Rabbi Jackie Tabick
All that shelepping the Levites had to do in the wilderness! The priests did the frontline stuff, leaving the less glamorous tasks, the cleaning and the removal services, to the Levites. But what is important to remember is that their service too was considered holy; the Tabernacle and then the Temple could not function without them.
The job description goes on for pages and is quite boring to read. Like all such challenging texts in the Torah, it should prompt us to consider why we are still reading this text? Perhaps because it provides us with a reminder that big events take an awful lot of planning, they don’t just ‘happen’. The awe of the sacrifices that brought our ancestors close to God and sustained their spiritual life for around 1500 years was made possible through the hard work of the Levites. Any such event takes a myriad of small often boring tasks to keep it going.
Now, just over a year ago, we were doing similar tasks to make our services happen. Schlepping tables and chairs around, laying out the kiddush and doing the washing up. Then the tasks were often considered a nuisance, now they remind us of those halcyon days when we could see each other in person and maybe even hug each other! And don’t we wish that those days were fully restored! And hopefully, for many, by the next time we come to read this sedra, in another 12 months’ time, they will have gradually come creeping back.
So again, why should we read this text?
In the first place, it should prompt us to ask ourselves, what service are we prepared to perform for Judaism? As in the days of the Tabernacle or the Temple, so in synagogue life, we need the people who are prepared to carry out the admin, the physical tasks, the cooking, the guarding, the teaching (all described as Levitical tasks in torah) and in these days the running of zoom services and the phone contacts with the elderly and vulnerable….but, and this is important, we are also supposed to be a kingdom of priests, so have to also engage in the more spiritual tasks too. We have double duty.
Interestingly, it is the same root, ayin veyt dalet, . עבד that is used both for the schlepping and for the carrying out of divine worship. This suggests that both sorts of tasks, the physical and the spiritual, are essential for the holy journey that we are on as Jews through our own wilderness. As we are taught in the text, the holiest objects have to be carried on our own shoulders.
And in our days, when we are beginning to leave our strange world created by the pandemic, we must pay tribute to the modern Levites, doing all the heavy lifting during this pandemic. The essential workers, that we often didn’t appreciate enough in previous times, but whom we now know play such a vital role in ensuring that our society can function. Not just the doctors, nurses and care workers, (though we are grateful to them beyond words) but the cleaners, delivery people, dustmen, shop workers and transport personnel and so many more.
It is told, when Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy Blessed One adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. The Holy One said to him, “Moses, is it not customary in your town to ask after a person’s welfare?”(In other words, Moses should have enquired how God’s work was progressing!) Moses answered him, “Does a slave greet his master so?” The Holy One answered, “You should at any rate have wished me success at my work.” A modern commentator suggested that the meaning of this story is that God asked Moses,” Couldn’t you help me in my work?” To which Moses replied,” How can I do such a thing? Your work is beyond anything I could even dream of doing!” To which God replied,” You could have tried.”
So as we read of the jobs performed by the Levites of old, we are prompted by this text to remember that it is the job of each of us to try to improve things in this world so that God can spread blessings over us all, in our synagogues and in the wider community. We all have contributions that we can and should make. And we should all show proper appreciation of those who carry out the myriad of tasks that allow us to go about our daily lives. Maybe then, we can work properly together to improve our world.
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