Lecture 35: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XVIII) - "Those Who Stand Before the Lord" (Part I) The Firstborns

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

 

            We have completed our discussion of the relationship between service at altars and pillars and service in the Mishkan, the examination of the timing of and reasons for the transition, and our attempt to understand the history and nature of the allowance of bamot; we will now continue with the history of the resting of the Shekhina from the revelation at Mount Sinai to the entry into the Land of Israel.

 

            Following the revelation at Mount Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, the people of Israel remained at the foot of Mount Sinai from the time of the dedication of the Mishkan at the beginning of the month of Nisan in the second year after the exodus from Egypt until the twentieth of Iyar of that year (Bamidbar 10:11).  Israel's preparations for their departure from Mount Sinai and for embarking on their journey towards Eretz Yisrael are described in the first chapters of the book of Bamidbar.  The sefer begins with three censuses that were conducted in Iyar of that year (Bamidbar 1-5): a count of those able to go out to war – all males twenty years old and older, to the exclusion of the Levites; a count of the Levites who served in the Mishkan – from thirty to fifty years old; and in the middle – a parallel count of the firstborns in Israel and the firstborns of the Levites one month and older, the purpose of which was to substitute the Levites for the firstborns.

 

            This lecture, the first of several lectures regarding those who served in the Mishkan, will deal with the service of the firstborns and their replacement by the Levites (in this sense, it is a continuation of our discussion of the transition to service in the Mishkan).

 

I.          The Service of the Firstborns

 

In lecture no.  33, we cited the words of the mishna (Zevachim 14:4): "Until the Mishkan was erected… the service [was performed] by the firstborns."  When did this service begin? According to several rabbinic sources, this status of the firstborn began at the time of the creation of the world.  The most detailed account is found in Bamidbar Rabba (4, 8):

 

"Take the Levites, etc." (Bamidbar 3:45).  Our Rabbis said: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, command that the firstborns of Israel be redeemed with the Levites? For at first the firstborns ministered, before the tribe of Levi stood up…

Consider from the beginning of the creation of the world: Adam was the firstborn of the world, and when he offered his sacrifice… he donned the high priestly garments, as it is stated: "For the man also and for his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them" (Bereishit 3:21) – they were Shabbat garments, and the firstborns ministered while wearing them.

When Adam died he passed them down to Shet.

Shet passed them down to Metushelach.

When Metushelach died he passed them down to Noach.  Noach stood up and offered a sacrifice, as it is stated: "And he took of every clean beast, etc." (ibid.  8:20).

Noach died and he passed them down to Shem.  But was Shem a firstborn? Surely Yefet was the firstborn… Why then did he pass them down to Shem? Because Noach foresaw that the chain of patriarchs would issue from him…

Shem died and passed them down to Avraham.  But was Avraham a firstborn? Rather, because he was a righteous man, the birthright was passed down to him and he offered a sacrifice…

Avraham died and passed it down to Yitzchak.

Yitzchak stood up and passed it down to Ya'akov.  But was Ya'akov a firstborn? Rather you find that Ya'akov took it from Esav with cunning… You might have thought that it was for naught that Ya'akov asked Esav to sell him the birthright.  No, Ya'akov wished to offer sacrifices, but he was unable to do so because he was not a firstborn… At that time when Ya'akov bought the birthright, he began to offer sacrifices…

And similarly, when Moshe offered sacrifices at Sinai, it was the firstborns who sacrificed, as it is stated: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel who offered burnt offerings (Shemot 24:5).  Thus you learn that only firstborns offered sacrifices…

 

            The midrash describes a chain of firstborns wearing the high priestly garments and offering sacrifices – although in some cases, we are not dealing with an actual firstborn, sanctified with intrinsic sanctity, but with a person who was fit for such sanctity in his generation.  The principle of service being conducted by the firstborns is found in other rabbinic sources as well, such as the midrashim concerning Esav's sale of the birthright to Ya'akov (see Bereishit Rabba 63, 13 [63, 33 in Theodor-Albeck edition]).  The Rambam writes similarly in his commentary to the mishna (Zevachim 14:4): "For the service was always conducted exclusively by the firstborns from Adam until Moshe Rabbenu."

