One of the primary roles of the Levi’im – the one that we most readily associate with them – is that of the musicians, the Meshorerim, who enhanced the Temple offerings with their songs. Yet this role is not explicitly described in the Torah, where instead their role as the movers of the portable Temple – the Mishkan – is emphasized. The Talmud (TB Eruchin 11a) works to identify a scriptural basis for their musical role, and comes up with a handful of possible sources.
Most prominently, it identifies a source from Parshas Naso which describes the special role of the Levite family of Kehos, who bore the responsibility of carrying the holy vessels of the Mishkan. Thus, the verse (Bamidbar 4:9) explains, while the other families were given the wagons donated by the Nesi’im – the leaders – of the twelve tribes to aid them in transporting the walls and drapes of the Mishkan, the family of Kehos were to carry their holy burden without the aid of wagons, “for theirs is the holy work, on their shoulders they shall carry.” The Talmud finds the last phrase, “they shall carry” to be redundant, as mention of “the holy work on their shoulders” should be sufficient to imply their responsibility to carry. As such, the Talmud suggests that this is actually an allusion to their role as musicians, citing a verse in Tehillim (81:3) that refers to “carrying” a tune.
It is curious that this important role of the Levi’im as the Temple musicians should be hidden away in – of all places – a phrase which describes their role in carrying the burden of the Temple. The great Chasidic master Sfas Emes (Notes from 5641) explained this by noting an even more curious passage of Talmudic Aggadah.
After the Holy Ark had been taken in battle by the Philistines, they suffered a string of tragedies, leading them to recognize that they ought to consider returning the Ark home, to the Jewish people. The verse (Shmuel I Chapter 6) describes how they attached two young mother cows to a wagon that was to carry the Ark back to the Jews. If the cows ignored their maternal instincts and left their young, proceeding directly on the road to the Jewish people, that would be a clear sign to them that it was indeed appropriate for the Ark to return home. The verse (Shmuel I 6:12) then states, “Vayisharna haparos baderech…”, simply translated as “The cows went straight down the road”, providing the necessary sign. The Talmud (TB Avodah Zara 24b) however reads the word “Vayisharna” as related to the term “Shira”, song, and understands that just as Bilaam’s donkey spoke, these cows were actually singing as they carried the Ark home!
The occurrence of this apparently unnecessary miracle suggests that it was almost a natural reaction, that one who bears the holiest of burdens is spontaneously filled with the urge and the power to burst forth in song; that sacred work is a burden of privilege that unlocks the deepest feelings of joy that ultimately express themselves musically. This was true of the cows as it was true of the Levi’im whose role as musicians derives from their own burden of privilege, and – suggests the Sfas Emes – it continues to ring true amongst all who commit themselves to truly holy work, leading them to feel an unparalleled expressive joy in their own hearts.
It is fascinating to note that this phenomenon – the notion that the burden of privilege unlocks the heart to express and experience joy – was a feature of the life of Levi from birth. At that juncture this trend was seen not in the holy burdens of the Temple, but in the sacred responsibility of family.
The classic commentator Chizkuni (Bereishis 29:34) notes that the birth of Levi was a turning point in the strained relationship between Yaakov and Leah. The births of Leah’s first two sons, Reuvein and Shimon, brought hope to Leah – expressed in the names that she gave them – that they would somehow earn her the love of Yaakov. These hopes however went unfulfilled, with Yaakov remaining closed and distant from Leah. When Levi was born, however, the hope that was expressed in his name – that now her husband would provide her with company – was fulfilled, as the verse indicates for the first time that Yaakov accepted and used the name she had chosen, “Al kein kara sh’mo Levi.” Chizkuni famously suggests that this hope of her husband’s company was born of practical necessity: two babies can be carried by the two arms of their mother; a third child required the husband to pitch in. Thus this baby earned her Yaakov’s company.
It would seem however that Yaakov’s acceptance of this was not just a grudging surrender to his wife’s practical cries for household help. Yaakov, who had remained distant from Leah and from her babies, now of necessity took upon himself the “burden” of carrying a child in his arms. Much as Sfas Emes noted in the case of the Holy Ark, it is essentially natural for one who bears this most precious of burdens to be spontaneously filled with the urge and the power to burst forth in song. It is to be expected that this burden of privilege would unlock the deepest feelings of Yaakov that would ultimately open his heart to both his children and to their mother.
Indeed, marriage is known in Hebrew as “Nissuin”, a term that has at its root the carrying of the burdens that this relationship creates. Yet it is specifically as this bond is created and its burdens assumed that we burst forth in the songs of joy, in the Kol Sason v’Kol Simcha, that express the joy of assuming these precious burdens of privilege.
It was apparently the lot of Levi from the very beginning to demonstrate how the burdens of privilege – whether the holy burden of the Ark or the precious burden of family – are to be experienced not as burdens but as joys.
A third, fascinating source brings together these two burdens of privilege.
When Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, he joined with Pharaoh in sending wagons to carry Yaakov as well as the wives and children of his brothers back to Egypt. The verse (Bereishis 45:27) notes that Yaakov absorbed the news of Yosef’s survival specifically when he saw these wagons that Yosef had sent. Rashi there cites the classic comment from the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 94:3) that explains this with a play on words, Agalah – Eglah, that Yosef by sending wagons (Agalos) was reminding Yaakov of their last shared session of Torah study where they had learned about the Eglah Arufah (see Dvarim Chapter 21).
There is, however, another version of this Midrash (see Matnos Kehunah commentary to Bereishis Rabba 94:3; Zohar I:211a), that draws a more direct line to Yosef’s wagons. This version suggests that Yosef sent six wagons, and in doing so was recalling the six wagons referenced in Parshas Naso (Bamidbar 7:3) that the twelve tribal leaders had given to the Levi’im to aid them in transporting the elements of the Mishkan. These wagons represented both the partnership of the tribes with each other – as represented by the twelve leaders donating six wagons (see Sforno there) – as well as their clear desire to share the burden of privilege of carrying the holy Mishkan. This holy burden was something they embraced and sought, rather than avoided. Thus, when Yosef sent for his family, he recalled those wagons of the Nesi’im, of the bearers of responsibility for their people and its holy mission. Yosef – who had been sold by his brothers to Egypt as an unwelcome burden – now welcomed those brothers and their families to Egypt, eager to bear the burden of privilege of caring for and sustaining them through the years to come. Witnessing in his child that eagerness, that joyous embrace of familial and sacred responsibility, indeed brought Yaakov back to life.
One of life’s great gifts is the privilege to taste the joy of bearing the sacred burdens of our holy Torah, our holy people, and our cherished families. May these precious and sacred burdens unlock the joy and the song that is in our hearts, so that we may live lives of inspired responsibility.