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A sustainable level of kedusha [kohannim vs leviim]

Written by D FINE

The main part of our sedra deals with the dispute ignited by Korach with its destructive consequences. The final perek deals with the various ‘gifts’ which are to be given on a regular basis to Kohannim or Leviim (depending on the gift); terumah to a Kohen and ma’aser to a Levi from crops to name but two of them. Since we spoke about the Korach machlokes last year, we shall discuss the latter part of the sedra.

The point to realise here is that these various gifts are resultant of the special kedusha given to Kohannim, as well as that of the Leviim. As Rashi (Yevamos 68b ‘giluy’) says ‘terumah is the kedusha of Kehunah.’ Likewise, the Targum in our sedra explains HaShem’s words to Aharon that the Kohannim ‘…shall not have a [specific] portion in the Land [of Israel], for I am your portion…’ (18;20) by saying ‘You shall not have a portion…for the gifts that I have given to you are your portion,’ for it is HaShem’s kedusha that was given to the Kohannim that caused these gifts. Consequently, it seems clear that since Kohannim have more gifts than Leviim, their kedusha isgreater than that of the Leviim – and in fact the Leviim are to give part of their ma’aser gift to the Kohen. This difference in kedusha is also seen by laws given to Kohannim over Leviim regarding marriage and avoidance of tum’ah. Having identified two different levels of kedusha, we shall present a question; in what way does the kedusha of a Levi differ from that of a Kohen, and what can we take out of this for ourselves? I heard the bulk of this on a tape by Rav Yisroel Reisman.

The issue begins with a puzzling statement of the Rambam (hilchos beis habechirah 6;16), which requires a brief introduction. Apart from the connection between the Land of Israel and the Bnei Yisrael, there is a kedusha that is added to the Land by our settling it which dictates laws dependent on the Land like Shmittah. There were two periods in history in which this occurred; when we came out of Egypt into the Land of Israel, and in the times of Ezra when the Jews returned from exile to the Land to begin the rebuilding of the second beis hamidkash. The Rambam paskens that the first kedusha of Eretz Yisrael (ie. from the generation that left Egypt) was temporary, and indeed was removed when the Land was conquered from them, whilst the kedusha infused by those who came from Bavel in the times of Ezra was permanent and remains today (kedusha rishona kidsha lesha’ata velo kidsha le’atid lavo, kedusha shniya kidsha lesha’ata vekidsha le’atid lavo).

So far, the Rambam has just codified an already-existing dispute in the gemarra, but the Rambam continues to give an explanation as to why this is so; why should it be that those who entered the Land from the desert only merited to create a temporary kedusha whilst those who came up from Bavel created a permanent kedusha; after all, this first generation that left Egypt came into the Land with Yehoshua and the Aron kodesh, and witnessed miraculous victories over their enemies (picture the walls of Yericho falling amidst the blowing of shofars), whilst the generation that came up from Bavel with Ezra were much smaller in number and saw no open miracles nor did they have the Aron? The Rambam answers that the first time, the Land was conquered and so when it was taken away by force from them, the kedusha left. But this second homecoming in the times of Ezra was not done via forceful conquering of the Land, [but rather with permission from the king of Bavel] and we infused the kedusha via settling the Land with something called a chazaka. The question here (asked by the kesef mishna) is: what exactly does the Rambam mean; the first kedusha also had settling of the Land too, and why should kedusha be more prone to permanence vis-à-vis permissive settling rather than a conquering which was commanded and carried out openly by HaShem?

It is here that we return to our topic of Kohannim and Leviim (it will be relevant; don’t worry). The Meshech Chochmah (shemos 15;16) offers an explanation to the above Rambam via a sharp insight into the difference between the kedusha of a Kohen and a Levi. He notes that if a female Kohen has forbidden relations, she loses her kedusha of a Kohen and can no longer partake of the gifts reserved for Kohannim – she becomes a Yisrael. However, a Levi woman who has forbidden relations does not forsake her status as a Levite. Why should this be; shouldn’t the Kohen go down one level and become a Levi – why does she become a Yisrael? The Meshech Chochmah explains that there is a spiritual rule that ‘the bigger you are the harder you fall.’ Since the Kohannim have a special higher kedusha which the Leviim do not have, once that kedusha has been tampered with, it is removed. But the kedusha of a Levi is lower (literally ‘his body is not kadosh;’ he only serves the kedusha of the Kohannim in the mishkan; 18;2) and as such is more sustainable and stable; and so is not removed by committing sins of forbidden relations.

