פרק ח כג: וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
כד: זֹ֖את אֲשֶׁ֣ר לַֽלְוִיִּ֑ם מִבֶּן֩ חָמֵ֨שׁ וְעֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה יָבוֹא֙ לִצְבֹ֣א צָבָ֔א בַּֽעֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:
כה: וּמִבֶּן֙ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה יָשׁ֖וּב מִצְּבָ֣א הָֽעֲבֹדָ֑ה וְלֹ֥א יַֽעֲבֹ֖ד עֽוֹד:
כו: וְשֵׁרֵ֨ת אֶת־אֶחָ֜יו בְּאֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ לִשְׁמֹ֣ר מִשְׁמֶ֔רֶת וַֽעֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֣א יַֽעֲבֹ֑ד כָּ֛כָה תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לַֽלְוִיִּ֖ם בְּמִשְׁמְרֹתָֽם:
The difficulty in pasuk 24 is its blatant contradiction to the age previously given for the start of a Levi’s service of 30 years old (Bemidbar 4:3 and others). How can it be that after repeated mentions of a specific age-requirement, the Torah then surprisingly changes the age to 25 years old – seemingly without explanation or context?! (Stranger still, this is the last word on the subject of service in mishkan (after eight chapters); so, right at the end, just before the file is closed and the drawer is shut, within a quick three-versed section, God makes such a change?!)
A gemara in Chulin explains the discrepancy by stating that while at 30 years old their actual job began, it was at 25 that they needed to begin five years of training. Many commentaries accept this approach. The difficulty in accepting this idea is that the text in Torah, for both ages, is exactly the same; in other words, the Torah doesn’t seem to be differentiating between the stages of the job – it simply states that the Levi ‘comes to preform his duty’ at 30 and also 25 equally!
In order to answer this larger question, we must first ask – and then answer – the ‘smaller’ ones:
What does it mean, ‘זאת אשר ללוים’ – ‘this is for the Leviim’? The Torah doesn’t say ‘tell the Leviim’, or ‘these are the rules for the Leviim’. What kind of introduction is this to the specific instructions that then follow?
Previously (Bemidbar 4:3, 23 and 30 – each time a family of Leviim are given their commands for service) the Torah used the phrase ‘כל הבא לצבא’; here it uses ‘יבוא לצבא צבא’. What’s the difference in connotation?
If we were told previously (ibid) that the Leviim were appointed ‘from 30 to 50 years old’, then it would seem obvious that after they hit fifty, they would have to stop. So why now does it specifically state (in 25): ‘and from fifty years old he must [cease] his service’? And by extension, why would it then need to say again at the end of that pasuk: ‘and he can’t work more’?! The first time was seemingly unnecessary, certainly the second time is just plain wasteful!
In 26, it then gives an option that Leviim can however perform, after their enforced retirement: ‘ושרת את אחיו האוהל מועד לשמור משמרת’ – why are we told of something they can do? And what’s the difference between עבודה and משמרת – purposefully contrasted through the juxtaposition?
And then why again (!) do we need to be told, ‘[but] they can’t perform service’?!
Lastly, it concludes this list of rules with, ‘ככה תעשה ללוים במשמרתם’ – but how are these laws understood as being ‘done for the Leviim’?! ‘Thus command the Leviim’ or ‘and these are their laws’ would have been a much more fitting conclusion!
It would seem from the ambiguous introductory phrase (“זאת אשר ללוים”) that the laws that follow aren’t being presented as mere laws; rather, the understanding behind the laws is the key. The meaning/message of these laws is the ‘thing’ that is specifically ‘for the Leviim’. So, the direction we are given right from the start is to appreciate these laws for what they’re saying, not merely for what’s being said. The phrase ‘כל הבא לצבא’ is best translated as ‘anyone who assumes his duty’; and ‘יבוא לצבא צבא’ therefore would be read as ‘he will come to assume his duty’. The former simply describes the proper candidate for duty, while the latter charges someone with his duty. So, putting these two phrases together, plus the ‘new’, earlier age requirement of 25 years old mentioned right in the middle of them, we’d posit that: the significant meaning for Leviim to appreciate from this section has to do with an enforced, new, added duty (‘זאת אשר ללוים מבן חמש ועשרים ומעלה יבוא לצבא צבא’).