 

            After the exodus from Egypt, however, it is stated:

 

Sanctify to Me all the firstborn, whoever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is mine… and it shall be when the Lord shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites… You shall set apart to the Lord all that opens the womb… And all the firstborn of man among your children shall you redeem.  And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, "What is this?" that you shall say to him, "By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage; and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast.  Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord all that opens the womb, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem." (Shemot 13:2, 11-15)

 

            The Ramban explains there (v. 11): "According to the plain sense of the text: 'Sanctify to me all the firstborn' – all that are found in Israel today.  Since He delivered them from death when He smote [the firstborns] in the land of Egypt, He commanded that they be sanctified to Him to perform the Divine service, whatever He commands them." In other words, the fact that God spared the firstborns of Israel when He smote the firstborns of Egypt sanctified them to God, for they owed their very existence to Him; their sanctification is unconnected to anything that happened before the exodus from Egypt! Perhaps, according to the Ramban, the sanctification of the firstborns in the wake of their deliverance in Egypt was an additional level in the designation of the firstborns for the Divine service, beyond their natural sanctity.  If this is correct, the sanctity of the firstborns in the aftermath of the exodus from Egypt was composed of two levels – the primal natural level and an additional level of assignment and sanctity stemming from the connection between God and Israel as it was expressed in the exodus from Egypt.

 

            What is the meaning of the primal, natural level of the sanctity of the firstborns and their service? The answer seems to be simple.  The firstborn is like first-fruit (bikkurim), the first-fruit of man, representing the essence of his labor in building a family.  Giving his first-fruit to God reflects man's recognition that everything belongs to God, that everything comes from Him, and that he must be grateful for everything that he receives from Him.  It is therefore fitting that the firstborn should perform the Divine service.  The firstborn also expresses the fundamental connection between him and his source, his parents (in this he is, to a certain degree, different from the children that come after him), and in this sense, between him and the source of all, God.[1]

 

            Furthermore, in ancient times the firstborn was regarded as a substitute for his father, and it was he who generally succeeded his father as head of the family following the latter's death.  It is not by chance that Scripture occasionally uses the term "bekhor" (firstborn) in the sense of greatness and superiority (e.g., "Israel is my son, my firstborn" [Shemot 4:22], "And I will make him firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth" [Tehillim 89:28]).[2] From this perspective as well, it is appropriate that the firstborn, who in a certain sense stands at the head of the family, be the family's representative in the service of God.

 

            All this notwithstanding, throughout the book of Bereishit, the firstborn is systematically pushed aside and his role is assumed by a younger brother, who is chosen on account of his deeds.  According to the Torah, the birthright – the sanctity of primacy, of the opening of the womb – does not guarantee rule and dominion; these depend first and foremost on the particular person's character and conduct.  This principle finds expression, as we saw in the midrash, with respect to the priesthood as well, at first through the replacement of certain firstborns by their more worthy brothers, and later, with the outright removal of the Divine service from the firstborns.

 

II.         The Replacement of the Firstborns by the Levites

 

When Was the Sacrificial Service Transferred to the Priests?

 

            According to what we have learned thus far, the Divine service was in the hands of the firstborns from the time of the creation of the world until it passed into the hands of the Levites.  When exactly did this occur?

 

            According to the simple reading of the relevant biblical texts, the priests began to serve at the dedication of the Mishkan, on the eighth day, after they had been consecrated for the Divine service over the course of the eight days of milu'im.  Thus, it is stated in the command regarding the building of the Mishkan: "And take you to you Aharon your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel that he may minister to Me in the priest's office, Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aharon" (Shemot 28:1).  In the continuation, Moshe is commanded regarding the fashioning of the priestly garments "that he may minister to Me in the priest's office" (Shemot 28), and about the process of consecrating the priests during the days of milu'im (Shemot 29).  The fulfillment of these commands is described in the book of Vayikra (chapters 8-9).  This is the plain sense of the mishna in Zevachim (14:4): "Until the Mishkan was erected, bamot were permitted, and the service was [performed] by the firstborns; when the Mishkan was erected, bamot were forbidden, and the service was [performed] by the priests."

