“The Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Lift up the heads [i.e. take a census] of the sons of Gershon as well, by their patrilineal house, by their families.” (Bamidbar 4:21-22).

Levi, the third son of Yaakov, had three sons: Gershon, Kehat and Merari (Bereishit 46:11). Each family of Levi was designated to transport specific components of the Tabernacle as Bnei Yisrael travelled in the wilderness. Kehat, from whom Moshe, Aharon and Miriam descended, were entrusted with the most holy items: the Ark, the Table, the Menorah, the altars, the parochet (dividing curtain) and the sacred vessels (Bamidbar 3:31). Kehat camped on the southern side of the Tabernacle and their tribal head was Elitzafan ben Uziel. Gershon camped on the western side of the Tabernacle and their leader was Elyasaf ben Lael. The items they transported were the hangings that served as the roof of the Tabernacle; the screen at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the courtyard and the screen at the entrance of the courtyard (Ibid verses 23-26). Merari would transport the beams that made up the walls of the Tabernacle; the bars; pillars and sockets of the Tabernacle, as well as the pillars, sockets, pegs and cords of the courtyard. They camped on the northern side of the Tabernacle and their tribal head was Tzuriel ben Avichayail (ibid verse 35-37).

At the end of parshat Bamidbar, Moshe and Aharon were instructed to “lift up the heads [i.e. take a census] of the sons of Kehat from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their patrilineal house.” Our parsha opens with a similar instruction regarding the sons of Gershon. The census included males over the age of thirty who were deemed strong enough to carry the components of the Tabernacle in their commission. In regard to the tribe of Merari, the Torah uses a different expression (Bamidbar 4:29-30), “The sons of Merari, by their families, by their patrilineal house, you shall count [tifkod] them. From thirty years old and above until fifty years old you shall count them, everyone that enlists for the duty, to perform the work of the tent of Meeting.” The phrase “lift up the heads” [nasso et rosh] is conspicuously absent in reference to the sons of Merari. Why is this so? Furthermore, in reference to the tribe of Kehat, the Torah states, “by their families, by their patrilineal house”, whereas in reference to the tribes of Gershon and Merari, the order is reversed: “by their patrilineal house, by their families.” What is the significance of this?

The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, Germany and Hungary, 1762-1839) notes that the names of the sons of Levi hint to three states in which the Jewish people find themselves. Kehat is related to the word, gather or assemble, as in (Bereishit 49:10), “The scepter [of royalty] shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until Shilo [the redeemer] arrives. To him, nations shall assemble (yikhat).” This refers to the Jewish people living in their own land under their own sovereignty. Gershon is from the root garash that means to drive out or divorce (see Shmot 11:1). Gershon symbolises the Jewish

people when they are expelled from their land and living in exile. Merari means bitter, as in (Shmot 1:14), “They [the Egyptians] embittered [vayemararu] their lives with hard work, with mortar and bricks. And with all work in the field, with all their work with which they worked for them with travail.” Merari symbolises the Jewish people in times of intense suffering and persecution.

When the Jewish people are in Israel, living according to the laws of the Torah and performing the Temple service, their souls are attached first to their ancestors (“their families”) and then to their sacred homeland (“their patrilineal house” – see Rashi on Shir HaShirim 3:4). This accords with the order of Hashem’s words at the end of the Rebuke (Vayikrah 26:42), “I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham I will remember; and the land I will remember.” Hence, in reference to Kehat, the Torah states, “Lift the heads of the sons of Kehat”, implying that when the Jews are on their land they should be elevated and connected to their ancestors and their land. In reference to Gershon – the Jew who is exiled from his land but still lives in tranquility in the diaspora – the Torah states, “Lift the heads of the sons of Gershon” first “by their patrilineal house”, the holy land, and then “by their families”, their ancestors. In exile, the Jew must maintain an unbreakable bond with the land of Israel. It should be first and foremost in his thoughts, even before he thinks of his ancestors.

The third and most unfortunate state of the Jew is when he is in exile and is suffering persecution and oppression. Ironically, Jews are often more committed to God during such periods than when they are living in Israel or enjoying a tranquil existence in exile. The Talmud (Bava Batra 10b) states that Jews who give up their lives for the sake of Hashem’s name during periods of persecution will merit a place in the World to Comein which no other person can stand. Thus, the phrase, “lift up the heads” does not appear in regard to the sons of Merari. Their heads are already elevated as a result of their loyalty and dedication to God during the most difficult of circumstances. They do not require the merit of their forefathers to preserve them. On the contrary, their behaviour serves as a merit to their land and to their ancestors. It is the Jew in Israel and, in particular, the comfortable Jew in exile that requires a “lifting of the head.” The Gershon-like Jew has neither holy land nor Temple service. He tends to assimilate into the local culture. If not for the merit of his ancestors (“by their families”), he might disappear altogether on foreign soil. Hence, Moshe is charged, “Lift up the heads of the sons of Gershon as well”, do not forget them and do not abandon them. We are the “sons of Gershon”, constantly striving to hold our heads high in countries that are sometimes welcoming to Jews, sometimes indifferent and sometimes hostile. Our goal is to become the “sons of Kehat” by returning to our land and living there as the Torah expects.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Liebenberg

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