On the other hand, with the root “עבד” mentioned no less than five times in three pesukim (an obvious focused theme) and the twice mentioned rule that the Levi cannot work after turning 50, it would seem that there is still an emphasized focus on the previous duty which they received earlier in Bemidbar (4: 23 and 30) (“מבן שלושים שנה ומעלה עד בן חמישים שנה…כל הבא לצבא צבא לעבוד עבודה באוהל מועד”).
So, how do we reconcile these two contrasting truths? How do we understand one singular message for the Leviim when it’s delivered through both a heavy focus on a past charge alongside a newly introduced law which blatantly contrasts a significant detail of that previous charge?
The key is understanding the last four words of our section: “ככה תעשה ללוים במשמורתם”. We had asked: what part of this section’s set of laws has anything to do with ‘doing’ for the Levim (as opposed to ‘commanding’, ‘telling’, etc.)? Rather, these concluding words are a literary device instructing us to connect this section to the previous section, immediately preceding ours. It also ends with the similar phrase: ‘כאשר צוה ה’ את משה על הלוים כן עשו להם’.
So why would the Torah want us to connect our section with the previous one? That which makes the previous section significant is its unique content. Previously, we had been told that the Leviim were counted separately from the rest of the nation (Bemidbar 1: 47-51) and that they were to ‘replace’ the Bekhorim in the census (ibid 3:40-51). We were also told that the Leviim had a unique job (ibid 4: 1-49) and position within the camp (ibid 1: 52-54) vis a vis the mishkan, which the rest of the nation didn’t share. But, for the first time ever in this section (ibid 8: 5-22) we are told that the Leviim are specifically replacing the Bekhorim for the mishkan service for whom it was originally intended.
The first 11 pesukim of this section describe in excruciating detail the instructions on how to ready the Leviim for this service, including: sanctifying them through the sprinkling of the מי חטאת, shaving off all of their hair and purifying their clothing, and bringing קרבנות. Then, in the second half (16-19) God explains why they are being readied so meticulously:
טז כִּי֩ נְתֻנִ֨ים נְתֻנִ֥ים הֵ֨מָּה֙ לִ֔י מִתּ֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תַּ֩חַת֩ פִּטְרַ֨ת כָּל־רֶ֜חֶם בְּכ֥וֹר כֹּל֙ מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לָקַ֥חְתִּי אֹתָ֖ם לִֽי:
יז כִּ֣י לִ֤י כָל־בְּכוֹר֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בָּֽאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָ֑ה בְּי֗וֹם הַכֹּתִ֤י כָל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם הִקְדַּ֥שְׁתִּי אֹתָ֖ם לִֽי:
יח וָֽאֶקַּח֙ אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֔ם תַּ֥חַת כָּל־בְּכ֖וֹר בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
יט וָֽאֶתְּנָ֨ה אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֜ם נְתֻנִ֣ים ׀ לְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן וּלְבָנָ֗יו מִתּוֹךְ֘ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ לַֽעֲבֹ֞ד אֶת־עֲבֹדַ֤ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וּלְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֨א יִֽהְיֶ֜ה בִּבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ נֶ֔גֶף בְּגֶ֥שֶׁת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:
In no less than three pesukim, God tells Moshe and Aharon in three different ways the exact same message: in that the Bekhorim are His, He’s now choosing to take the Leviim and replace the Bekhorim with them and they are therefore now similarly His. Additionally, they are now – as the Bekhorim were intended originally – given over to Aharon and his sons to serve the Kohanim and are eternally responsible for preventing Divine anger and plague from devastating Bnei Yisrael.
The tone of this section is quite clear: an enforced, unexpected, unintended, grave, eternal responsibility, dramatically bestowed upon the Leviim directly from God Himself. The Torah ensures that Moshe and Aharon, we the readers, and especially and most importantly, the Leviim, completely appreciate the true nature of this new Levi charge in the Mishkan. They are the ‘new-comers’, the rookies brought in to replace the professionals! And they not only have the responsibility of disassembling, constructing and carrying the greatest symbol the nation has of God’s presence amongst them, but they are now also charged with the responsibility of serving within it! To say nothing of the enumerated dire consequences for the nation if the Leviim don’t fulfill their duty!