 

The gemara (Zevachim 115b), however, records a dispute relating to the verses that mention the priests and the offering of sacrifices by "the young men of the children of Israel" at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai:

 

Rav Huna bar Rav Katina sat before Rav Chisda and read: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, [who offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offering of oxen to the Lord]" (Shemot 24:5).  He said to him: Thus said Rav Asi: (They offered) and stopped.

 

            Rashi (ad loc.) records two explanations of the words of Rav Asi.  According to the first explanation, the firstborns performed the service on the day of the revelation at Sinai, but from then on their service ceased:

 

On that day, the service performed by the firstborns terminated, for they were commanded about the priesthood at Sinai, as we learn below.  And Nadav and Avihu served that whole first year until the Mishkan was erected and they died…

 

            According to the second explanation brought by Rashi, the sacrificial service was transferred to the sons of Aharon, the priests, on the day of the revelation at Sinai itself:

 

Another explanation: Rav Asi said as follows: And stop – one must stop here with the cantillation note of an etnachta.  One must not read [the word] with the cantillation note of a pashta, the way we read it, for when it is read with a pashta, the implication is that the reading of "the young men of the children of Israel" is connected to "they offered burnt offerings." That is, that they [the young men] offered them.  But when you read [the word] with an etnachta, the word stands by itself and is not connected to "they offered." And it might be argued that he only sent them to bring the sacrifices and to stand over them.  And "they offered burnt offerings," namely, those who were fit to offer them, i.e., Nadav and Avihu, for as soon as they came to Sinai, the priests were set aside, as is learned below.

 

            In the continuation of the passage, Rav Huna bar Rav Katina raises an objection against Rav Asi, and the gemara concludes that they disagree about something that was already the subject of dispute between Tannaim:

 

It is the subject of a Tannaitic dispute, for it was taught: "And let the priests also, who come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves" (Shemot 19:22) – Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says: This is the separation of the firstborns.  Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] says: This is the separation of Nadav and Avihu.[3]

 

            We see, then, that according to Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the priests already began to serve in place of the firstborns at the time of the revelation at Sinai, whereas according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, the firstborns performed the Divine service at that time.  Most of the Rishonim follow the view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, that the "priests" mentioned at Sinai (Shemot 19:22, 24) are the firstborns (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Chizkuni, ad loc.),[4] and this is also the way they identified "the young men of the children of Israel," who, according to the plain sense of the text, offered sacrifices at that time.[5]

 

            Is it possible to learn anything from here as to when the firstborns ceased conducting the service? According to the position of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi that the priests began to serve at the revelation at Sinai or immediately thereafter, the answer to this question seems to be in the affirmative, and certainly according to Rashi's second explanation of the words of Rav Asi.  According to the position of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha that the priests only began to serve at some later point – presumably at the dedication of the Mishkan, as is implied by the plain sense of the verses in Shemot and Vayikra cited above – there is no concrete answer to the question of when the firstborns terminated their service.  It is also possible that between the revelation at Mount Sinai or the command to build the Mishkan and the actual erection of the Mishkan there was a time during which no service whatsoever was conducted, neither by the firstborns nor by the priests.

 

Furthermore, it is important to note that all the verses that were discussed here (according to the various explanations) deal exclusively with the selection of the priests, with no connection to the firstborns.  Not only do these verses not note when the service performed by the firstborns terminated, they nowhere mention that the firstborns were replaced by the priests.  Indeed, as we shall immediately see, the firstborns were not replaced by the priests, but by the Levites – an issue discussed by the Torah in a totally different place.

