The Function of the Leviim and the Nesiim

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT NASO

SICHA OF HARAV YEHUDA AMITAL SHLIT"A

The Function of the Leviim and the Nesiim

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

The Rambam (Hilkhot Klei Ha-mikdash 3:2) lists the various functions of the Leviim – gatekeepers, guards, and singers. In addition to this, at the end of Hilkhot Shmitta Ve-yovel (13:12) he speaks of the spiritual function of the tribe of Levi: "To teach God's upright ways and His righteous judgments to the masses." Our parasha lists the technical functions of the Leviim in the desert in relation to the mishkan, but we may add that this also had spiritual significance. Am Yisrael wandered in the desert from place to place, each encampment someplace different. Each stop must have had its own characteristic problems, and the function of the Leviim was to know how and where to erect the mishkan at each camping place.

This function has great symbolic significance. Throughout history, Am Yisrael has passed through different places, and the world had progressed and developed beyond measure. The Torah, in contrast, has never changed. There is always a fear that the Torah will become obsolete, irrelevant to later generations. The Rishonim (Rasag, Rambam, and others) addressed this problem and explained that in every generation the Torah must be interpreted in terms of that generation, such that its message for each era will be revealed. Chiddushei Ha-Rim expounds further on this, explaining that the function of the tzaddik (righteous person) in each generation is to find the significance of the Torah for that generation, just as the Leviim used to examine the characteristics of each place and decide accordingly where to erect the mishkan.

Our parasha also recounts how the nesiim (princes of the tribes) brought covered wagons to the Leviim. Rashi (7:3) quotes the midrash explaining why the nesiim decided to volunteer first for the work of the mishkan. At first they had decided to let Am Yisrael bring their contributions for the mishkan, and then they themselves would bring at the end whatever was still needed. But the nation brought more than enough, and there was nothing left for the nesiim to bring but the onyx stones and the stones for the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. Now they had learned their lesson, and volunteered first. The nesiim had believed that Am Yisrael could not manage without leaders, that they would obviously need their help. They had since discovered, to their surprise, that Am Yisrael could manage on their own, and therefore they hurried to contribute first the wagons that they had brought.

This, too, has symbolic significance: it was the Leviim who carried the mishkan and had to decide how to erect it in each different place. The nesiim felt that it would become difficult for the Leviim to carry everything on their shoulders, and brought them wagons. They foresaw what would happen in the future and planned accordingly. We may say that while the function of the Leviim focused on adaptation to the present, the function of the nesiim involved vision, looking towards the future and planning for it. This too is a major function of Jewish leadership. Let us each try to embody the crucial functions of both the Leviim and the nesiim, to reveal the Torah's message for our generation and to plan for the future.

(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Naso 5756 [1996].)

 


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