Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Beha'alotkha 5762 /May 25 (Israel) June 1

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Beha'alotkha 5762 /May 25 (Israel) June 1 (abroad)

Priests, Levites, and Chieftains

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Borgansky
Department of Talmud

The consecration of the Levites in the first part of Parashat Be-ha'alotkha gives cause for question: Why did the Torah not present this narrative earlier, considering that they were, after all, essential to the Tabernacle - a subject that the Torah handled at great length in the previous books of Exodus and Leviticus? Would it not have been more appropriate to illustrate their consecration at the time that the Tabernacle was erected by Moses, in Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 40), or at least along with the consecration of the Kohanim (priests) in Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 8)? In fact, the question is larger than that: not only is their consecration presented relatively late, but also their entire role in Tabernacle ritual only comes up in the book of Numbers; throughout the process of building the Tabernacle they are not mentioned at all.

The Sages (see Gittin 60a) were aware of the problematic placement of the Levites' consecration, and actually place this event much earlier chronologically:[1]
As Rabbi Levi said: Eight passages of the Torah were given on the day the Tabernacle was erected, and these are they: the passage on the Priests, on the Levites [our chapter], on the impure, on sending off the impure, Aharei-Mot, on those drunken with wine, on mounting the lamps, and on the red heifer.

According to another approach, consecration of the Levites began already on the second day of the Tabernacle's existence (Numbers Rabbah 12.15):

Rabbi Zeira said: On the day that Moses finished setting up [the Tabernacle] - on the day that its erection was completed. On the first of Nisan the Tabernacle was set up, on the second the red heifer was burned, on the third he sprinkled of it on the Levites as it is written (Numbers 8) - Sprinkle on them water of purification (Num. 8:7). Instead of the second sprinkling that the Levites were supposed to have, because they were all impure due to contact with the dead from killing those who worshipped the Golden Calf (as it is written in Exodus 32, Each of you ... slay brother,... and the Levites did as Moses had bidden... - the Lord commanded shaving them, instead of sprinkling on the fourth day.

Either way, the Rabbis situated the consecration of the Levites in the context of the Tabernacle dedication. Given that, we must ask why this passage was placed here in Numbers and not earlier.

In order to understand this, we must examine all the passages in the Torah that deal with setting up the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-32, 35-40; Lev. 8-10; and Num. 7-8). In these chapters the Torah mentions the day the Tabernacle was set up at least twice - in Exodus 40 and Numbers 7 - and according to most traditional commentators, also in Leviticus 9.[2] When we compare these passages, however, we note that each one gives a different description of the day the Tabernacle was set up. Exodus 40 says it was Moses who erected the Tabernacle, anointing all its implements as well as the priests, setting out the bread, lighting the lamps, offering the incense, and giving the burnt offering and meal-offering himself. Numbers describes the dedication of Tabernacle by the tribal chieftains, each bringing his own offering, over the course twelve days from the day of its anointment. Leviticus describes how the altar was dedicated by Aaron.

It seems that these differences can be accounted for in terms of the various aspects of the Tabernacle. In Exodus[3] the primary role of the Tabernacle is to serve as a place set aside for the Divine Presence (Kevod Hashem) to dwell on earth. Worshipping the Lord in the Tabernacle is only a function of the fact that the Lord dwells there; consequently, He should be worshipped wherever He dwells. It is Moses who sets up the Tabernacle, and it is he who is the principle beneficiary insofar as the Lord meets with Moses and the Israelites in the Tabernacle.[4]

In this respect the priests are not in the center of the picture, since their function is not the principle focus of the Tabernacle but only a consequence of its existence. Indeed, when Moses sets up the Tabernacle (Exodus 40), he anoints the priests as part of the action of anointing the implements of the Tabernacle. In other words, the priests are but one of the tools of the Tabernacle that enable it to fulfill its greater purpose: the Divine Presence dwelling among the Israelites. In sum, in Exodus the purpose of the Tabernacle is the Tent of Meeting at its center, and, as the Torah describes at the end of Exodus, the Cloud of the Lord which fills the tent.

There is another aspect to the Tabernacle-- to serve as a place where any person can come worship the Lord. This function focuses around the altar and Aaron and the priests (and not Moses) are the ones who hold center stage. The primary book describing this side of the Tabernacle is Leviticus - Torat Kohanim, the Priestly Code. Indeed, it is for good reason that sacrificial worship holds such a major place in this book, in comparison with the minor role it plays in Exodus.[5] The Tabernacle of Exodus is intended as a place for the Divine Presence to dwell; regular daily offerings suffice for worshipping the Lord in this sanctuary. The Tabernacle of Leviticus, in contrast, is primarily a place for worship of the Lord by human beings, and therefore this book details the many sacrifices and laws comprising this worship.

Hence when the dedication of the Tabernacle is described in Leviticus, the focus is on the details of consecrating the priests, their sacrifices, and their seven days of installation. The climax is when Aaron offers his sacrifices on the altar and the Divine Presence is manifest in the fire that comes out from the Lord, not directed toward the Tent of Meeting but onto the altar.