 

The Selection of the Tribe of Levi and the Replacement of the Firstborns With the Levites

 

The main source regarding this matter is the book of Bamidbar, which focuses in general on the service of the Levites (as opposed to the book of Vayikra, which emphasizes the service of the priests).  The issue is first mentioned in chapter 3, which describes the second census – the census of the Levites from the age of one month and older and the census of the firstborns in Israel – and the substitution of the one for the other.

 

Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aharon the priest, that they may minister to him.  And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the Tent of Meeting, to do the service of the Tabernacle… And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; they are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel…

And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children Of Israel instead of all the firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel.  Therefore, the Levites shall be mine, because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed to Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast.  Mine shall they be; I am the Lord…

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle; and the Levites shall be mine; I am the Lord.  (Bamidbar 3:6-9,12-13, 44-45)

 

            These events occurred, as stated, in Iyar of the second year, that is to say, about a month after the dedication of the Mishkan.

 

            Note that the book of Bamidbar does not offer a reason for the selection of the Levites and the replacement of the firstborns with them.  It is, however, the only source that explicitly notes the replacement itself – a point that is emphasized a second time in the description of the purification of the Levites and their entry into their new role in chapter 8 of the book:

 

And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the Tent of Meeting.  And you shall cleanse them, and offer them for an offering.  For they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of such as open every womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel, have I taken them to Me.  For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast; on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself.  And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel.  (ibid.  8:15-18)

 

The Background for the Selection of the Tribe of Levi

 

            As stated, the book of Bamibar does not explain why the Levites were chosen.  An explanation for this is found in the book of Shemot, which draws a connection between the selection of the Levites and their conduct during the sin of the golden calf:

 

Then Moshe stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.  And he said to them, "Thus, says the Lord, God of Israel, 'Put every man his sword by his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'" And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moshe… For Moshe said, "Consecrate yourselves (mil'u yedkem) today to the Lord, every man against his son, and against his brother; that He may bestow upon you a blessing this day." (Shemot 32:26-29)

 

            The term "milui yadayim" usually denotes consecration for service and entry into a position (see Shemot 29:9, 35; Bamidbar 3:3; Yechezkel 43:26; II Divrei Ha-yamim 13:9; 29:31).  This is the way Rashi understood the term: "You will by this very act install yourselves as priests of God." An allusion to this is also found in Moshe's blessing of the tribe of Levi prior to his death:

 

And of Levi he said, Let your Tumim and your Urim be with your pious one… Who said of his father and of his mother, I have not seen him; or did he acknowledge his brothers, nor knew his own children: for they have observed Your word, and kept Your covenant.  They shall teach Ya'akov Your judgments, and Israel Your Torah.  They shall put incense before You, and whole burnt sacrifice upon Your altar.  (Devarim 33:8-10)

 

            According to many Rishonim, the reference here is to the Levites' conduct following the sin involving the golden calf, when they killed the sinners, even if they were relatives.[6] It should be noted that Rashi connects another verse to this incident: "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to Him, and to bless in His name, to this day" (Devarim 10:8).  According to his commentary (ad loc.) – "at that time" means after the sin of the golden calf.[7]

 

Why Were the Firstborns Replaced?

 

            Thus far we have seen that the source for the replacement of the firstborns with the Levites is the book of Bamidbar, but that source does not explain the reason for that replacement.  On the other hand, the book of Shemot justifies the selection of the tribe of Levi with their conduct at the time of the sin of the golden calf (and, according to Rashi's comment on Devarim 10:8, the Levites were also set apart for their role immediately after that sin).  In the wake of this, some of the midrashim and commentators filled in the missing link as follows: Just as the Levites were selected as a result of their cleaving to God during the sin of the golden calf, the firstborns were rejected because of their participation in that sin.

