The Three Levite Families
The Torah goes to great length describing the three families of the Tribe of Levi – Gershon, Kehat, and Merari – and their duties bearing the Mishkan (tabernacle). This can only mean that their job in maintaining the Mishkan and the Temple is extremely important. Consequently, it serves as a binyan av (prototype) for our responsibilities in this world.
The bnei Kehat (sons of Kehat) merited carrying the holy vessels used in the Mishkan. The most important vessel was the ark, which was located in the Kodesh Ha’Kodashim (the Holy of Holies), and bore the Tablets and the Torah. Next was the shulchan (the Inner Table), signifyingparnasah (livelihood), whose source originates from holiness; the menorah, which alluded to the various chochmot (knowledge), also originating from the holy; the mizbayakh ha’penimi (Inner Altar), symbolizing prayer and longing for God; and the mizbayakh ha’chitzoni (Outer Altar), which expressed Israel’s misirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) for their faith in God.
In any system, there are those who merit engaging in the central and primary matter, and those who assist them. Bnei Kehat merited engaging in the central matter – to carry the holy vessels, which conveyed all the sacred values.
Indeed, from the family of Kehat came Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron the HaKohen – from whom, all the kohanim stem.
Bnei Gershon carried the covering of the Tabernacle – its’ tapestries, the over-tent and roof, and the enclosure’s hangings. The outer covering of the Mishkan is also very important. True, the main concern is what goes on inside the Tabernacle – by means of the vessels, but all of the vessels received their inspiration from their surroundings.
In other words, the Tabernacle’s vessels allude to ohr ha’penimi (the inner-light), and the Tabernacle’s tapestries allude to ohr makif (surrounding light). In order to understand this, it must first be explained that God’s illumination which He shines on us is divided into two: ohr penimi, and ohr makif. The comprehensible portion is the ohr penimi, which we are able to absorb through our thoughts and feelings, and which actually guides our lives. The portion that is beyond our ability to absorb acts as an ohr makif,
and although we are unable to grasp it, it envelops us, and has a decisively influential inspiration on our lives. Indeed, the Tabernacle’s tapestries were especially beautiful, giving expression to what is beyond our comprehension, but envelops and surrounds us, providing us inspiration.
One of the tasks of the Levites was to sing and play music while people brought their sacrifices. Songs give expression to a longing for something beyond our perception. Kehat engage in the comprehensible, while bnei Gershon express the longing for what is beyond the explicable. Even their name alludes to this: Gershon from the Hebrew word ger (stranger), for man is like a stranger in this world, his soul longing for closeness to God and Divinity, and these yearnings are expressed in song.
The hard work was left for bnei Merari – to carry the Tabernacle’s beams, crossbars, pillars, and bases. The beams and the crossbars were extremely heavy. True, Merari was given four carts to assist them in their work, but since the carts were relatively small, apparently, this assistance was limited; all through the difficult and arduous paths in the desert, they had to carry most of the burden on their shoulders.
Seemingly, bnei Merari were pitiable. Even their name alludes to this: Merari in Hebrew impliesbitterness. Ostensibly, they have a thankless job. The important vessels, indicative of the ohr penimi, were cared for by bnei Kehat. The beautiful tapestries, suggesting the ohr makif, were in the hands of bnei Gershon. The Bnei Merari was left to carry the heavy beams, which hardly anyone saw, seeing as the tapestries hid them from the sight of anyone standing outside the Tabernacle. Only the few kohanim who entered the Tabernacle to perform their tasks with the vessels carried by bnei Kehat, could see the beams that bnei Merari bore with the sweat of their brow.
Nevertheless, the beams were the foundation of the Tabernacle; they are the pillars upon which everything stands.
Bnei Merari is representative of all those seemingly unpretentious people – who in truth are the foundation of the world. They are willing to do the tough, dirty work. Ostensibly, others reap all the glory; but without them, nothing would exist.
Three Types of Jews in the Synagogue
The Kehatim are indicative of those people who are able to pray with full concentration, paying attention to every single word. They are the ones who give the sermons and teach the laws. TheGershonim are people who pray with great excitement and intent – they are the ones who sing longingly and with devotion. Bnei Merari, on the other hand, finds it difficult to always concentrate on every single word of their prayers; even the melodies don’t rouse them that much. But nevertheless, they arrive to synagogue day in and day out, reciting all that is necessary. Occasionally, they find it extremely difficult; their thoughts wander in all directions, and they can’t concentrate on their prayers. But faithful to God their Lord, they fulfill their duty. They are the foundations of the world.
