The Spirit of Levi: Determined Jewish Education

A thought based on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Parshat Shemot:

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִ֖ישׁ מִבֵּ֣ית לֵוִ֑י וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־בַּת־לֵוִֽי

A man from the house of Levi went and took [as a wife] a daughter of Levi. After all, we know the importance of “the House of Levi…” The Levite spirit, which was destined to be the saving spirit in times of trouble – ואחלקם יעקב (Genesis 49:7) was not called for under the present conditions [of life in Egypt]…At such a time, it took courage to become a father or a mother. That is why it doesn’t say ויהי איש מבית לוי וגו  [“and behold, a man from the house of Levi, etc.”] , but rather וילך, which indicates the determination required for such a step in those times. 

The “Levite spirit” that Rabbi Hirsch mentions – ואחלקם יעקב – what does that mean? Jacob “apportioned”  the tribes of Levi and Simon to be  “scattered” amongst the Jewish people (Levi was literally scattered throughout the tribes and Simon’s portion was an enclave within Judah’s portion). This is a way of keeping the passions of Simon and Levi in check during times of wealth and power. They will not be able to exercise the blazing urge to seek justice in a way that may turn dangerous, as they did with the people of Shechem.

However, in times of oppression, persecution and exile, then scattering Simon and Levi among all the other tribes…is a great kindness [from G-d], for…[when] the nation scattered in all directions, [their] descendants were always present, in every place of our dispersion. Everywhere, they would foster and nurture within us strength and courage, fervor and noble Jewish pride, thus assuring that the Jewish spirit remained alive and strong even after the demise of the state.

Put these two thoughts together and what emerges? The seemingly inherent qualities of the Levites; the tribe which produced a man and woman who decided the difficulties of their times did not acquit the potential and purpose of the future. It is the tribe from where, as the Yalkut Shemoni says, “schools and the study of Torah were pursued.” Even in the times of Egypt, even when the rest of Israel was building a molten calf, when the Jewish people felt broken, insecure, and despaired, the Levites pursued Torah with courage and determination. They didn’t give up, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Our teachers nowadays aren’t assigned by tribe; being a Jewish educator is more a choice than a time-honored family practice and legacy. However, the qualities needed, and the mission allotted to our nation’s teachers are the same as the Levites: fostering and nurturing strength and courage, fervor and noble Jewish pride…assuring that the Jewish spirit remains alive and strong, even now, when we have the Jewish state. Now, when there is so much vying for the minds and hearts of our children (and adults), it takes courage to be of the House of Levi; to go forward with strength and determination and make the bid for Torah, tradition, and for the values, practices, and teachings of our 5,776 year history.

The life of a Levite is hard work. It comes with many uncertainties and little stability. Will my brethren support my work? Will they appreciate its importance? Will they trust me with their greatest treasures – their minds and hearts and the minds and hearts of their children – or will they say I’m not good enough for such a tremendous charge? My livelihood is barely my own – I depend on the tithes and contributions of my community to put a roof over my family’s heads, and food on our plates. My work must speak to their hearts, minds, and souls, or else its obsolete and irrelevant. Such a struggle can be disheartening and would understandably make one throw his arms up in despair.

Yet that’s not what the Levite does. He keeps evolving, keeps toiling, keeps serving and teaching, even under challenging conditions. That is the spirit of the Levite, and that is the spirit of every Jewish educator and leader who gives his or her all into paving the runway on which each Jew can raise his wings , and skip, trip, tread, and soar toward a lifelong relationship with Torah.

So, to all the teachers, and the parents and communities that support them – thank you. Whether you are in a classroom, an administrator’s office, a synagogue sanctuary, a Beit Midrash, or a college campus, thank you for committing yourselves to engendering the spirit of the House of Levi. When times are tough, remember that your courage and determination have the power to yield the Moses’, Aarons, and Miriams of our times. They just might be in your classroom, so please, keep going.

They need you. We need you.


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