 

            Thus, for example, the passage from Bamidbar Rabba that was cited at the beginning of this lecture (Bamidbar Rabba 4, 8)[8] essentially deals with the issue of the replacement of the firstborns, as it opens:

 

"Take the Levites, etc." (Bamidbar 3:45).  Our Rabbis said: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, command that the firstborns of Israel be redeemed with the Levites? For at first the firstborns served, before the tribe of Levi stood up…

 

The midrash continues, as may be recalled, with an account of the chain of the firstborns serving as priests, but it concludes with their being replaced by the Levites:

 

When Israel did that deed, they said: Let the firstborns come and offer sacrifices before Him, as it is stated: "And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings" (Shemot 32:6).  God said to them: I showed preference to the firstborns and made them great in the world, but they denied Me and stood up and offered sacrifices before the calf.  Surely I will remove the firstborns and bring in the sons of Levi.

 

            When they sinned with the golden calf, the firstborns lost their ability to represent their people and their families[9] in the sacrificial service, and they were replaced by the Levites, who proved that were worthy of the task.  Rav Chayim Sabato formulated this idea very well:[10]

 

The firstborns - whose sanctity was from the womb and also because of the miracle performed for them when they were delivered from death - lost their birthright because of their sin and evil deeds.  The sanctity of the Levites was not from the womb and no miracle had been performed for them, but rather they, by way of their own choice, sanctified themselves to God and His service and became sanctified.  When sanctity is assigned to man and he is not worthy of it, it is removed from him, but when man earns sanctity by way of his actions and by his own choice, that sanctity is lasting.

 

            This continues the principle that we saw regarding the chain of priests prior to the giving of the Torah, which included people who were not actual firstborns, but nevertheless those most worthy for the priesthood.

 

            Not only did the Levites replace the firstborns because of their involvement in the sin of the golden calf, but they also atoned for them and saved them from the punishment of destruction that should have been imposed upon them.  The aforementioned midrash continues as follows:

 

Nevertheless, the firstborns were liable for destruction.  God said: Let the sons of Levi come and redeem them.  You therefore find that the Levites redeemed the firstborns.  This is what is written: "Take the Levites… and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle."

 

            Similarly, Rashi (in his commentary to Bamidbar 8:7) notes with respect to the process of purification that the Levites underwent: "I have found in the work of Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan the following: Because they served as atonement for the firstborns who had worshipped the idol, and it [idolatry] is called "offerings to the dead," and the leper is [also] called dead, [Scripture] requires them to shave [their body] like lepers."

 

            Now we can return to the question that was discussed above: When did the firstborns stop their service? According to this midrash – which apparently reflects the most accepted position in Chazal and the commentators – the firstborns' assignment to the sacrificial service was abruptly terminated with the sin of the golden calf.  In actuality, then, the firstborns of Israel served in the priesthood for only a very short period – from the exodus from Egypt until the sin of the golden calf, that is to say, from the middle of Nisan until the seventeenth of Tamuz (according to rabbinic tradition; see Ta'anit 4:6) of the first year to the exodus.

 

            Before concluding, let us add that everything that was stated in this section was said according to the view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha.  According to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the role of the firstborns ended at the revelation at Mount Sinai, unconnected to any sin.  It is possible that the transition from service conducted by the firstborn of each and every family to service conducted by a single tribe that represents the nation as a whole reflects, according to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the transition from individual service to communal service; that transition therefore takes place precisely at Mount Sinai, where Israel acquired a much more elevated spiritual status, which gave their identity as a people an entirely new and different character.

 

            A different understanding that accords with the view of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is the original suggestion of the Chizkuni in his commentary to what is stated, "And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children Of Israel… to do the service of the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting… that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come near to the sanctuary" (Bamidbar 8:18-19).  According to the Chizkuni, the transition to service performed by the priests and the Levites was intended to allow for greater professional skill on the part of those serving in the Mishkan, which would be achieved by way of its being handed down from father to son:

 

"And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn" – because if all the firstborns would serve, there would be plague among them, for the father of a firstborn may not be a firstborn, nor his grandfather, and they would not have been trained in the service.  Therefore, when he [the firstborn] comes to serve, he would not be proficient and careful about it, and he would act improperly, and be smitten, as we find regarding Nadav and Avihu.  But the Levites, since they were chosen, them, their sons, and their sons' sons for all generations, were trained and careful in their service to do it properly.  Therefore, Scripture states: "The Levite shall not have a part or inheritance, etc." They must not engage in any work other than the holy service, lest their hands become accustomed to mundane work and thus their arms and fingers become hard and thickened and they become unable to properly play their instruments and the song will become ruined.

