At the end of Parshat Bamidbar leading directly into Parshat Naso, the various responsibilities of the Leviim are listed. As we know, there were three families: Kehat , Gershon, and Merari.
The Abarbanel comments, that it is clear that the respective responsibilities of each family are listed in order of importance. Thus Kehat precedes Gershon, even though this is not reflective of the family chronology, Gershon was in fact the first-born.
The responsibilities of Kehat are the most important of all the Leviim, they were charged with the “safe keeping ” of the Aron, and all the vessels of the Heichal, as well as the “Mizbayach HaOlah”. Due to the importance of their tasks, they are mentioned first.
The Abarbanel asks, if Kehat was not the first born of the family, why were they honored with the most important responsibilities?
In answering, the Abarbanel explains that Kehat was honored due to their close connection with Moshe and Aharon. As we know, our two leaders were members of the Kehat family, and Hashem honored the family because of this.
The Keli Yakar approaches the issue from the opposite angle. It is not that Hashem specifically wished to honor the family of Kehat, it was that Hashem did not want to give the most important responsibilities to the first born – Gershon. Had the family of Gershon been given the tasks of looking after the Klai Mishkan, one might have come to the conclusion that there is a “natural” spiritual hierarchy within Judaism. Hashem specifically did not give these responsibilities to the first born in order that we understand that spiritual attainment is entirely dependent on the efforts of the people involved. Quite contrary to the approach suggested by Abarbanel, the Keli Yakar stresses that one does not reach spiritual heights simply because one knows the right people. In Judaism we are all judged according to our deeds and nothing else. Thus when the families are listed, their proximity to vessels of Kedusha is specifically not in chronological order. I think that this idea is beautifully reflected in Tehilim (118). The order in the Psalm is firstly that the House of Israel give thanks to Hashem, followed by the House of Aharon, and finally by Yirai Hashem. From these few verses we can see, that even though there is a structural hierarchy within the Jewish people, spiritually, it is the Yirai Hashem, those that fear Hashem, those who have attained their spiritual level through “blood sweat and tears” – they are above everyone else.
Rav Zevin, in his work “LeTorah UleMoadim” also comments on the order of the three families as listed in the Torah – Kehat, Gershon and Merari. His comments are essentially thematic, dealing with a way of life as reflected by the names and consequent order of the three families:
The strengths of man and his behavior are reflected in many areas. It is therefore not sufficient for a human being to endeavor to deal with only one aspect of himself. For example, if we were to deal with our speech. We cannot be satisfied by the fact that we are able to control our speech, if at the same time, with our hands we are in fact doing negative actions. Alternatively, it is not acceptable that we come to terms with a reality that on the one hand we are baale chesed, whilst at the same time, we do not control our anger in any way.
As Human beings we must look at ourselves in total. A person must firstly look at all their actions and middot with a global perspective. Our actions are not independent of each other, and must be dealt with together.
If upon approaching this enormous challenge, a person feels that they cannot deal with all that they need to deal with in a positive manner at once, then they must at least expel all elements of negativity from their way of life. If one cannot invoke “Aseh Tov” (doing good) then at the least apply “Sur Merah”(removing oneself from evil).
The lowest level of living in this world is reflected by those who do not apply themselves either to positive actions or even to the negative that is within them. They live their lives by routine, a slave to their desires, with no real direction. In essence such a person remains unaware of the true meaning of life, and lives a “complete” life tragically, as an unfulfilled individual.
These three paths in life are described by the three names of the Levite families, and the order that they are listed in the Torah.
Kehat is the first family, the word “kehat” in Hebrew being understood as “to gather”. Kehat describes the people who gather themselves together, analyzing their actions as a whole, with an aim to better their lives and attain their true objectives.
Gershon, is the second family, describing the next level of life. The word “gershon” can be derived from the Hebrew “legaresh” “to expel”. Gershon therefore describes those people who have not as of yet reached the level of kehat – overall self-analysis, yet they are working intensively on expelling negativity from their lives.
Merari, is the third family, describing the lowest level of existence. The word “merari” being a derivative of the Hebrew “mar” – “embittered”. This family is referring to those who spend their lives in a mode of escapism, they neither analyze themselves, nor do they make any attempt to deal with the negativity within them. Their entire life is spent running away from the real issues that they ought to confront, for their own sakes. They will inevitably come to the realization that their approach is mistaken, and if they fail to correct their approach to life they will end up embittered with themselves, and disillusioned with the world.
This homiletic approach of Rav Zevin beautifully presents before us the choices that we have every day in every way. The way we choose to live will ultimately define which family we are members of, Kehat, Gershon, or Merari.
Those of us who approach life with the philosophy of “kehat”, will merit the highest levels of spirituality, the rewards being infinite. We will merit the equivalent kedusha to the vessels in the holiest place on earth. This must be our objective, to approach our lives in an absolute manner. We must aim to be good Jews not just in Shul, not just on Chagim, but wherever we are whatever we are doing. Our Avodat Hashem must be complete in every way possible, the challenge is enormous, but we have the ability to achieve if we apply ourselves correctly.