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Commentary for Bamidbar

2 Jun

In this week’s parshah God instructs Moses to appoint the members of the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron to assist Aaron and his sons and their descendants in their priestly duties.   God notes that this role of special services was originally assigned to all male firstborn (of their mother) Israelites, regardless of tribe (Ex. 13:2, 15). Moses is then instructed to take a census of the total number of male firstborn Israelites, subtract it from number of Levite males (minus Aaron’s family), and have the remaining Israelite families on the list whose son had no Levite counterpart (determined via lottery) to serve in his place pay a small fee to the priests to make up for the service in the Temple that their sons should have theoretically been doing that will have to get done by a Levite working overtime.

While it seems natural that these instructions should all come in one section of our parshah, they actually come in two different sections, surrounded on both sides by a census of the tribe of Levi. It begins with Aaron’s family, then we get the announcement that the rest of the Levites will serve in the place of the firstborn, then a census of some of the remaining Levites, then the instructions to take a census of the firstborn, compare it to the Levites, and then have those who have no Levite counterpart pay the fee, and then, finally, the rest of the census of the Levites.

The second section of instructions offers us a hint into why the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn. The first two times it appears in that section, the Hebrew word for firstborn- “bechor” is written without the letter vav, which is usually found in the word, but does not change its meaning or pronunciation with its absence. Peirush HaRokeach teaches that the word not being written out in the usual full manner indicates that the firstborn no longer have what should be their “full” status due to their participation in the sin of the golden calf. The Levites, on the other hand, had not participated in the sin of the golden calf, and immediately rallied around Moses when he returned and helped punish those had turned away from God (Ex. 32:26), and thus they were awarded the status that the firstborn forfeited with their sin. This explanation raises an interesting question: If all of those who turned away from God were put to the sword then any firstborn alive at this point would have been innocent of the crime, so why are they being punished?

The answer is that, Halachically, they’re not being punished. While God does instruct Moses to have the Levites serve in place of the firstborn, nowhere does the Torah say that the firstborn lose their mitzvah to serve. This distinction is important because of the concept of a shaliach, one who is sent by another to do a specific mitzvah on his or her behalf. The classical example of this is a father who hires a mohel to perform his son’s bris instead of doing so himself, as he is technically commanded to. Not only does the person still get credit for doing the mitzvah, but he or she enables the shaliach to also get credit for doing the mitzvah as well. Thus, by being either matched up with a Levite or by paying a fee to the Temple to ensure that the required work will be done by someone, the firstborn (though his parents, as his designated legal representatives until he reaches bar mitzvah) still gets credit for the mitzvah, and allows a Levite to get credit for it as well.

However, someone can only be a shaliach for a mitzvah that he or she is already obligated to perform (to continue the example, the mohel must himself be a father). Thus, God needed to declare that the Levites were eligible to perform the same service granted to the firstborn so that they could then perform the mitzvah on their behalf.

That being said, while the Torah specifically goes out of its way to ensure that the firstborn still have the de jure ability to serve, there is still a direct order from God that they have a Levite serve for them, so they are de facto prohibited from serving because doing so would be violating a commandment. What, then, is the reason that God saw fit to transfer these duties from the firstborn to the Levites?

The answer lies in with the only firstborn who still served in the Temple: the firstborn Levites. Obviously not all of the firstborn of the other tribes abandoned God for the golden calf or else there couldn’t have been more firstborn than the total number of Levites by this point, but we do know that the Levites were the only tribe from whom no firstborn participated in the sin. What made the Levite firstborn different? They were Levites.

Order of birth is an issue of happenstance, and rarely has any sort of effect on one’s values. Family, on the other hand, has a major effect. It was not just the firstborn Levites who remained loyal to God, but all of the Levites, because of the values they were raised with. To raise our children to have good values, we must teach them these values ourselves and do our best to surround them with people who share these values, just as the Torah teaches us by surrounding the sections containing the Levites’ reward for adhering to their values with names of the very families that raised them with those values.

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