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Torah Commentary
B'midbar (June 4, 2016)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

This week we start reading the fourth book of the Torah. Our Torah portion takes its name from this book: B’midbar. B’midbar translates to “in the wilderness” and thus sets the scene for where this book takes place. The English name for this book is “Numbers” and is equally as telling, as this week’s parashah starts with a census of the Israelites. Tribe by tribe the generations were listed and counted as they stood in the Sinai desert. They also were told where to camp and in what order to march.

But, there was one tribe that was handled differently than all the others: the Tribe of Levi. The Levites were not to be counted together with the other tribes of Israel. Rather, they were appointed the holy work of taking care of the Tabernacle. They were in charge of guarding its contents: setting it up when they arrived at a new location and packing it up when they were on the move. Each family within the tribe was assigned to different parts of the Temple. All of the Levites were to camp around the Tent of Meeting to ensure that no strangers could come close to the Sanctuary.

Within the Levites, a separate census was taken of the Kohathites between the ages of 30 and 50. This clan was given the responsibility of moving the most sacred objects in the Temple. This week’s portion ends with a very detailed description of exactly how the sacred objects should be handled when it was time to move the camp. We are told that Aaron and his sons are the ones who would do the actual packing of the sacred objects. Only once they are wrapped as described were the Kohathites allowed to come in and move them. In fact, if the Kohathites witnessed the dismantling of the Temple they would die.

I was struck by the specificity of the task assignment as well as the tasks themselves. Our text goes to great lengths to describe exactly how the Temple should be packed. No other task gets detailed like this. On the one hand, you can imagine that this deed was the most difficult because of the sensitivity of the objects. God wanted to make sure that the holy vessels and garments would be taken care of properly. Aaron and his sons had a very clear description of what they needed to do each time the Tent of Meeting needed to be moved. So too did the Kohathites have great clarity on what was being asked of them. Clearly there could be nothing more important than taking care of the Temple. Would it have been enough for God to just give out the tasks and hope for the best? If they got it wrong, then it is made clear that this could lead to death. In this sense, we can interpret God’s micromanagement as God setting up the Levites for success.

However, on the other hand I wonder why the Levites were treated differently from the other tribes. Surely there must have been other important tasks when moving camp. A whole nation had to move together — no easy task, with a great deal of good communication and coordination required. And if the other tribes were surveyed to see how many could go to war, then why isn’t there more detail on what was expected? Why didn’t God want to ensure the success of everyone else? In today’s workplace this is akin to some people having detailed job descriptions and others having just a title and specific place to sit. True, some tasks may inherently be more important or sensitive than others. But there need not be a difference in the manner in which each individual approaches his or her tasks — with the hope of achieving success.

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