parashat Behaalot’kha: Levites as Elevation Offering

The parashah called Beha’alot’kha describes the work of the Levites, the group that serves G-d by tending to the Mishkan, the sacred space created by the Israelites as a focal point to which they would come when seeking to sense the Presence of G-d. The Levites are set apart in a very special way:

“Bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting. Assemble the Israelite community leadership, and bring the Levites forward before the Eternal. Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites, and let Aaron designate the Levites before the Eternal as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the Eternal.” (Numbers 8.9-11)

We might think of the work of the Levites as glorified cleaning work – but this text indicates something quite different. Looking closely at the text, we see that the Levites carry the intention of the Israelites in a way similar to that of the sacrificial offerings, upon which the one bringing the gift to G-d also lays the hands before giving it to the priest to be offered up. The Levites themselves seem here to be considered an offering to G-d, and not just their work.

Levites did a number of different kinds of work in the Mishkan, simple and more complex; some were singers, some tended to the altar and kept it functioning, and some assisted the priests. (For more on the different accounts, some conflicting, throughout the Tanakh, see: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9866-levites-temple-servants.) They had the run of the place; they could access sacred places that other Israelites could not. And they did it on those other Israelites’ behalf.

Our own Levites, those who tend to our own modern sacred spaces, consist of a group which is partly designated (i.e. there’s a list) and partly spontaneous; unlike our ancestors, any of us can serve as a Levite – and we do – whenever we offer the gift of our help as we set up, clean up, or organize. We might sometimes be tempted to see such work as something to be borne, to be avoided, or to “burn out” from. But Torah teaches that a Levite is an elevation offering, and that Levitical work is a gift to G-d from the People of Israel.

When you are at shul, notice all the momentary Levites around you – perhaps you are one as well. Levites are those who, when they see something that needs doing, do it, rather than assuming that someone else will. In that moment, in that choice, that member of the People of Israel becomes an elevation offering that lifts up all Israel.

parashat Behar-Behukotai: what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?

Once again we have a double parasha this week. According to our minhag, we’ll read a bit from the first third of both parshas, depending on what catches our eye and looks intriguing. It must be admitted, though, that the first several verses of parashat Behar already contain a world.

 

“The Eternal spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying, speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a shabbat.”  (VaYikra .25.1-2)

 

First: here we are in chapter 25 of VaYikra, Leviticus, and all of a sudden Mt. Sinai is mentioned? Why here, and why now, after we have moved on to cover so many topics since we received Torah at Sinai.

 

Second, if we are suddenly to be reminded of Sinai, what is the segue that leads to the land observing a shabbat (i.e. every seven years the land is not to be sown nor harvested)?

 

In other words, as the tradition asks, mah inyan shemittah eytzel Har Sinai? It’s an idiom that has entered into Hebrew speech: “what does shemittah have to do with Mt. Sinai?” means about the same thing as “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”  How are these two concepts related?

 

In this case, to answer the one is to answer both. Sinai is mentioned, all these verses and stories later, because the Israelites are still at Sinai; they have not left the foot of the mountain yet to go forward toward the land of Israel. For us, the relevance is in seeing ourselves also standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai – even all these generations later. “No matter where I go, I am going to Jerusalem” said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. It’s a mindset, an act of kavanah. We Jews cannot walk away from Sinai; it looms over us always. It is our metaphor for the mountain of history, of halakhah, of tradition which we inherit, and of the rest we find in its shade; it reminds us to lift our eyes upward to consider the transcendent beauty of our world, and not just the smaller issues we see when we look down at our hands.

 

And what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai? only this: there is nothing in Jewish life, no obligation nor privilege, which cannot be traced back to the simple awareness we gained at Sinai. There is a midrashic discussion about what the Israelites actually heard or saw at Sinai, in one Rabbi suggested that they did not need to hear all the commandments; just the first few would have been sufficienct, and the rest could have been inferred. For that matter, said another, once you hear the first one, and realize that you are not alone in the world, all the rest can be inferred. Ah, but perhaps then you do not even need to entire first commandment.  Generations later the Hasidic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov offered a further thought: perhaps all that Israel heard at Sinai was the first letter of the first word of the first Commandment. That is, nothing more or less than the silent letter alef of the word anokhi, “I am”. One need not even hear the first word, the “I”, spoken by G-d. One need hear only the intake of breath, as it were, the opening of a mouth, so to speak – one need sense only that something is about to be.

 

“To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. Thus, with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning.” (Gershom Scholem, On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism, p. 30)

 

To be “pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning”: this is not only a description of the meeting place between God and humanity. It is also a description of any of us, at any moment of any day, if we remember that we are always standing in the presence of G-d.