The book of Leviticus describes the Tabernacle as it focuses around the altar, the place where the Lord is worshipped by human beings. The dedication of the Tabernacle is expressed by Divine fire descending on the altar and consuming the sacrifices upon it.
These two depictions, however, do not give an exhaustive portrayal of what the Tabernacle signifies. The Tabernacle does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it the private domain of Moses or the priests. The Tabernacle is part of the camp of the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness, and even when it eventually comes to have a permanent location, the Sanctuary is situated in the very heart of the Israelite camp dwelling in the land of Israel.

Numbers is the book of the camp of Israel. It begins with a census of the tribes and their formation into camps, and continues with an account of their journeys through the wilderness in the second year and the fortieth year. In this context, the book of Numbers treats the Tabernacle not as the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, nor as the place of worship, but as the hub and guide that shows the way for the camp as it moves through the wilderness.

After taking the census and arranging the tribes in camps (Numbers 1-2), the Torah sets forth the procedure for dismantling the Tabernacle and carrying it while the people are journeying (Num. 4), describes its situation among the encampments (Num. 10:17, 21) and explains its function in leading the Israelites in the wilderness - for this week's reading reveals to us that the journeys of the Israelite camp depended on the cloud lifting from the Tabernacle and descending to rest on it again (9:15-23). It is interesting to observe that the cloud resting on the Tabernacle, which is in Exodus an indication of the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle so that "Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting" (Ex. 40:35), serves here as a signal for the camp to set out on its travels or remain in place. This lends clear expression to the distinction drawn above between the function of the Tabernacle in these two books.

The Tabernacle as part of the Israelite encampment is dedicated by the tribal chieftains, in Parashat Naso. Having the Tabernacle set up by Moses and even having the altar dedicated by Aaron do not suffice. Rather, the Tabernacle must also be dedicated by the people of Israel. The chieftains serve here as agents of the entire people, and the dedication of the altar at their hands is what joins the Tabernacle to the tribal camps as they organize for journey.

Now let us return to the Levites. The Levites are not part of the Divine Presence resting on the Tabernacle, nor are they part of the worship of the Lord in the Tabernacle. The Levites provide a service, carrying the Tabernacle, dismantling it and setting it up during the people's travels through the wilderness, and protecting it from outsiders when the people are encamped. Thus the role of the Levites is integrally bound with Tabernacle of the desert, dwelling in the midst of the Israelite camp.

Moreover, time and time again the Torah emphasizes that the Levites are instead of the first-borns in Israel. While the priests are appointed irrespective of being first-born, the Levites are given a charge that originally was intended for the entire public. The Levites act as "agents" on the people's behalf. The Torah stresses this both in its depiction of the Israelites laying their hands on the Levites - a ritual not performed with the priests - and in presenting them as performing the "service for the Israelites".

This explains why consecration of the Levites comes at such a late stage in the Pentateuch. The Levites are but a substitute for the first-borns, and the service that they perform is "service for the Israelites." Since Numbers deals with the relationship between the Israelites and the Tabernacle, the Levites appear for the first time in the book of Numbers, and it is here that they are consecrated.

Spreading descriptions of the Tabernacle over three different books of the Bible is a work of great artistry, bringing out the different facets of the Tabernacle, all of which exist side by side. It is precisely this division into different accounts that brings out more sharply the full complexity of the Lord's Tabernacle.

[1] In the light of this homily one should discuss the relationship between the timing of the Levites' consecration, described here, and their census and redemption of the first-borns, described in Numbers, chapter 3. There it appears that the redemption took place after the census of the Israelites, i.e., after the first day of the second month. If the passage on consecration of the Levites was given on the day the Tabernacle was erected, namely on the first day of the first month, then their consecration would have taken place before the census was taken and the first-borns redeemed, but this raises extremely difficult problems.
[2] A well-known controversy revolves around the reference in Leviticus to the "eighth day," whether this meant the first or the eighth of Nisan. Cf., for example, Torat Kohanim- Shemini 1.14; Tanhuma - Pekudei 11, and Numbers Rabbah, cited above. Also see Nahmanides' commentary on Exodus 40:2, s.v. "be-yom ha-hodesh," as well as his commentary on Lev. 8:2, s.v. "kah."
[3] Cf. Exodus 25:8: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Also see Ex. 29:42-46. In this regard, see my article, "Bein Mizbah Adamah le-Kruvei ha-Zahav," published in the Hebrew Daf Shavua of 2000.
[4] Cf. Ex. 29:42-46; 30:6; 30:36. Also Num. 7:89 and elsewhere.
[5] The sacrifices offered on the altar in Exodus are only the regular daily offerings (cf. Ex. 29:38-42). Sacrifices of well-being were commanded to Moses in Exodus 29, but their actual execution is only described in Leviticus 8.