How does one feel when one receives a present? Often, one feels very happy and fortunate. But sometimes one feels humbled by the gift and by what the gift may signify. Is the gift a sign of merit? Is it something earned and deserved? Or is the gift a token of love, unexpected but affirmed anyway? Is the gift something to be used up or is it something to be cherished forever? Is it a source of pleasure, or a challenge?
After the attack on Moses and Aaron’s leadership is repulsed, the status of the Levite tribe as a whole, and of the priestly clan, in particular is reestablished by God by God’s speaking directly to Aaron: “And I hereby have taken your brothers, the Levites, from amongst the Children of Israel for you as a gift, given over to the Eternal, to serve the service of the Tent of Meeting. And you and your children with you shall guard your priesthood for any matter of the altar as well as what is within the Curtain, and you shall serve; I shall give your priesthood as a gift-service (`avodat matanah), and anyone ineligible who draws near will be put to death.” (Num. 18:6-7)
Certain terms are emphasized in this declaration – service and giving. The Levites are a “gift” to the priests, who, along with the Levites must, each in their own way, serve God. And the terms are combined in an intriguing way when God describes the priesthood as a “gift-service.” What does that mean?
One possible meaning is that the service of the priests and Levites entitles them to gifts from the rest of the people of Israel. Indeed, these gifts are enumerated in the text that follows these verses. But Rashi offers a different explanation. He writes: “ A gift-service – I have given it [your job to serve] to you as a gift.” The priest and the Levite were reminded that their exalted status (- the subject of Korah’s attempted insurrection) was a gift for which they must be ever grateful. The service was not meant to make them into an elite who could feel superior to the masses. Rather, their exclusive status was a present bestowed upon them by God.
Korah’s rebellion raised the question of how to see the special status of the Levites with regard to the entire people of Israel. By characterizing their special status as a “gift-service,” God implicitly asked all of us to consider how we feel about our Jewish identity, our Jewish responsibility and the Torah itself. Do we see them as gifts? What shall we feel about them? What shall we do about them?
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein
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