Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying:  ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the Priest…And they shall maintain all the furniture of the tent of meeting and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the Sanctuary.   And you shall give the Levites onto Aaron and his sons:  They are wholly given over [netunim, netunim] unto him from the children of Israel.’ (Num. 3:5-9)

A later passage employs a similar phrase:

 And afterwards the Levites will come to do the service of the Tent of Meeting.  And you shall purify them and offer them as a wave offering because they are wholly given over [netunim, netunim] onto Me from the midst of the children of Israel.Instead of all the first born of the children of Israel have I taken them onto Me. (Num. 8:15-16).

The contexts of the two passages are different. The first text relates to the assembly, disassembly, transportation and responsibility for the care of the portable sanctuary and its furnishings.  The subject of second is the consecration of the Levites for their role in the celebration of the sacred sanctuary rituals.   

Although the two texts deal with entirely different aspects of levitical service, they are connected by the doubled words, netunim, netunim.

The Torah is generally characterized by its strict economy of language; it rarely employs superfluous terms.  For this reason there is abundant exegesis on the repetition of the word netunim.

Rashbam suggests that the repetition is for added emphasis.  The standard English translation follows this line of interpretation by rendering netunim netunim as wholly given.

 Ibn Ezra writes that the doubling of the word conveyed to the Levites the notion that not only they but also all their descendents were to be charged with the two fold burden of service. 

Seforno suggests that the repeated word netunim conveys two distinct but related types of devotion.  The first reflects the selfless devotion of the tribe of Levi to God.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, he found the Israelites celebrating the golden calf in a frenzy of pagan abandon.  It was a time for drastic action.  And Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said:  Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come onto me.  And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. (Ex. 32:26).  The devotion of the Levites, in this instance, was high risk and total.  They were to lead the armed struggle against the thousands of instigators of the collective apostasy. Their devotion is conveyed by the initial netunim.  The second netunim reflects the appreciation of the children of Israel for the devotion of the Levites to the service of the sanctuary.  The allocation of this burden to one tribe allowed the remaining tribes to devote most of their time to the agricultural and economic needs of their families and the community.  In reciprocation, they granted the Levites a tithe of their produce, permitting them to devote themselves fully to the service of the sanctuary, free of distracting financial responsibility.  This reciprocal devotion is conveyed by the second netunim.

Rashi’s interpretation of the apparently redundant netunim netunim is striking in its simplicity.  The first netunim refers to the initial charge of the Levites--the transportation and care of the sacred structures and their furnishings; they were devoted to this burden [netunim le-masa].  The second netunim refers to their role in the sanctuary ritual; they were devoted to the musical element of the ritual [netunim le-shirah].  

The sages who inspired Rashi’s comment offer us a profound insight into the nature of authentic devotion, which completely transcends the context of the ancient sanctuary and its service.  The acid test of true devotion is commitment even in the absence of pleasurable reinforcement. 

It is easy to love in the absence of pain and suffering.  The test of real love is that it endures in bad times as well as good.  Life is punctuated both by celebration and suffering, by happiness and by sadness.  When a young couple makes a life long commitment, the bride and groom are aware that their love will be tested by crisis.  Debilitating disease often challenges families. The security of the presence of a caring partner is itself a joy. But some spouses are unable to endure the unrelenting demands of care giving, and seek happiness elsewhere.   They counted on being netunim le-shirah--ready for celebration, but prove to be unable to deal with masa.

What is true of spousal relationships is all too true of parental responsibility. The presence of children in the home is a usually the source of unspeakable joy.  Parents look forward to celebrating their children’s important milestones, delighting in their growth and development and taking great pride in their accomplishments; they are netunim le-shirah.  But children can be enormously challenging.   Some have serious behavioral and other psychological issues, challenging their parents’ patience.  Some become ill, requiring their parents to be netunim le-masa as well as netunim le –shirah.  Most frequently, the shirah and the masa are interwoven, together defining the relationship of loving parents to their children.

 The same characteristic defines the attitude of loving children to their aging parents, particularly with extended longevity.  These children have been called the “sandwich generation”.   They have children and grandchildren of their own for whom to care, and are privileged accept the added responsibility of taking care of their parents’ special needs.  Most do so lovingly, demonstrating that just as they were netunim le-shirah when their parents were responsible for them, they are now privileged to be netunim le-masa, as roles are somewhat reversed. But some members of the “sandwich generation” cannot accept the double netunim and choose to employ others for the masa.

The ancient Levites had the formula for authentic devotion. We can still benefit from their double netunim strategy.

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