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Torah Commentary
Be-Ha’alotekha (May 28, 2018)
Bettijane Eisenpreis
For every first-born among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote every first-born in the Land of Egypt. Now I take the Levites instead of every first-born of the Israelites; and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary.
Numbers 8: 17-19

Wow! I always knew the Levites were special, but I was not aware how special they were. In this portion from Leviticus, we learn that God took them for Himself instead of every first-born male from the whole community of the Israelites and assigned them to assist the Kohanim, Aaron and his sons, in the service of the Temple.

The good news is that, when God said, “I take them for myself instead of every first-born of the Israelites,” He meant to take them into His service, not as a human sacrifice. The instructions are very specific: the Levites were to assist the Kohanim in their religious duties. They sang and played music, serve as guards for the holy places, and carry parts of the Tabernacle when the Israelites moved from place to place. There were three family groups of Levites – Gershonites, Kohathites , and Merarites – named for the grandfather and great-uncles of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Each had its own set of tasks in the Tabernacle and its own Tabernacle components to carry.

Since Levites had special duties, they were not counted in the census like the rest of the Israelites, because they were exempt from military service. However, before the Israelites set off on their trek through the wilderness, a separate census of the Levites was conducted. Looking ahead, we will find that when the people reach the Promised Land, the Levites are not apportioned land to settle, but they are given special cities in compensation for their service to the Temple. In one section of Numbers, the age that a Levite was qualified for service is given as 30 years of age; in another chapter, it is 25. The explanation given by some interpreters is that Levites began their training at 25, but only at 30 was he qualified for Temple service.

The tradition has continued. There are Levities today, but they are not all named Levy; nor is everyone named Levy a Levite. According to tradition, only Levites whose roots reach back to Levi, son of Jacob, is a Levite – although there may be some difficulty in proving that claim.

A partial list of well-known Levites without Levi in their names includes: architect Frank Gehry, “All in the Family’s” Norman Lear and the late Israeli President Chaim Herzog. More obvious Levites were Holocaust survivor Primo Levi and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. I wonder if Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans (levis), would have fallen into that category.

In traditional congregations, a Levite receives the second call to the Torah, right after a Kohen. Also, the first-born son of a Levite, or a baby girl whose father was a Levite, does not have to be redeemed through the ritual of Pidyon HaBen (the buying back of the firstborn) because the Levites were offered as redemption for all the firstborn sons.

In Temple Emanu-El, one can be called to the Torah in any order, whether or not one is descended from a priestly clan. Still, the stories of our people are ancient and fascinating, and they still live today.

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