Waving the Levites

In this week's portion, Beha'alotecha, we encounter Aaron the High Priest as a strong athlete.

The Torah tells us that Aaron was required to lift and wave each member of the Levite tribe as a prerequisite to their serving in the Holy Temple."Aaron shall wave the Levites as a wave-service before G‑d from the children of Israel, and they shall be to perform the service of G‑d." (Num. 8:11)

This Aaron did: "Aaron waved them as a wave service before G‑d" (Num. 8:21).

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 26:9) relates the manner in which they were lifted — in all four directions as well as up and down.

You know how many Levites there were to lift? Twenty-two thousand (ibid.)! Yet, in the stretch of a single day, Aaron lifted and waved all of them!

Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, is lifting 22,000 adults in the air...

Just imagine the scene: Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, is lifting 22,000 adults in the air, in order to initiate them into the service of G‑d. What was the meaning behind this event?

The Zohar,1 the foundational text of Kabbalah, presents a daring interpretation: "Why did Aaron lift and wave the Levites? When a child cries and is upset, what do we do to calm him? We lift him up and we waggle him..."

The Levites, just like weeping children, needed to be calmed, embraced, and caressed. But why? We were dealing with adults, some in their 50's and 60's, not with children or teenagers?


In Jewish mysticism, each of the tribes of Israel represented a different component of the soul, a distinctive rhythm in the life-beat of the human spirit. The tribe of Levi was branched into two: The Kohanites (Aaron and his direct descendants) represented the attribute of Chesed, which means kindness; the rest of the Levites embodied the attribute of Gevura, which, in contrast to Chesed, means strictness, or intensity.

Intensity, though difficult to deal with, is inherently not unkind or cruel.

Intensity, though difficult to deal with, is inherently not unkind or cruel. On the contrary, intensity often results from a deep attachment to a person or an ideal. The intense person cares too much to let go, challenging himself — and others — to no limits. Complacency for the intense soul is not an option; he is too entrenched and engrossed in the relationship, and isn't complacency a form of apathy and detachment?

Yet intensity, though inherently kind and caring, can become and evolve into unkindness. With the intense desire that things be a certain way, with the lofty standards and demands of the intense human being, he or she can come down too hard on another person. His or her sense of disappointment and frustration can result into alienation, resentment and ire. Intensity can breed vindictiveness, harshness and even cruelty.

The Levites were profoundly intense souls. Their relationship with themselves, with G‑d, and with other people — were extremely passionate and forceful. They demanded much of themselves and of others; they challenged themselves and their loves ones to no end. They were relentless in their quest for truth.

In fact, the name Levi means "attachment," for this is what Levi and his tribe personified. Their intensity was a symptom of their genuine and extreme attachment to G‑d, to life and its ideals.

Time to Sing

One of the healthiest outlets for intense spirits...is music.

Hence, the Levites were given the position of singing and holding concerto's in the Holy Temple on a daily basis. One of the healthiest outlets for intense spirits, the Kabbalah understood well, is music. Music being the "pen of the soul" (in the phrase of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi), captures the endless yearnings, aspirations, frustrations and pulsations of the living soul. The Levites needed to sing, and their music was indeed powerful, a reflection of their uneasiness.

It is for this reason, the Chassidic masters explain, that the Torah2 requires the Levites to shave their hair. Hair, containing neither blood vessels nor nerves, yet still alive, represent a profoundly diminished form of energy, delivered in a restricted and muted form. The "hair" of the Levites, then, represents a distorted and muted form of their spiritual intensity.

In its pristine and elevated form, intensity is holy, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Yet when the original energy of the intensity is lost, its residue is often negative and crushing. It can evolve into ire, toughness and ruthlessness. (A case in point: Isaac represented the sacred energy of Gevura, intensity. His son Esau embodied a distortion of his father's pristine energy.)

Aaron the master of grace and kindness (Chesed), needed to "lift" and elevate each of the Levites, tracing back their intensity to its original source, in order to calm their harshness and relax their rigidity. Aaron was teaching each and every one of them, that intensity, stringency and firmness are lovable in their "elevated" and original source, reflecting a person's forceful commitment to life and spiritual growth; but if our intensity is not challenged, when it evolves to a lower, more concrete and expressive state, it can become a source of strife and abuse.

Few things are as hear- warming as a glowing flame; but if it is not controlled, it can destroy and uproot.

[Source: //The Yeshiva.net]