The Levite families

Parshat Naso consists of several subjects, each one of which is basically self-contained: the section on the sotah (suspected adulteress), the section on the nazir, the priestly blessing, and the offerings of the princes. I would like to discuss the matter that appears at the beginning of the parshah – the service of the Gershonites.

In terms of content, the beginning of the parshah is connected to the previous parshah. After the division of the flags and the division of the camps comes the division of the Levite families, each family in its assigned place and standing. Parshat Bamidbar ends with the service of the Kehatites, and Parshat Naso begins with a description of the service of the Gershonites and Merarites.

The description of the service of the Gershonites follows the pattern of the description of the service of the other Levite families, the Kehatites and the Merarites. The verse, “Take a census of Gershon’s sons also, by their fathers’ houses, by their families,”1 is an almost verbatim repetition of the verse from the preceding parshah, “Take a census of Kehat’s sons among the Levites, by their families, by their fathers’ houses.”2 The Merarites, too, are described as being counted “by their families, by their fathers’ houses.”3

Clearly, then, we are dealing with one section. It is also clear that even though it seems that the same thing is repeated, each Levite house appears independently and is described uniquely. The Kehatites are characterized one way, the Gershonites another way, and the Merarites yet another way. But the question remains: Why does a new parshah begin with the Gershonites? What stands out in the case of the Gershonites is the statement “of Gershon’s sons also.” What is the meaning of the word “also” here?

The Kehatites have a clear designation: “This is the service of the Kehatites in the Tent of Meeting: the Holy of Holies.”4 The Kehatites dealt with the Holy of Holies. Except in a few cases, the Ark of the Covenant was not carried by the Priests but by the Levites – ­specifically the Kehatites. It was their responsibility to carry the contents of the Sanctuary, the sacred vessels: the Menorah, the Table, and the Incense Altar.

The service of the Kehatites did not consist of backbreaking labor. Rather, it was work in the sense of conveying the essence of things. One’s ability to bear the Ark of the Covenant was not a matter of physical strength. It is difficult to imagine how they carried the Ark of the Covenant, particularly in light of the talmudic statement that the Ark-cover’s thickness was one handbreadth.5 To create a cover with a thickness of one handbreadth, even without including the cherubim in the equation, required a huge amount of gold, and the weight of such a cover would be well over a ton. Our sages acknowledge this, explaining that this was not an issue, as “the Ark would carry its bearers.”6 This is an essential point. The Levite who would lift the Ark was not actually lifting a heavy load; he was lifting a supernatural object. Our sages say that “the place of the Ark is not included in the measurement,”7 because the Ark of the Covenant exists half in this world and half in another world. It exists between the material and the spiritual. Hence, the whole matter of carrying the Ark, the Table, and the Menorah transcended the physical carrying.

Thus, the service of the Kehatites was service of people who are on a lofty level. Indeed, the Kehatites did not remain within the limits of this service. Many eminent people came forth from their ranks. One of them was a descendant of Korach, the prophet Samuel, whose level of prophecy was equal to that of Moses and Aaron: “Moses and Aaron among His Priests, and Samuel among those who call on His name.”8 And it is not only Samuel. Anyone who opens the book of Psalms can see that this family accomplished many other profound things: “For the leader, a psalm of the songs of Korach.”9 Once, they carried the Ark of the Covenant; and even when they stopped carrying it, they continued to produce great people from their midst. These people continued to bear the Ark of the Covenant, if not physically then spiritually.

Unlike the Kehatites, the Merarites were simple porters. They carried the boards, the basic structure of the Tabernacle. They took the whole structure, the entire house – but not the sacred vessels. All over the world, there are people who must do the simple work, the menial labor. They could be exalted people or humble people, but in a certain respect, everything depends on them.

In this respect, the Gershonite families occupied a middle position. “This is the service of the Gershonite families: to minister and to carry.”10 The Kehatites dealt with spiritual matters. Though the service of the Merarites was not intellectual work, when they were finished a house stood. They took a hammer and nails and built something. If the Merarites performed the heavy lifting, and the Kehatites dealt with the important, exalted matters, what was left for the Gershonites? The answer is that the Gershonites carried everything in between. They collected and folded all sorts of things, including various materials and ropes.

Sometimes, it is much easier to be one of the simple porters than to be a member of the Gershonites. To be sure, a Merarite could not be an angel, nor could he perform the work of the angels, but his responsibility was clear and defined, and at the end of each day he knew that he accomplished something. But a Gershonite was neither an angel nor a porter – he was in between. The Gershonites certainly engaged in holy work, but not of the highest sort, like the Kehatites. For the Gershonites, it was easy to feel that they were not accomplishing anything.

Because of this, the Torah emphasizes, “Take a census (naso et rosh – literally, raise the heads) of Gershon’s sons also,” because these people must be remembered, they must be uplifted and told, in essence, that the Kehatites did not take all the plum jobs – “Raise the heads of Gershon’s sons also.”

