I would like to share a Friday night drasha, a “sicha” as we would call it in Yeshivat Har Etzion, delivered by my teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z"l, on Parashat Nasso 1986 or ’87 (– I didn’t write the year in my notes!)
I choose to share this speech because it made a palpable impression upon my personality. As an 18 and 19 year-old during my two pre-University years at Har Etzion, thinking about my future as a Jew, the Shabbat “sichot” on Friday night and at Seuda Shelishit were priceless opportunities to be exposed to the haskafa, the worldview, of Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein. The ideas of these speeches which collectively transcribed a coherent and powerful worldview, shaped my religious path. To this day, many of my religious sensibilities, inclinations and intuitions go back to those teachings.
These are my notes from that talk, remembered on Friday night and then written down after Shabbat. Rav Lichtenstein used to speak for around an hour. I have a single page of notes. So obviously my notes will not capture the drama and rich language of Rav Lichtenstein, and yet, I hope that I have captured the essence of his message:
The Parsha opens:
“Count the Sons of Gershon also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.”(4:22)
What do we mean by “also”?
Rashi: "Also" implies, just as I have commanded you regarding the sons of Kehat - see how many of them have already reached the age of service.
Ibn Ezra: “Also” because he had just taken a census of the levite family of Kehat.
Both commentators, although they have slightly different nuances, share a common approach. First there is Kehat; only second are the sons of Gershon.
Gershon, the firstborn, takes second place to Kehath, a feature that is all the more prominent when we examine their service. The family of Kehat carry the vessels of the Tabernacle “on their shoulders”(7:9), and their service is involved with the Holy of Holies – the Ark, the Menorah and the Table. In contrast, the Gershon clan carry: “the cloths of the Tabernacle… its covering.. the screen for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the enclosure, the screen at the entrance of the gate of the enclosure that surrounds the Tabernacle, the cords thereof…” (4:25-26) Some of the Gershon-ites surely looked at what the Kehat-ites had been given, and at their own service asking themselves: “Look what they have, and look at us?!”
The Midrash was aware of the problem. There we read:
When the verse reads “also”, do not think that by virtue of Gershon being counted second they are in some manner inferior to the Kehat-ites. No! Here it states “also”! That Gershon and Kehat are equal, just that Kehat are given precedence due to the honor of Torah [that Kehat carry the Ark of the Covenant], but in other places, Gershon precedes Kehat.
But the Midrash merely highlights the problem. Why “also”? – because Kehat have been granted the sacred vessels of the Tabernacle – they are the Holy of Holies – and Gershon are merely holy! And in truth Kehat do have a higher standing than the Gershonites as we read earlier: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites.” (4:17)
The question is how we should look at the status and role of the Levites – of Bnei Levi. The status and function of Levi is in essence one of service. They are assigned to a particular task whether they like it or not. In this perspective, the contrast and discrepancy between Kehat and Gershon is the essential point. Once one adopts the mindset of service, you have a role to play and you perform that role; that is what you must do – that and nothing else.
In the language of Maimonides (Laws of the Temple Vessels 3:1)
“A biblical command imposes upon the Levites to be available and ready to do work inside the sanctuary, whether they are willing or not, … and a Levite who accepts all the levitical assignments except is rejected unless he accepts all of them.”
And yet, at the same time, one might imagine, that amongst Gershon there were surely some who aspired to, or coveted the role of Kehat!
If this is true regarding the Tribe of Levi, they are true for all Israel, we who are called “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” All Israel can take the role of service upon themselves. The aspiration should be to achieve the level of Kehat – to work towards the personal readiness to take on roles of sanctity. And yet, one should also be prepared and ready to fulfil the position of the sons of Gershon.
Once someone asked Rav Amital what the Yeshiva expects of their graduates. He answered: “I would hope that they want to be a Rosh Yeshiva, but that they would be prepared to teach in elementary school.”
The goal is to to be of the sons of Kehat, but to be willing and ready to act as the sons of Gershon.
This devar Torah typifies Rav Lichtenstein – a man dedicated to service, to Avodat Hashem. He transmitted this message with his words and with every fibre of his being. He asked us to have high goals, but to see ourselves primarily as answering a call, driven by a mission, animated by the responsibility of divine service.
This notion of taking on the role of the Levite – of committing oneself to the service of God – was a powerful one for me then and an idea that still drives me today.
It is an important one for an age in which we frequently feel that people are self-interested and motivated by personal gain. The message of Rav Lichtenstein is one of mission in the absolute sense of the word.
On the eve of Matan Torah, I come back to this message. It is one of service and obligation, “like “naaseh ve-nishma” – a sense of Kabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim (accepting the yoke of God’s authority.) In this way, Parashat Nasso seems a worthy entrée to Shavuot.
I look at young people today. Many volunteer, many are driven by high ideals. I wonder whether these ideas are attractive to them. Or alternatively, to be like the sons of Gershon is too extreme, too selfless and lacking in meaning. Maybe people today like to feel the sense that their mission is worthwhile, is making a difference. Does the selfie generation need some glamor in its occupation?
I wonder whether these ideas resonate today as they did a generation ago when I heard them.