If dues must be paid to the synagogue – they are the first to pay. If the synagogue needs to be cleaned – they will clean it. If prayer books need to be returned to their place and chairs need arranging – they volunteer. If a volunteer is needed to prepare tea for those learning at night – they will prepare the tea. If someone needs to wake up early to open the synagogue – they will get up. On the surface, they appear simple; but in the upper worlds, they are great. They express the emunah (faith) rooted beyond all the understandings of bnei Kehat, and beyond all the emotions of bnei Gershon.
A Topsy-Turvy World
In regards to such things our Sages said that in the World to Come, everything is in reverse – “the upper [class] is underneath, and the lower on top” (Pesachim 50a). This is because in the world in which we live, people are measured according to their achievements. However, in the World to Come, the world of truth, people are measured according to their amount of effort and dedication. This is accurate, because a person’s achievements in this world depend heavily on the help of God, but the effort made is dependent on the individual.
Bnei Merari are God-fearing and humble, and fear is the beginning of wisdom, as it is written: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10), and humility is on an even higher level, as it is written: “The reward of humility is fear of God” (Proverbs 22:4). Thus, the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom, is the reward of humility” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 1:9).
Everyone has a bit of Kehat, Gershon, and Merari
These three prototypes exist in each individual. In all endeavors, every so often one is able to understand something meaningful, resulting in a feeling of happiness – in the sense of Kehat. Occasionally, one experiences an emotional awakening, and then his feeling of happiness is in the sense of Gershon. But most of the time, one has to do the hard work, carefully checking all his thoughts, weeding out the inaccuracies, defining and clarifying them. He does not feel happy while doing the legwork, and then he is considered like Merari. However, in the long term, one gets the greatest satisfaction precisely from the hard work.
At times, a person runs out of strength being a Merari, and then he becomes old and begins to lose altitude. If he does not come to his senses – he will collapse. Without the pillars, even the most sacred tabernacle will collapse.
Without Merari, Everything Collapses
Every society, enterprise, family, and community, encompasses these three types of people.Kehat– like people define the content, Gershon-like people delineate the desire for what transcends reality, and Merari-like people bear on their shoulders the burden of the system itself. Without them, the system would collapse.
A mother taking care of her children definitely has moments of deep understanding with her children (Kehat), and there are also magical, emotional moments (Gershon). But most of the time, taking care of them is routine and demanding, devoid of understanding or a special feeling (Merari). However, this area of childcare is the essence, because it expresses a love and responsibility towards the children. This is what the children remember forever, and cling to in difficult moments of their lives – even when they are old. Without this childcare, children will grow up wild; all their parents’ insights and emotions will not help – they will hate their parents, and themselves.
The Status of the Levites
For years,a question has accompanied me concerning the status of the Levites. They seem disadvantaged compared to Kohanim (priests) and the Yisraelim (Israelites). Compared to theKohanim who were engaged in the Temple service itself, the Levites merely guarded the gates of the Temple and sang while the sacrifices were brought. Even their economic conditions were poorer than the Kohanim who received far more gifts than they did, and compared to Yisraelimwho received an inheritance in the Land of Israel, while the Levites lived in forty-eight cities scattered across the country.
Moreover, the Levites allude to midat ha’din (attribute of strict justice), the Kohanim allude to the attribute of chesed (loving kindness), and the Yisraelim to tifferet (beauty, or harmony). And as well known, one always tries to minimize midat ha’din, and on the other hand, increase midat ha’chesed and tifferet, because midat ha’din is too demanding, accusing all that is not perfect.
The Levites are Moshe Rabbeinu’s Successors
Recently, it came to me: Moshe Rabbeinu was a Levite! Israel’s greatest personality was a Levite – and if so, they were greater than all. And indeed, this was the role of the members of the Levite tribe – to continue the path of Moshe Rabbeinu, teaching Torah to the Jewish nation. They taught the children, and were the local rabbis all over the country. They also engaged in the rehabilitation if prisoners who were exiled to an ir miklat (city of refuge). They were also worthy of being modest and humble, character traits that lead to morality and a pure heart. This was Moshe Rabbeinu’s attribute – the humblest of all mankind.
Moshe Rabbeinu devoted his entire life for the sake of Israel, putting aside his family, possessions, and even his portion in the World to Come to sustain Israel. Likewise, the Levites relinquish their honor and worldly pleasures in order to teach Israel Torah.
The Final Redemption Depends on Midat Ha’Din and Bnei Merari
While it is true that midat ha’din is demanding, nevertheless, the entire purpose of Creation is to reveal chesed precisely by means of it. In other words, a person should develop to such a degree that through his good deeds, he will be entitled b’din (rightfully) to all the kindness God grants him, and then ‘God will rejoice over us, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride’.
This is what our Sages said – that at first, God thought to create the world with midat ha’din, and only when He saw that it was unable to withstand its severity, shared with it midat ha’rachamim(the attribute of mercy). However, in the future, the world will be based on midat ha’din, and this will be the complete tikun (perfection).