This is also the reason the parshah begins with the census of the Gershonites and is not connected with the preceding parshah: It is a way to give honor to the Gershonites. Instead of again sandwiching them in the middle, between the Kehatites and the Merarites, they are given the honor of beginning a new parshah.

The Gershonite families – middle people

Needless to say, this distinction between people is not limited to Kehatites, Gershonites, and Merarites; it can be applied to almost anyone. Some people are like the Kehatites who carried the holy Ark, and tend to gravitate to roles of this type in all their undertakings. Whether they pursue these roles because of some inner stimulus, or a feeling that society, or their external reality, is pushing them in that direction, they know that they are going to be something special. When a person has a passion to become a Jewish leader – if not tomorrow then sometime in the future – this is because something burns within him and gives him strength to work hard to achieve his aspirations.

Others are like the Merarites; all they want is to be a decent person, a good worker, to do an honest day’s work and earn a living. They will never do anything out of the ordinary, because no one ever discusses matters of great importance with them. Such people could perhaps achieve more, but they remain within their limits. Many people prefer not to be appointed to high positions, but to just remain an ordinary worker, because in many respects this greatly simplifies one’s life. They exemplify the Talmud’s statement, “‘You will eat the fruit of your labor; you will be happy, and it will be well with you.’11 ‘You will happy’ in this world, ‘and it will be well with you’ in the World to Come.”12 There is “fruit of your labor” whose great virtue is “you will be happy in this world.” One knows where the work begins and where it ends, and there is no need to deal with one’s conscience. It is easy to be a decent person, to fulfill one’s responsibilities in life.

When a person does not aspire to great things, he can make for himself a peaceful, simple life. Indeed, many people live this way. One’s life remains simple even when difficulties arise, G‑d forbid. This does not cause inner dilemmas, and he does not struggle with G‑d in matters of faith. If he needs money, for example, he looks for work to increase his income.

Someone once said: The rabbi is so unfortunate! Even when he recites the asher yatzar blessing (after using the bathroom) he must make a whole production out of it, with special contemplations and mystical thoughts. Many people have no such problem; they recite automatically not only asher yatzar but also the blessings of the tefillin, winding them, kissing them, and winding them once more without paying the slightest attention to the meaning behind the process. When he comes home from work, he watches television for a while, then goes to the synagogue, attending a Torah lesson between Minchah and Maariv. Afterward, he’ll watch some more television, recite the Shema, and go to sleep. In this way, his life will be a good life. Such a person could have been one of the Merarites.

The problem is in the case of the Gershonites. A Gershonite is not on such a level that he can put on tefillin in a state of ecstatic reverie. On the other hand, he is not one of the simple people whose lives are without delusions and without pretensions. The Gershonites cannot do the lofty work of the Kehatites, nor do they want to do it; on the other hand, they are not assigned the simple, menial work either. They are in the middle, torn between the two extremes. What happens to the middle person? He cannot live like the Merarites, because if he does so, it will eat him up inside. However, he is not really on the level of the Kehatites either.

This is often the tragedy of career-long assistants and subordinates. They have enough authority and intelligence to cause a headache, but on the other hand, they do not have enough power to make major decisions. Pirkei Avot speaks of such people: “In our hands is neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous.”13 Suffering of the righteous – because a tzaddik undergoes a certain kind of suffering simply by virtue of being a tzaddik, accepting his suffering with love. One who decides to be wicked has a certain kind of tranquility as well. What happens to someone who is neither one nor the other? He has neither suffering nor tranquility, or alternatively, he has both suffering and tranquility. Here stands a man who is not sure why he receives these blows, and when he rests he knows that it will not last long; shortly he will be jolted awake again.

“Raise the heads of Gershon’s sons also”; give these people, who have neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous, a role in the Tabernacle. The Torah tells the Gershonite that he may never reach the level of the Kehatites, who bear the Ark of the Covenant, for he is not cut out for that. The ease and tranquility of placing the boards on the wagon and accompanying them will likewise not be the lot of the Gershonite. Instead, the Gershonite must realize that his service will always include both service of love and service of carrying. That is his lifetime vocation.

The Gershonites receive their very own parshah, an honor that was not bestowed upon the Kehatites and the Merarites. They were given this honor because they suffer on both accounts. They suffer because they want to grow and they have insights into profound matters, but they are unable to realize this or put their lofty aspirations into practice.

“Enthroned upon the praises of Israel

In the description of the ofanim and the chayot who raise themselves toward the seraphim, we find this same distinction. Some angels fly above, and some remain in the middle. The seraphim “were standing above, at His service”14 – they are holy angels, and they burn with His light. The ofan, who is both an angel and a wheel, must watch this seraph fly above, whereas he, the ofan, is tied down below. Had this ofan been simply a wagon wheel, this would not have bothered him. His problem is that he is both an angel trying to ascend and a wheel that cannot ascend. On the other hand, this tension is precisely what makes him holy.

