Parshat Naso begins with the count of the children of Gershon and Merari from the tribe of Levi. They would be hauling the coverings, curtains, posts and panels of the Mishkan and its courtyard when the Jewish people traveled in the desert. This comes after the count of the children of Kehat, who carried the vessels of the Mishkan, recorded at the end of the previous parshah, Bamidbar.

At first glance, it seems that this count is merely relevant for that time. Yet, as we know, everything in Torah is eternal.1 Why does the Torah indeed choose to discuss this? If the Torah writes this, it must be an eternal lesson, relevant to every one of us, even in our day and age. What is the eternal message here for every single Jew?

Levi had three boys, Gershon, Kehat and Merari, in that order. Yet, when they were counted, Kehat was counted first. Why?

To understand this, we first have to answer a more fundamental question. Why did G‑d have the Jewish people stay in the desert for 40 years? It is true that they were punished with not being allowed to enter the Holy Land for 40 years because of the fiasco with the spies, who gave a bad report and turned the hearts of the people against the land. But that only explains why they didn't enter the land. Why not take them to another country for 40 years? Why did they have to be "in the great and awesome desert with snakes, serpents and scorpions, and thirst, for there is no water?"2

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi3 explains: "The reason for their travels in the desert with the Mishkan and its vessels was to subdue the power the negative forces that leach [off holiness], because their ability to leech stems specifically from the desert." Through subduing the ability of the negative forces to leach from holiness, "they drew the revelation of G‑dliness."4

You see, there is a constant spiritual battle between the negative forces and the forces of good. The negative forces don't get their nourishment directly from G‑d. Rather, they leach what they can in an indirect way. They find openings, due to our weaknesses and failings, and that becomes their nourishment. Our travels in the desert greatly hampered their ability to leech off holiness. Therefore, it weakened them for all time. Since we weakened them, we made more room for G‑dliness. Thus the 40 years we spent in the desert laid the groundwork and gave us the spiritual upper hand in our mission as Jews. There is still a battle, but it is vastly easier than it would have been would we not have traveled in the desert all that time.

Every spiritual accomplishment surfaces in the physical. That is why, wherever we traveled in the desert, the clouds of glory protected us. These clouds killed snakes, serpents and scorpions.5 The Mishkan was set up and the well of Miriam gushed forth water, making the desert bloom with all kinds of greenery and trees.6 In other words, wherever we travelled, in that place ceased to be desert, negating all negativity in its path. So for the Jewish people, there was really no desert, because their travels made the desert civilized.

The ability to do this came from the tribe of Levi, and specifically from those who dismantled, carried and erected the Mishkan and its vessels. What gave them the power to affect their surroundings so drastically? It was the count at the end of parshat Bamidbar and the beginning of parshat Naso. This allowed them to rise above, so that they weren't affected by the negative.7 Rather, they affected the negative and turned it into positive, making the desert habitable.

This idea of making the desert into a home is applicable to every person and in every generation.

When a person thinks about his life, he comes to the realization that he is flawed, since no one is perfect, everyone has failings of some sort. In other words, he and his surroundings are probably not habitable for G‑d, and certainly not a permanent home for Him. This can be disheartening, even depressing, and may bring a person to run away from the purpose and mission that G‑d gave him.

This is where this lesson comes in. We are all traveling in a desert and our job is to make our personal deserts bloom. In the desert the Jewish people only traveled on G‑d's word. We, too, travel only on His word. In every situation, it is G‑d who specifically put us there. We have the ability to turn it into an oasis for G‑d.

Every one of us can be like a Levite. As the Rambam8 says, "Not just the tribe of Levi, but anyone ... who will give of himself ... to separate himself and stand before G‑d to serve Him ... G‑d will be his portion and his inheritance ... just as the Kohanim and the Leviim merited to have."

In other words, anyone who puts himself to the task of "teaching His virtuous ways and His righteous laws to many"9 will be given the strength and prestige from above. He will be raised to the highest of heights. He will attain the level of the children of Gershon, he will reach the level of the children of Kehat, and ultimately reach the highest level, that of the entire Tribe of Levi. Through this, he will be able to affect his place in the world, making it into a home for G‑d.

There is another lesson here. One might look back at his bleak past and think to himself, "The way I acted in the past was negative. I've been acting that way for so long. How am I going to change my actions, as I’m steeped in my self-destructive ways?" Thinking this way can make a person lose all hope of becoming a better person, or a follower in G‑d's ways.

To him the Torah says that the children of Gershon, Kehat and Merari first began their service at the age of 30. Notwithstanding their previous life, they were able to reach the highest levels, carrying the Mishkan and turned the desert into an oasis. The same is true for us. We don't have to dwell on the past. We should know that it is never too late to begin, and if we make the effort, there is no level we can’t reach. G‑d will give us the strength to rid ourselves of any negativities, bad habits or addictions, and make ourselves and our surroundings into a beautiful home for G‑d.

How does one go about doing this? There are two parts to this effort, "refraining from [doing] bad,"10 and "doing good."11 When you want to make a home fit for a king, first you have to clean out the junk and then you can bring in the furnishings and make it beautiful. The same is true when you want to make yourself and your surroundings into a home for G‑d. First you have to "refrain from bad," stop the negative actions, and then you have to start "doing good," doing what G‑d wants.

"Refraining from bad" and "doing good" are hinted in the names of the sons of Levi. Gershon is from the word gerush, which means to divorce, and Merari is from the word mar, which means bitter. Together they mean to separate from the bad, or "refrain from bad." Kehat is from the word yik-has,12 meaning to gather, which is doing something positive.

Gershon was born before Kehat, because the order is to first "refrain from bad," and then to "do good." However, when it comes to counting them, Kehat was first, to show that "doing good" is more important. Even though refraining from bad is very difficult, it doesn't accomplish anything positive. Its whole purpose is to create a wholesome environment, so one can then "do good."

This idea is also brought out in the work they did. Gershon and Merari carried the parts that made the house of the Mishkan, just as a home provides protection. It symbolizes "refraining from bad," protecting yourself from negative actions. Kehat carried the vessels of the Mishkan. The vessels are what all the services in the Mishkan were done with. The house is there to protect and create the perfect environment for the people living in it, so they can do positive action with the vessels, and that is what makes it a home.13

May we merit to see our deserts become a everlasting home for G‑d, with the coming of Moshiach. May he come soon.