Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Communal Priority

This was published by the Jewish Star

Parshat Re'eh

Who is the most desperate, destitute member of the Jewish society?

It’s a loaded question and there is no correct answer. Unless you specify from whose perspective. The pauper feels he is most destitute. Every collector who comes to my door thinks their story is the most important tale of woe. Maybe the person who needs life-saving surgery, or the one on the waiting list for an organ is most needy.

All of these are certainly important cases, and when possible, we ought to help in whatever way we can.

From the Torah’s perspective, there are a group of people who we are to keep in mind because, unlike those who come to our doors to collect — who are able to do something for themselves — there are those who can’t, thereby rendering them projects for the Jewish community to lovingly support.

Numerous times in our parsha we are given lists of who we should support. While some of those who we need to look out for are fairly obvious, the widow and orphan for example, the ones that round out the various lists are “your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the ‘ger’ (stranger? Proselyte?) and the Levite.” (See Devarim 12:12,18; 14:29; 16:11,14)

Specifically, the Levite seems to be the common denominator, and is often mentioned alone (12:19; 14:27; mentioned apart from the group in 14:29).

While caring for one’s children is an obvious priority for any parent, and the responsibility of caring for those who serve you — servants or slaves — is elementary to a compassionate Jew, why does the Levite get such special attention?

The simple answer is given in the Torah in numerous places. In the realm of inheritance and tribal property, the tribe of Levi were given cities, but were otherwise left out of the divisions of the rest of the nation. (see Bamidbar 18:23-24 Devarim 10:8-9; 12:12; 14:27; 18:2)

The Rambam (Maimonides) takes this a step further and provides us with an answer to our question with a contemporary twist.

At the end of the laws of Shmittah and Yovel (13:12-13), Rambam writes:

“Levi did not merit to inherit the land or the spoils of war because they were separated to do the service of G-d, to serve Him and to teach His straight ways, and his righteous laws to the masses, as it says ‘He will teach [G-d’s] laws to Jacob and His Torah to Israel.’ Thus they were removed from the ways of the world. They do not engage in battles, they do not inherit land, and they do not merit privileges through their own might. They are G-d’s army — and G-d personally gives them merits when He says ‘I am your portion and your inheritance.’”

“And it is not only the Levites. Rather, any man of the world who donates his spirit and understands of his own knowledge to separate himself and to stand before G-d, to serve Him and arrive at knowledge of G-d… and he removes from himself the burden of financial accountings, he has sanctified himself to be the holiest of holies and G-d becomes his portion forever. He will merit — in this world — to have stability and no worries, just as the Kohen and Levi have.”
The Levites were not kollel-leit. They didn’t choose to be Levites — they were born Levites, limited in the work they could do, and were mandated by G-d to be supported by the community. They were teachers, scholars, and role models.

In our day, in the absence of the Temple, these roles have been filled by our teachers and rabbis. These professions are often thankless jobs, in many cases filled by people who have chosen this life because of their desire to teach and help Jews advance their personal Jewish experiences.

The Levites made whatever effort G-d allowed them, and were singled out by G-d as a top priority of people needing support from the community.

There is a need to support those who sacrifice and dedicate themselves to the community. These are not the individuals who sit in a yeshiva all day; not the individuals who choose to “only learn” when they are by no means the “best and the brightest” destined to be great Torah leaders. If they do not dedicate their time and their Torah knowledge to share with others, they are not the contemporary Levites.

But those who make an impact, who are in the trenches with the general population, who sacrifice glory and wealth to help others get closer to G-d are worthy of being the beneficiaries of the words of Devarim 12:19: “Be careful, lest you leave behind the Levite all your days on your land.”

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