The ofanim and the chayot raise themselves toward the seraphim – they, too, want to be above; they constantly try to ascend higher. Even though they are essentially porters who perform simple labor, they must somehow rise up. Hence, it is said that, in the uppermost realms, the ofanim and chayot ascend higher than the seraphim. This is not because they are on a higher level, but precisely because they live amidst this contradiction and distress.

The seraphim ask, “Where is the place of His glory?”15 because when they speak of G‑d, they know that however holy they may be, He nevertheless is inaccessible to them. No matter how high they ascend, G‑d is above and beyond. “Holy, holy, holy”16 means that G‑d is above, beyond, from the other side, from another reality, in a different world.

By contrast, the ofanim say, “Blessed is the glory of G‑d from His place.”17 Their spirituality consists of revealing G‑d’s presence in the physical world. The seraphim can fly around the divine chariot, and they are very holy, but they elevate neither the divine chariot nor G‑d. Those who elevate Him are the ofanim, the wheels that are tied down below, which will never be seraphim. From where does an ofan get such power to elevate? It is precisely because he is miserable, and precisely because he admits that he cannot be a seraph. He is tied down, relegated to a life of labor. However, the ofan still knows that he is not a simple wheel; he knows that seraphim exist and that a divine chariot exists, and thus he will always aspire to higher things.

The problem of the Gershonites is the problem of the ofanim and of all those who are in the middle. On the one hand, the Gershonite knows that he is not an angel. On the other hand, he is not a simple wheel either who is happy with his lot. The ofan of the divine chariot is an angel, and the source of his power is the fact that he endures suffering, through which he elevates and bears G‑d’s glory.

The essence of the Gershonites applies to mankind in general. A person has enough self-awareness to know that he is not satisfied with his lot in life. He is too corporeal to be an angel and too divine to be an animal. The significance of man as a unique creation lies in his imperfection, and it is on this account that G‑d does not suffice Himself with angels alone.

Before man’s creation, the angels came to G‑d, saying, “Does His Majesty want someone holy? Take Michael. Someone to decide halachot? Take Gabriel. Do You want someone who can generate new insights? Assign two or three angels to work on novel Torah ideas. Do You want simple creatures that eat grass and moo? You already have such creatures.”

The angels did not complain about the cows, goats, sheep, and swallows. Only when man was created did the angels have something to say. If G‑d had created man strictly as a holy soul, the angels might have extolled him.18 If man had been created as a kind of advanced ape that wanders around the world, this too would not have troubled the angels. But G‑d created man, and that is the problem. On the one hand, man was given a soul, which constantly urges him to ascend, yet on the other hand he was given a body, which constantly pulls him down. Thus, G‑d formed a creation that, from its very inception, has existed in a state of contradiction.

We read that G‑d is “enthroned upon the praises of Israel.”19 He sits on a throne of sighs, of those who say, “Master of the Universe, I am not on a very high level, but I still want to uplift myself.” These are the “praises of Israel” on which God is enthroned. The complaints of the angels echo those of many people. These people are constantly distressed by their station in life. They are not simple farmers, because internally they would always be restless. They are not built to be angels either – so what remains? The poor fellow sits there, torn from above and from below. It would have been much better if G‑d had omitted the creation of man entirely, leaving a pleasant, simple world.

G‑d ignored the angels and created man, because He knew what they did not know. What man accomplishes with his torn inner self the angels cannot accomplish with all of their perfection. The Gershonites are neither here nor there, but G‑d appreciates them. Hence, the parshah begins, “Raise the heads of Gershon’s sons.” We conclude the previous parshah by stopping in the middle of the subject, to give the Gershonites the honor they deserve. This is precisely the meaning of “enthroned upon the praises of Israel.”

The Talmud relates that G‑d has an exalted angel upon whom we cannot gaze, who is taller than all the chayot, and who stands behind the Throne of Glory, wreathing crowns for his Maker from the prayers of Israel.20 Down below, there is a Jew who is neither an angel nor a seraph, but from time to time he becomes bitterly sad and says: “Master of the Universe! I would like to do something for You.” Then this exalted angel lowers his whole stature so as to bend down and take these words, with all the mud that is stuck to them. And he is told to clean them, polish them, and make of them a crown for G‑d, as the Midrash says, “‘Israel, in whom I will be glorified’21 – as The Holy One, Blessed Be He, is crowned by the prayers of Israel.”22 What is written in God’s tefillin? “Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.”23

The concept of “Israel, in whom I will be glorified” is in one respect awful and sad. But in another respect, it is our glory as human beings, and G‑d glories in it.