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Three Families – Three Facets of Jewish History

Parashas Nasso picks up where the previous parashah left off, continuing the discussion of the counting of those Leviim who were fit to serve (i.e., those between ages thirty and fifty). The Leviim were composed of three families – Kehas, Gershon, and Merari. Each family was to be counted separately, and each assigned its task in the transportation of the Mishkan and its vessels.

The language of the Torah is, of course, precise, and it is telling that the command to count each of these respective families is introduced with different terminology. The command to count the family of Kehas (who carried the most sacred items) is introduced by Hashem telling Moshe, נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי קְהָת ...לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, Take a census (lit. lift the heads) of the sons of Kehas… to their fathers’ households (Bamidbar 4:2). The command to count the family of Gershon (who carried the tapestries) is introduced at the beginning of this week’s parshah, with a similar phrase, נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, Take a census of the sons of Gershon, them as well, to their fathers’ households (ibid. v. 22). The Torah here adds the phrase גַּם הֵם, them as well, as though there was a question as to whether נָשׂא אֶת רֹאש, take a census / lift the heads, applied to Gershon altogether. Why is that the case? Finally, the command to count the family of Merari (who carried the heavy beams and columns), is introduced simply with, בְּנֵי מְרָרִי לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם תִּפְקֹד אֹתָם, The sons of Merair … count them (ibid. v. 29). Here the Torah leaves out the expression נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ, take a census/lift the heads. Why is this uplifting terminology not applied to Merari as well?

The Chasam Sofer suggests that the three families of the Leviim represent three different facets of Jewish History, each alluded to in the names of the families themselves.

Kehas alludes to the time that we are gathered in our land, with a Beis HaMikdash and the manifest Divine Presence among us. Indeed, the nameקְהָת  (Kehas) itself  

means “to gather together” (see Bereishis 49:10). The names of the family units of Kehas too allude to this time, עמרם – uplifted nation, יצהרillumination, חברון ועוזיאל, connection and my power is [from] Gd. During the “Kehas-Era” Jews are living on a higher brighter spiritual plane, with a powerful connection to Hashem.

The name גֵרְשׁוֹן (Gershon), on the other hand, is from the root גרש, which means “to send away.” Gershon alludes to the time when we are sent out from our homeland into exile. However, even within exile Jews have managed to spiritually flourish, and connect to Hashem and His Torah. Even in exile we have built Torah institutions and produced voluminous works of Torah (alluded to in the name of the Gershonic family unit, שמעי, to listen [to Torah sages]). Moreover, the process of exile cleanses us of our past national errors (alluded to in the name of their family unit לבני, whiten). To this “Gershon-Era,” the Torah says נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם, take a census/lift the heads of Gershon – them as well. Even then, when we are driven out of our home, we are not too far off to be “lifted up” and reconnected to our illustrious forebearers (to their fathers’ households).

Finally, the name Merari, comes from the root מר, bitter. Merari alludes to the most challenging times of Jewish History. Times of religious persecution; when Jews are tortured and murdered simply for being Jews. Such times can best be described as “bitter,” and are further alluded to in the names of Merari’s family units, מחלי illness, and מושיdisplaced, for during the “Merari-Era” of Jewish History we are afflicted with all sorts of suffering and lack security or “place” to call our own. For such an era of Jewish History the Torah does not use the term נָשׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ...לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, lift up their heads to their fathers’ households. Jews in such an era – who despite the torture continue to cling to their Father in Heaven, need not be spiritually lifted to their righteous illustrious forebearers. Our Sages teach us that Jews of such an era, who in spite of the persecution, persevere in their beliefs and practices, are themselves occupants of the very heights of the spiritual ladder. There is no need to “lift them up to their fathers’ households.” Just the opposite, their forbearers look up to them and to their lofty spiritual plane! (תורת משה, נשא).

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom / Good Shabbos

Rabbi Moskovitz


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Roots and Branches

In the prelude to the giving of the Torah, the verse states that Hashem told Moshe to ascend the mountain to receive אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם, the Tablets of stone and the Torah, and the commandments that I have written to instruct them (Shemos 24:12). The pasuk indicates that these Tablets, about which Hashem says, “I have written,” contain within them “the Torah and the commandments.” That is, the body of the Ten Commandments contain within them, on some level, all six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16). In his “Azaharos,” Rav Saadia Goan (10th century leader of the Yeshiva of Pumpedisa) connects each one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos to its corresponding commandment within the Ten Commandments (as Rashi to Shemos 24:12 notes).

The entire body of the Torah’s mitzvos are encapsulated in the Ten Commandments that we received on Shavuos. But our Sages go even further, and explain that in fact, all of the Torah’s mitzvos can, on some level, be said to be further distilled and contained in their entirety in the first two of those Ten commandments. The first commandment, “I am Hashem your Gd…” includes within it all the mitzvos asei, the positive mitzvos (i.e., mitzvos that require us to do, say, or think something). While the second commandment, “You shall not have other gods…” includes within it all the mitzvos lo saaseh, the negative mitzvos (which require us to abstain from doing, saying, or thinking something).

How so? Whenever a person violates a prohibition in the Torah, he has shown that he answers to the will of “another” – someone or something other than Hashem. He is flouting the authority of Hashem by accepting upon himself some other “power” or “authority” (e.g., his ego, social pressures, etc.). Whereas, whenever one performs a positive mitzvah, he is doing the opposite. He is connecting to his Maker. Through his actions, speech, or thoughts, he is expressing his belief in the opening words of his Creator, “I am Hashem your Gd…” Such a person’s mitzvah performance moves him ever closer to Hashem (Or Gedalyahu, Likkutie Diburim, Shavuos #3).

In other words, the first two of the Ten Commandments are root commandments. They are the starting point for all the other mitzvos of the Torah. All mitzvos asei (positive mitzvos) are branches of the first commandment (I am Hashem your Gd…), and all mitzvos lo saaseh (negative mitzvos) are branches of the second commandment (You shall not have other gods…).

It is telling that the first two of the Ten Commandments are written in first person (“I am Hashem… You shall not have other gods before Me…”). However, from the third commandment and onward, the Torah switches to third person (You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your Gd, in vain…the Seventh day is a Sabbath to Hashem…). Our Sages teach us that unlike the rest of the Ten Commandments which were relayed to us by Moshe, when it comes to the first two, we heard those directly from Hashem. There is an allusion to this in the verse,תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ משֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת, The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob  (Devarim 33:4). The wordתּוֹרָה  “Torah” has the gematria of 611, for that is the number of mitzvos “that Moses commanded us.” As for the first two of the 613 mitzvos, we heard those directly from Hashem (Makkos 24a). Based on the above, it makes sense why these were the two we heard from Hashem. After all, once we heard those two commandments, in a sense we heard them all!

Wishing you all a Chag Sameach / Good Yom Tov and Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Moskovitz

Fri, June 9 2023 20 Sivan 5783