Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
The three clans of the Levite tribe are charged with various aspects of service and maintenance of the Tabernacle. Last week the clan of Q’hat was counted and given its work orders. This week’s reading continues this set-up by counting and assigning jobs to the other two clans, Gershon and Merari. For both Q’hat and Merari we read that those to be counted are “all who come to the host (tzava – crowd) to do work in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 4:3, 30) For the clan of Gershon, however, there is a slight change in the wording. The count is to be of “all those who come to create a crowd (litz’vo tzava) to do work in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 4:23)
The word “tzava” is used in all three instances, but it is doubled in the case of the Gershonites, becoming a verb along with a noun. As a noun, “tzava” might be familiar to us as meaning “army.” The Israel Defense Forces are called TzaHa”L – tz’va hagganah l’Yisra’el. The word means this because it basically refers to a massing of entities. But this massing does not have to be for military purposes. It can be for other purposes, as well. The heavenly hosts are call tzava, for they serve God in various ways, including by creating the magnificence above that can inspire us with awe. And God is called the “Lord of Hosts” because God is the Creator of so many myriads of beings. To borrow Whitman’s phrase, God “contains multitudes.”
So the word here, sometimes unfortunately translated to allude to military readiness, is much more fittingly to be understood as meaning “multitude,” a multitude with a purpose. The two clans of Q’hat and Merari “come to the multitude” of those who must do the sacred service of the Tabernacle. But the clan of Gershon is subtly subject to another concern. Being the smallest of the three clans (- just check the numbers), the Gershonites have a heightened sense of the meaning of creating a critical mass. They cannot depend on people showing up automatically. They need to show up in order to create a multitude. They first must mass together in order to create a mass. Then that mass can fulfill its task.
This is analogous to the phenomenon familiar to us in congregational life. If the congregation has many, many members, it can be confident that the services it performs or offers will be adequately taken care of and attended even if only a small percentage show up. But this is not so for a smaller community. A small percentage of a large number can still be a large number. But the same percentage of a small number cannot be so. Sometimes one can perform a sacred task, a mitzvah, just by showing up “litz’vo tzava “ – to add one small piece to make a multitude.
Rabbi David Greenstein
Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly d’var Torah