This week’s Torah reading [Numers 18:20–32] looks out of place in a Reform Synagogue.
It is about the obligation of the community to maintain the Levites, who worked in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We Reform Jews do not share the enthusiasm of other denominations for the Temple, let alone for the efforts of rebuilding it.
And what about the Levites? According to this Torah reading, the Israelites must subsidise them with offerings because their job is to work in the Temple. This, frankly speaking, looks nonsense. We do not do sacrifices and do not see any reason to support the priests and the sacrifices with our taxes. Let Mr Levi find a real job.
Why then, do we read in the synagogue, a piece of text which seems to have nothing to say to us? As always, the answer is: look at the context, in our case, at the whole Torah portion.
This week’s Torah portion (of which our reading is the last part) is Korah, the story of a serious challenge for Moses. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Korah, a man of the tribe of Levi, attacks Moses violently. Korah and his band of followers asked Moses and Aaron why they placed themselves above the rest of the community, “for all the people are holy,” he said. Everyone heard the Commandments at Mount Sinai; Everybody was there when the Revelation happened. Why does God only deal directly with Moses? Why does Moses want to keep his relationship with God to himself? This is wrong because “all the people are holy”.
The confrontation ends in favour of Moses: the earth opens, Korah’s people are swallowed up and a giant fire consumes his followers. God reasserts His power and the predilection for Moses by causing a plague that annihilates thousands of Israelites.
The message is clear: do not question God’s choices. OK, but what does Mr Levi have to do with it? What is the connection between the rebellion of Korah and the duties of the Levites?
After the Korah’s rebellion, the Israelites feared that God may continue with His rage and inflict other punishments. Now that Moses’ authority has been re-established, the Israelites are afraid that no human being (other than Moses) will be allowed to approach the Tabernacle, the tent inside which Moses deals directly with God.
Therefore the Almighty appoints these two groups of people, the family of Aron (the Kohanim) and the tribe of Levi (Levites), with the special task of taking care of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan and all the holy items that are needed there.
But, and this is the trick, Kohanim and Levites are not privileged. On the contrary, the Levites are the only Israelite tribe that will not have a share of land once the people will settle in the land of Israel. They are tasked with responsibilities by God; hence their livelihood will depend on God. Before the tragedy of Korah, all the offerings were given directly to God. Now a part of the offerings will be given to the Levites. It is as if God gives parts of his income to those who work in the sanctuary. Mr Levi takes his salary from God.
Korah belonged to a noble family, and -despite the rhetoric- his rebellion was driven by personal ambition, as it is often the case when a leader boasts of being “a man of the people” and that “all the people are holy”. He wanted access to the direct relationship with God, which Moses enjoyed. He saw it as a privilege. As a result, his people will have to learn that it is rather a responsibility.
Quite a difficult message, nowadays. How often do we hear the words of Korah (“all the people are holy!”) in the political realm. It’s so easy to see things in black and white and humanity as if only the privileged and oppressed exist. (And of course, like Korah, place yourself in the camp of the oppressed). Reality is far more nuanced. Reality demands that we learn that there are responsibilities, and this is -in Biblical times and today- a very difficult message to learn.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue 12 June 2021/ 2 Tammuz 5781