[Note: For those of you reading this in chutz learetz you will note that for the next several weeks you will be one parsha off. Last Shabbat in Israel we read parshat Nasso while in chutz laretz it was the second day of Shavuot and therefore you read a Shavuot related parsha and only this week do you resume the regular readings. Naturally in such cases it is our practice to send out the shiurim based on the Eretz Yisrael schedule which allows you to be prepared well in advance for next week’s parsha. This is also a good time to remind all of our readers that all the midrasha email shiurim are available on line in our archive at www.midreshetharova.org.il/archive.htm]
In this week’s parsha we read about the separation of the Leviim and a detailed account of the process used to purify them and dedicate them to the work in the mishkan.
If we read the pesukim carefully (Bamidbar 8:5-22) we notice a single phrase being used over and over again. The phrase “Bnei Yisrael” is used no less that sixteen times in the span of seventeen pesukim!! A quick computer check shows that the phrase is used in the entire Torah 379 times making such a frequent usage in our small section of one perek to be all the more interesting.
The repetitious use of the word reaches a level that actually strains the reading of the simple pshat in pasuk 19. “And I have given the Leviim to Aharon and his sons from among BNEI YISRAEL to do the service of BNEI YISRAEL in the Ohel Moed and to atone for BNEI YISRAEL; So that there should not be a plague among BNEI YISRAEL as the BNEI YISRAEL enter the holy place”. Not once is a pronoun used to describe Bnei Yisrael when it would have been much more natural to do so and in addition in at least two of the cases it is not clear why Bnei Yisrael had to be mentioned at all by either proper noun or pronoun. Take a moment and reread the above section removing the term Bnei Yisrael entirely and you will find that in most of the cases the meaning of the sentence is not damaged by doing so.
The commentaries deal with this particular pasuk in a few different ways all of which concentrate on the particular verse but do not treat the unit as a whole.
The Ibn Ezra in Shmot actually mentions this passuk as an example of poetic style in the Torah and does assign any particular to the multiple usages; it is instead a verbose way of saying the same thing.
The Sforno explains some of the extra times that Bnei Yisrael is used to refer to specific issues that required special attention. The Or Hachayim follows a similar path.
Rashi quotes a Midrash that says the five mentions of Bnei Yisrael in this passuk are alluding to the five books of the Torah and it is out of the endearment that Hashem has towards Am Yisrael that He compares them to the five chumashim. This Midrash is obviously bothered by the same question that we have posed and does not give a linguistic answer but rather a symbolic one.
I would like to suggest a different approach. If we focus on not only the individual pasuk but widen the scope to include the entire episode we are even more perplexed. As we mentioned earlier there seems to be a stress on the issue of Bnei Yisrael through out the parsha.
If we consider for a moment the issue at hand I think we can have some insight. The parsha is discussing the separation of the Leviim as the sole workers in the mishkan. Up until this point there was a much more “democratic” system concerning the mishkan. The original plan was that the first-born be those who were to serve. Each family had there own personal representative in the mishkan. This system as well would create a caste system however I think that the feeling of “discrimination” by choosing only certain individuals would be less sharp and painful when each family was represented.
From the outset of Bamidbar we have seen that the Mishkan forms the epicenter of the camp. It is the physical as well as the spiritual focal point. It would be a great loss to “remove the ohel moed from the camp” (to paraphrase the pasuk in Shmot where Moshe does just that after the Egel). It is essential that every member of Am Yisrael feel that the very heart of their existence is the Mishkan.
The transformation from the first born to the Leviim was a revolution in the relationship between the people and the Mishkan. I think that this is not simply a political issue. We will see in two weeks, in Parshat Korach, a revolution which revolved around the issue of “why this family and not another”. Korach it seems was interested in the political side of the power struggle. In our parsha, where the Leviim are being introduced into the Avodah we can very much feel for the rest of Am Yisrael that may have a more difficult time dealing with a mishkan experience that is just a bit further removed form their own personal experiences.
It is for this reason that the Torah stresses over and over again that the Leviim are chosen from amongst Bnei Yisrael to do the work of Bnei Yisrael and to atone for Bnei Yisrael order to protect Bnei Yisrael form possible destruction by entering the holy places unauthorized. The basis of their authority is, as the Gemara puts it, as the agents of the people (shluchei didan).
Am Yisrael are encouraged to see in the Leviim not a bureaucratic, far removed, cold and technical mechanism but rather a personal agent of themselves.
I would like to end with a variation on this theme, which R. Soratzkin writes, in his “Oznayim Latorah”. He asks on the Midrash quoted by Rashi: Why specifically here does the Torah choose to compare Am Yisrael to the five Chumashim?
He explains that the message being given to them was that even if the “keter kehuna” the crown of priests has already been spoken for there still is a viable a different and even greater crown- the crown of Torah, which is available for each and every one to take.