And its within this specific context that the Torah then presents us with our section. God now instructs Moshe to start the Leviim working at 25 years old, instead of the original 30. For truly they have just been charged with an addition to the original job they were given previously and the adding of years to their mishkan working career reflects this addition perfectly. And this also explains why this section made sure to focus so heavily on the original job description (the mention of the root ‘עבד’ five times, the forced retirement at 50, etc.) while brilliantly contrasting it with the ‘new’ age requirement! Specifically highlighting through the juxtaposition, the old and the new! They had to understand that something has changed here, the job they were told of before (which started at 30 years old) is now added to, and therefore must start at a different age too.
One could still ask why God specifically added just five years to their obligatory service, instead of, for example, 10 years (a common, rounded unit of ‘years’ used throughout the Torah, and specifically in this context where the rest of Bnei Yisrael start their obligatory service at 20 years old)? There are two other times in the Torah where a rare ‘five’ is used within the context of the normal usage of units of ‘10’. When Avraham is arguing for the people of Sedom (Breishit 18) he asks whether the number of tzadikim in the iniquitous cities perhaps number 50, 40, 30, 20 and 10 – expected, common, round numbers of 10; but he also adds in the number 45. Similarly, by the list of Erchin values at the end of Va’Yikra, while the numbers 20 and 60 years old are used, there’s also the measure of five years old added in. What we can appreciate from these two cases is that five, within the context of the expected 10, is used as a ‘half-step’ as it were, a ‘quasi-value’; not as whole as the ‘10’, but still part of the overall formula being presented. And therefore, the use of five years here (as opposed to ‘10’) infused a deeper appreciation of the message already conveyed. For, on the one hand, there’s no doubt that the Leviim needed to ‘get’ that what they’ve just been told outlines a significant new addition to their previous role (hence a necessary change of years); they have surely been tasked with even more responsibilities and they had to understand that. However, God didn’t want them to misunderstand and believe that it’s a second part to their original charge, that it is somehow a second job that the Leviim also needed to take on (which a ‘significant change’ of 10 years would have conveyed). Rather, God needed the Leviim to appreciate that it is truly an extension of their original responsibilities (the ‘mini-step’ of five years), to be properly understood as one unique and privileged newly fashioned Levi duty consisting of several different facets . The message these newly inducted servants of God needed to appreciate was that by replacing the Bekhorim, they were not merely taking on someone else’s responsibilities, but rather being given a totally newly created Divine task to perform which, when performed properly, reflected a totally new metamorphosized entity. God wasn’t merely adding to the Leviim’s obligations, but rather, through these new demands, He was transforming them into a new creation, updated and improved soldiers of God.
 The Torah’s structural break-up also reflects this approach. Our section and the previous one are separated only by a parsha stumah – retaining a connection despite the break between them, i.e. a different idea connected thematically to the previous one; the separation between our section and the one that follows it, by contrast, is a parsha petuchah, for it is a totally separate idea.
 And the context of that section makes the use of the root ‘עשה’ correct; for Moshe and Aharon are being commanded to do things to the Leviim to ready them for service. Therefore, the ‘incorrect’ usage in our section is only there to serve as a signal to refer and connect back to that previous section.
 Previously (Bemidbar 3:6-9) it already mentioned this ‘new’ job. There it says that the Leviim are charged with serving Aharon, they are ‘given’ to Aharon and his sons, and they are in charge of performing the service for the nation from within the Mishkan – seemingly exactly the description of the ‘new’ charge here! So, perhaps in fact it’s not a new job when mentioned here! This is why God included the strange ‘משמרת’ counter-action (we asked about in question #4). For previously, in chapter 3, it labeled their job of serving in the Mishkan as a “משמרת”; and therefore what God is saying here (in chapter 8:26) is that that (old) job (from chapter 3) is actually still available even after retirement. Which means that the job described earlier (in chapter 3) – which can continue after 50 years old – cannot be the new job God has just added in our section (chapter 8) which must end at 50 years old. Also, in chapter 3, it refers to their עבודה as “עבודת המשכן” (twice!); but here (chapter 8), it describes their new job as “עבודת אוהל מועד” (twice!); a further delineation between the old and new jobs.
 In a similar vein, previously (in chapter 3), the job of protecting the non-Kohain from encroaching upon the Mishkan’s environs and being killed was given to the Kohanim (3:10), while here, in chapter 8, that responsibility is newly given to the Leviim (8:19)!
 How this is understood within Avraham’s requests, and within the context of Erchin is beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.
 And this idea fits perfectly with the gemara’s original answer to the discrepancy in years. For what is ‘preparation’ appreciated as? Not another task, but the extension of the upcoming one!