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The Torah of the Levites

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Devarim, 29:1-3: Moshe summoned all of Israel and said to them, "You have seen everything that HaShem did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his slaves and to all his land: The great trials that your eyes beheld, those great signs and wonders. But HaShem did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day.

Rashi, 29:3: sv. Until this day. I have heard that that day on which Moses gave the Book of the Torah to the sons of Levi, as it says, "he gave it to the Kohanim, the sons of Levi". All Israel came to Moses and said to him, "Moses, our master, we too stood at Sinai and we accepted the Torah and it was given to us. Why do you put the sons of your tribe in charge of it so that one day they may say to us, "It was not given you, it was given to us." And Moses rejoiced over the matter. Regarding this he said to them, "this day you have become a people" - this day I have understood that you cleave to and desire the Omnipresent.

The Portion ends with Moses acknowledging that only now he understood that the people demonstrated a complete love of the Torah. Rashi explains that Moshe gave the Torah to the Levites for safekeeping but the rest of the nation protested, saying that at some point in the future the Levites may say that the Torah was only given to them. Rav Moshe Feinstein asks how the Levites could possibly make such a claim, given that the whole nation received the Torah at Har Sinai.

He answers that the 'giving' to the Leviim that the people envied was not referring to the ability to observe the Torah, but to the Levites' seemingly unique position as the teachers of the Jewish Nation: We see that this was their role in Moshe's blessings to the Tribes before he died. He said: "They will teach Your laws to Jacob and your Torah to Israel." (1) The reason that they were singled out for this role was that they did not inherit any land and therefore were free from having to work the land. Thus they were able to devote the time and effort necessary to learn and teach Torah.(2)

Nevertheless, the people argued that they even though they had to work, their main focus would be on the Torah. Moreover, some of them would put aside worldly needs and focus totally on Torah in the same way as Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai. When Moshe heard their argument he was happy because in truth he wanted that everyone strive to be on the level that they could be Torah scholars and teachers of the Jewish nation. Evidently he knew that this role wasn't limited to the Leviim rather that they were the ones most inclined to take on this role.

He then cites the Rambam as expressing this very point. He discusses why the Leviim did not inherit any land of their own in the land of Israel: "It is because he [Levi] was separated in order to serve HaShem and to teach His straight ways and righteous laws to the public…therefore they were separated from the ways of the world." He then continues saying that this exalted role is not limited to the Levites. Rather, any person who strives to live on a level where he can focus on pure spiritual service can merit assume the same yoke as the Levites.(3)

Whilst the Rambam appears to be focusing on assuming a full-time role involved in spiritual activities, Rav Feinstein seemed to be saying that any person who makes spirituality the main focus of their life can emulate the Levites. Even if one needs to spend considerable time in more worldly pursuits he can still strive to 'receive' the Torah in the way that the Levites did. Needless to say, that to achieve this level is no easy feat and requires great effort and growth, yet the following story can help us develop the correct outlook to our role and purpose in life.

The Brisker Rav once asked a man, "What do you do?" Assuming the Rav was asking for his occupation, the man answered accordingly. Yet the Rav asked the same question again. Thinking he was hard of hearing the man answered again. When the Rav repeated the question a third time the man realized that he hadn't been misheard. The Brisker Rav explained that he wasn't asking the man what was his job, rather what he lived for. He continued that the only true answer to the question was found in the words of the Prophet Yonah, when asked what his trade was. He answered: "I am a Hebrew and I fear HaShem, the God of the Heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land." (4) The Brisker Rav was teaching us that regardless of the activities a person is involved him, they don't constitute his 'raison-d'etre' - his purpose in life. His purpose is to fear God and do His will. With that goal we can strive to receive the Torah that Moses gave the Levites to protect.


1. Devarim, 33:10.

2. Darash Moshe, 29:3.

3. Rambam, Hilchot Shemittah U'Yovel, 13:12-13.

4. Yonah, 1:9.



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