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Parshas Naso - Mishkan Duties of B'nei Gershon and B'nei Merari

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May 26, 2022

Parshas Naso commences with the command for B'nei Gershon and B'nei Merari - families of two of Levi's sons - to carry the Mishkan's curtains, boards and ancillary objects upon travel. It seems surprising that the parshah commences with this topic, as Parshas Bamidbar concludes with the mitzvah for B'nei Kehas (another of Levi's sons) to handle the Mishkan's most holy keilim (articles) when journeying. Why are the duties of all three Levite families - Gershon, Kehas and Merari - not grouped together in the same parshah?

I believe that the answer can be found by examining the remaining topics of Parshas Naso.

The parshah introduces the requirement to send forth teme'im - those who are impure - from specific encampments. It then addresses the rules of me'ilah - unlawful use or taking of items owned by or dedicated to the Beis Ha-Mikdash. The parshah subsequently turns to the rules of Sotah and Nazir, after which it presents the mitzvah and text of Birkas Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) and details the inauguration of the Mishkan, in which the Nesi'im (Princes) brought korbonos and gifts.

Do these varying segments have a common theme?

The general message of these topics centers around the need to stay on the correct spiritual course and not assume a position or carry on with a way of life which is deviant or out-of-bounds. Temei'm cannot be present in holy venues during their state of impurity, as entry to these venues by those who are tamei is a desecration. Such people must know which places are appropriate for them when their bodies are impure. Me'ilah is a misappropriation of holy funds or property for personal use, whereby the line between personal and holy property is violated. A sotah has diverged from her marital status and bond of betrothal, crossing the boundary of permissible relationships. The nazir has deviated from normative behavior, and one opinion in the Gemara considers him a sinner for his actions. (The other opinion deems his lifestyle as noble; in any case, it is a change of course from a regular lifestyle.)

The families of Gershon and Merari were charged with transporting objects of lesser holiness. The greatness of these Levi'im was that they did not protest or complain that they should have been granted the right to handle the most holy vessels, which was the task of B'nei Kehas. B'nei Gershon and B'nei Merari were content to fill the posts assigned to them and not deviate from their missions, and this is their praise. Their fidelity to their charge in the face of any temptation to try to change course was the essence of their glory.

This is the connection between the Mishkan duties of B'nei Gershon and B'nei Merari and the rest of the parshah, and it is precisely why the assignments of B'nei Gershon and Merari are reserved for Parshas Naso, rather than appearing in Parshas Bamidbar along with B'nei Kehas.

The narrative of the offerings of the Nesi'im forms the conclusion of the parshah, for it details the appropriate manner of "deviation" in serving Hashem. Although the Nesi'im's offerings were voluntary, spontaneous and without prior precedent, the Nesi'im did not bring these offerings until Hashem authorized them to do so. (Bamidbar 7:4-11) The Nesi'im desired to add to what is required in Torah observance, but they dared not do so without sanction. So, too, one who observes the disgrace of a sotah is actually encouraged to become a nazir as a deterrent to sin (Rashi on Sotah 2A). In this case, the undertaking to become a nazir serves as a reinforcement for Torah rather than as an alternative and novel form of religious expression.

It is no coincidence that the mitvzah of Birkas Kohanim appears right before the offerings of the Nesi'im, which served to inaugurate the Mishkan. The Torah records (Vayikra 9:22) that Aharon concluded his initial avodah in the Mishkan by blessing the people, and Chazal identify this blessing as Birkas Kohanim. (V. Rashi ibid., from Toras Kohanim.) Chazal further explain (v. Rashi ibid. on v. 23) that Aharon was initially apprehensive, lest Hashem be angry with him and reject his avodah due to his role in the Chet Ha-Egel (Sin of the Golden Calf). The inceptive recital of Birkas Kohanim by Aharon, whose avodah was indeed accepted upon its conclusion (v. Rashi ibid.), signaled that the Mishkan and Aharon's avodah successfully atoned for the Chet Ha-Egel. 

The Chet Ha-Egel represented mass deviation from Hashem. The Mishkan embodied the reverse - total adherence to Hashem's commands and a desire to be close to Him in the manner that He mandated, rather than through a manmade contrivance (the Egel) that led to idolatry. Birkas Kohanim is thus the foundational text of an eternal relationship of ultimate fidelity and allegiance to Hashem - the antithesis of deviation - and it is therefore a fitting introduction to the offerings of the Nesi'im in the Mishkan as the climax of Parshas Naso.


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