This, he answers, is the explanation for the aforementioned Rambam. It is precisely because the generation that left Egypt entered the Land with pomp, ceremony, the open Presence of HaShem, the Aron, and miracles, that the high-level, high-voltage kedusha brought about was more fragile and easily removed when the Land was conquered from them years later – just like a Kohen with his higher kedusha which is more susceptible to its removal. But the generation of Ezra came up with no Beis HaMikdash and at a time where HaShem’s Presence was more hidden – the kedusha they infused into the Land was a lower level and as such more sustainable, as seen by its permanence – this was a Levi-type kedusha. In parable form; if there is an explosion in a power plant, the plant remains in tact. But if it is a nuclear power plant, then chances are that the plant will not survive an explosion.

The lesson to be learnt here is to realise one’s own spiritual level and kedusha; although one might want to always go for the top, golden, glistening level of kedusha in life, often what is practical is to take much smaller steps and the gradual attaining of a more sustainable level of kedusha and avodas HaShem. One should aim high; but realise that just as a Kohen’s high falls more easily, one is aiming for sustainability too, as highlighted by the two different levels of kedusha of the Land of Israel.

An example of someone who tragically failed to evaluate his correct spiritual level is Esav. Rashi (Bereishis 25;27) cites that Esav would ask his father halachic questions which made himself out to be extremely righteous; eg whether one had to take ma’aser from salt and straw, making himself out to be a ‘machmir’ and knowing full well that according to halacha these are exempt from ma’aser. The Alter of Slabodka explains that Esav was not just tricking Yitzchak here; he was fooling himself too – each time he went to see Yiztchak, Esav really did make up his mind that he would want to be a tzaddik and fooled himself into thinking that he was one. And since he misjudged his spiritual level, he did not develop spiritually as a result, and ended up disconnected from the Jewish People. Similarly connected to our theme, we find cases where people were punished for exceeding their permitted level of kedusha in trying to get too close to HaShem in an ‘illegal’ manner. The example of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, springs to mind, with their deaths from the unwarranted entering of the holy of holies. And indeed this is the introduction to the section of the Kohannim and Leviim in our sedra; the warning against Bnei Yisrael coming too close to the mishkan – an act which would result in death (18;28). In fact, it was the Leviim’s job to ensure that this encroaching did not take place (Rashi 18;23). The lesson is to realise one’s kedusha and spiritual level, and not to over-exceed a level that one is allowed to attain. Too high a level of kedusha can be negative and is not always sustainable – and the people who were to warn the Bnei Yisrael against this were the Leviim; the symbol of sustainable kedusha.

Obviously, we are not saying that everyone should not strive to grow spiritually – that is clearly not the goal – but any growth that is achieved should be in-keeping with one’s character and ability in order that it should be sustainable; too many people jump too quickly and end up falling, which would not be the case if they did things slowly and more realistically.

Perhaps this is best conveyed via a story. A wealthy businessman who supported yeshivas once came to Rav Shach and told him that he had decided to retire from business and start learning full-time. Rav Shach told him that it would be too hard to make this sudden change in lifestyle after so many years; he should rather learn for half a day and work for the other half, donating eighty per cent of his working proceeds to yeshivas. Similar to this did Rav Neventzhal once tell that a group of non-religious girls once came to a Rabbi and told him that they were willing to take on to do one religious thing; and it was the Rabbi’s choice. Over the mitzvos of Shabbes, Kashrus, etc. the Rabbi taught them about the bracha of ‘shehakol nihiye bidvaro’ and told the girls to say it whenever appropriate; for this was a sustainable thing to take on for girls of their position. In fact, some time later the girls came back to the Rabbi to inform him that they had decided to become completely religious; ‘after all,’ they said ‘we realised that if HaShem is the Master of the World and everything happens according to His word,’ (as they had been saying in the bracha of shehakol) how can we not keep Shabbes, etc. when He tells us to?’

The theme is that sudden life-changing spiritual decisions are not for everyone and do not always last; gradual steps within one’s existing life-pattern are more sustainable; a lawyer does not need to suddenly give up his job and run to Jerusalem to learn in kollel; an extra learning session around his work is the next sustainable level for him. So too do many yeshiva bochrim who go back to university get depressed because they are not learning with the same intensity and as many hours as they did in yeshiva; the same idea applies – the sustainable, realistic level, is not going to match that achieved in yeshiva, unfortunately.

In short, it is lasting, realistic, and sustainable kedusha and spiritual growth that we are aiming for; HaShem should help us achieve this.

Have a great Shabbes,

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