 

***

 

            The next lecture will deal with the standing of the Levites and their entry into the service of the Mishkan.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 

[1] In other ancient cultures, the unique status of the firstborn became perverted in two ways - on the hand, through the custom of sacrificing him to the gods and on the other hand, through turning the firstborn himself into a god.  See Encyclopedia Mikra'it, s.v. bekhor, bekhora, vol. II, pp. 123-126, Jerusalem, 5725; Encyclopedia Otzar Yisrael, ed. I.D. Eisenstein, s.v. bekhora, vol. II, p. 77.

[2] See the sources cited in note 1.

[3] In the Mekhilta on the verse (Mekhilta Yitro, masekhta de-ba-chodesh, sec. 4, ed. Horowitz-Rabin), however, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi's position is brought in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha.

[4] In his first explanation, the Chizkuni adds that the seventy elders mentioned in Shemot 24:1 were firstborns (and so, too, writes the Ibn Ezra in his commentary to that verse).  In his second explanation, he writes: "Another explanation: 'the priests' – the officers and judges." And he concludes: "You cannot say priests, literally, for they were not yet made priests."

[5] Shemot 24:5 – see Mekhilta de-Rashbi, chap. 24, and Onkelos, Rav Sa'adya Gaon, Rashi, ad loc.; and see Ibn Ezra in his short commentary and Ramban, ad loc. regarding why they are called "young men"

[6] The blessing, however, seems to be focused on the selection of the priests, and not on the selection of the entire tribe.

[7] The Ramban, on the other hand, understands that the reference is to the time of the carving of the second set of tablets.  This disagreement is part of a broader disagreement about the relationship between the selection of the priests and the selection of the Levites.  According to the Ramban, Aharon and his sons were chosen for some reason unrelated to the sin of the golden calf, and the Levites were joined to them in the aftermath of that sin; Rashi, on the other hand, maintains that first the entire tribe of Levi was selected in the wake of that sin, and at a later stage Aharon and his sons were selected from among the tribe for the priesthood.

We already discussed this disagreement at length in lecture no.  24 in last year's series, but it is important for our discussion, for both Rashi and the Ramban connect the selection of the entire tribe of Levi to the sin of the golden calf, and not only the selection of the priests (as might have been understood from Scripture; see previous note).  This understanding is found already in the words of Chazal, e.g, in the following midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1, 12): "'Therefore, the Levites shall be mine' – for whoever draws Me near, I draw him near.  They drew themselves near to Me, as it is stated: 'And Moshe said, 'Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come to me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.' They drew Me near and I draw them near – 'Therefore the Levites shall be mine.' Moreover, because they were loyal to Me, and kept my prohibition, 'You shall have no other gods beside Me' (Shemot 20:2), therefore they are fit to be in charge of My house: 'But you shall appoint the Levites, etc.' (Bamidbar 1:50)."

[8] See also Bamidbar Rabba 6, 2.

[9] The transition from the popular service of individual families, in which the firstborn represents the entire family, to service in which one tribe represents the entire nation is a very significant change.  The Ramban noted the significance of this change in his explanation of the nation's complaint following the deaths of Korach and his company (Bamidbar 17:6): "The correct understanding is that the people already believed in Aharon's priesthood, for a fire had issued forth from before God and consumed his sacrifices, but they wanted the firstborns to serve in the Mishkan in place of the Levites… because they wanted all the tribes to have a part in the service in the house of God…" It should be remembered that this change is an important element in the Seforno's position that the Mishkan reflects a constriction of the resting of God's Shekhina, as was explained at length in lecture no. 23 in last year's series.

[10] Ahavat Torah, Tel-Aviv 2000, pp.  262-263.