really, all
of the people of Israel were obligated to care for the
sanctuary, but the levi’im acted as their
sh’lichim – representatives. Again they serve
as bridge between the sacred and the mundane,
caring for God’s sacred place at God’s behest, but
doing so as proxies for the people.

Since they did not inherit land, the levi’im lived
among the people, and the Torah often counts them
among the Israelite poor. They would have shared
directly in the real-life life experiences of real people.
Think about it: while kohanim are not
permitted to marry divorced women, or other women
whose personal history is somehow ‘imperfect,’ the
levi’im are. Kohanim cannot serve if
they are disabled or maimed – not so the
levi’im. Levi’im, unlike the
kohanim, are not prohibited from being in
contact with the dead, so they encounter mortality
directly. The levi’im are a religious elite, but
they are also close to the ‘stuff’
of life. They know what it means to face real-life

The Torah offers us multi-faceted models of religious
leadership that are still applicable. There are times
when people need a ‘kohen‘ – a religious
functionary who will carry out the prescribed rituals
with precision, a person who helps people feel
connected to God and to one another by
representing God’s perfection and authority.
Sometimes there is a need to think of a spiritual
leader with awe, even to imagine that they are free
of human flaws, needs and concerns.

But Jewish religious life would be empty if our spiritual
leaders were only kohanim – we also
need the people who do the mundane tasks in the
mishkan, who protect sacred space, but who also
know what it means to confront the imperfections of
real life. We need levi’im. We need spiritual
leaders who understand illness, failed marriages,
disabilities, poverty and death. These leaders must
sometimes step outside the safety of the mishkan
into the real world with all of its messiness and
pain. These leaders can then also share in the joys of
life more deeply.

How fitting it is, then, that it was the levi’im
who became the joyful singers in the Temple. R.
Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the Sfat Emet, asks: what
is the connection between them and song? He
concludes that those who carry the ark on their
shoulders, a joyous burden, acquire the awareness
and the power to sing.

May all who serve the Jewish people as spiritual
leaders be blessed with the ability to express our
relationships with God on a multitude of levels. May
we each carry our ‘aron‘ ‘ ark – of holy work
on our shoulders in a way that gives us the power to
sing, and to inspire others to join in the song.