Shaya Cohen -


Levites: Housekeepers And Guidance Counsellors

There is an opinion that the Torah was created at the same time as the world, all part of a divine plan. In this approach – free will notwithstanding – the stories in the text are essentially inevitable and predestined in some manner. I tried to see things this way.

But when I read the text carefully, to see what the text itself says about its origins and purpose, it leads to an entirely different way of reading the text, but one that I believe is faithful to the words we have been given. In the Torah, history has an arc – an origin and a goal. The themes that are matured and developed over time include the relationships between men and women, brothers, fathers and sons. The theme includes – especially – the relationships that grow between man and G-d. I have written hundreds of pieces on these topics (380 in total on the Torah as of last count), but what continues to astonish me is how many entirely new discoveries keep popping up. There seems to be fractal-like depth in the words and letters chosen, and their connections to each other, each lending new dimensionality to the Torah and what it means for our lives today.

Along the way I have seen another clear pattern: G-d’s commandments seem to never be plucked out of thin air: they are explained in the text themselves, often from earlier examples. Sacrifices are sourced from those brought by characters in Genesis. It is Jacob who builds booths for his flock and a house for himself (presaging events in the wilderness). A very great deal is learned from the events of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the Rape of Dina… all the events in Genesis are echoed later in the text, often as commandments to “do” or “don’t do.” The symbolism of the commandments all seem to draw from – or are at least connected to – events and themes from Genesis.

This week we looked at what at first appeared to be a very straightforward verse:

You shall put the Levites in charge (pakad) of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend (sharress) it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.

It all seemed very… functional. Boring, even.

Except that we noticed the presence of two words, “in charge” (pakad) and “tend” (sharress). And we saw something that was very cool: these two words only appear in two other verses in the entirety of the Torah. The first is with Potiphar, Joseph’s master:

And when his master saw that G-d was with him and that G-d lent success to everything he undertook, Joseph found favor in his eyes. He made him his personal attendant (sharress) and put him in charge (pakad) of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned.

Interesting! Potiphar made Joseph the head of his household, in charge of everything… just like G-d did with the Levites in Exodus! Except Potiphar did it first. And we can learn something from this, because Joseph’s attribute was always to seek to please his master (his father, Potiphar, the jailer, and then Pharaoh). He was the classic Number Two, taking care of everything so that the boss does not have to do it. It is intriguing that when G-d decided to appoint the Levites as the people responsible for maintaining G-d’s house, the language reflects the acts of Potiphar, of all people.

The other verse that uses both of these two words is not far after: the butler and baker are jailed in the prison where Joseph had been left to rot.

Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker and put them in custody, in the house of the prefect in the same prison house where Joseph was confined. The prefect assigned (pakad) Joseph to them, and he attended (sharress) them.

What was Joseph’s role? He acted as the intermediaries to these two jailed men, with responsibility but no clear power or authority. And in his role, Joseph listened to the men and interpreted their dreams. He acted as a counsellor.

Which might help shed a different light on why the Levites were selected; they were not just administrators or trusted functionaries (as Joseph was in Potiphar’s house). They were also counsellors and friends, building connections and giving hope to the people just as Joseph did for the butler and the baker.

The Torah does not make the connection more explicit than with the shared pair of words, but it does not have to: once noticed, the relationship between these verses is clear. And the implications are worth considering: does G-d learn to appoint administrators from Potiphar and Pharoah’s jailmaster? Is delegation a human (and not divine) invention? Should the Levites be inspired from Joseph’s example?

[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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