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.

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