Korach: A Life of Service

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Korach

In this week’s portion, named for its protagonist, a gang of resentful Levites and tribal leaders start a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, who beg them to reconsider. The rebels are swept away in a miracle, and the parsha concludes with a set of laws for the priests and Levites.

Shalom from sunny Poughkeepsie!

“I hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to the Lord, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 18:6)

After the accusations, recriminations, conflicts, insults and power struggles- and no, I’m not talking about the California and Arkansas primaries, I’m talking about this week’s Torah portion- there is a set of laws in Bamidbar 18 which govern how gifts are given to the Kohanim and Levites. To review: the Levites, descendants of Levi- are set aside as a tribe of service, performing such duties as packing up and carrying the Mishkan and singing psalms in the ancient Temple. The Levites also serve the Kohanim, the priests, who are also Levites but are a special family within the tribe, descendants of Aharon.

To this day, in traditional synagogues, we honor those who are descended from either the Kohanim or Levi’im [Levites] by calling them to the Torah for the first and second aliyot or readings. The Kohanim also offer the “priestly blessing” to the congregation on various occasions, and the Levites re-enact their ancient role of service in washing the hands of the Kohanim before they come up to offer the blessing.

The liberal movements (Reform and Reconstructionist) have by and large done away with the ritual remembrance of Kohen and Levi, and various Conservative synagogues have different practices. On the one hand, it can rub against the grain of a modern, egalitarian ethos to honor members of a hereditary class- especially one which performed animal offerings which most modern Jews would not like to see restored. On the other hand, making new meanings out of our most ancient practices is what connects us as Jews to our shared history and common destiny.

So. . . what do we do with the Kohanim and the Levi’im? One way to understand the honor given to these families is to see the status of Kohen and Levi as representing or symbolizing particular spiritual concepts to which we can all aspire. To me, the idea of a Kohen, a priest, is about being one who feels fully empowered to enter into the presence of the Holy, and helps to bring others into that spiritual state. The Levites, on the other hand, represent the idea of selfless and humble service, giving to others with no need to gather glory.

Let me illustrate this with a story: here at Temple Beth-El, we have recently re-instituted the priestly blessing on holidays, and some months ago, I took two Kohanim and two Levi’im out into the hallway during services for the hand-washing and to go over the prayers. As it happened, the two Levi’im were older gentlemen, both refugees from Europe and both older than the Kohanim whose hands they washed by pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl. It felt wrong to me- should not the younger ones serve the older?

I was humbled and awed by the Levi’im recalling how their fathers took them to do this when they were boys- and humbled and awed that such men would gladly perform a simple task for others. I learned a lesson that day about the meaning of service, about the connection between generosity and humility, about the enduring truth that giving to others is an honor unto itself.

That, to me, is why we honor the Levites- because their ancestors served with joy and song, giving up a share in the Land in order to help the people be close to the Sacred Presence.

That, to me, is something worth remembering.

Shabbat Shalom,


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