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A MEMBER OF THE TRIBE

by Levi Graiser    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"If a matter of judgment is hidden from you, between blood and blood, between verdict and verdict, between plague and plague, matters of dispute in your cities - you shall go up to the place that Hashem shall choose. You should come to the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and the judge who shall be in those days. . ." (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).

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"If a matter of judgment is hidden from you, between blood and blood, between verdict and verdict, between plague and plague, matters of dispute in your cities - you shall go up to the place that Hashem shall choose. You should come to the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and the judge who shall be in those days. . ." (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).

These verses in this week's Torah portion tell us that members of the tribe of Levi are especially suited to be judges on the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish law that met in the Temple. Why, out of all tribes, is Levi best suited for this role amongst the Jewish people?

The Rambam, the great 12th century codifier of Jewish law, gives us an insight into this issue. At the end of his "Laws of Shemittah and Yovel," he explains why the tribe of Levi does not inherit a portion in the land of Israel, aside from their individual cities scattered throughout the country. He writes that the Levites were fundamentally different from the other tribes of Israel. Whereas other tribes needed to grapple with the day-to-day pressures of making a living, the Levites were expected to spend their time studying the Torah and teaching it to others. The rest of the nation supported this tribe by giving them the tithes from their agricultural products. The Levites therefore did not receive a portion in the land of Israel, since the need to maintain their portion would detract from their focus on Torah study. In fact, the Levites were always dedicated to the dissemination of Torah. Way back in Egypt, while the rest of the nation toiled in slavery, the Levites were permitted by the Egyptians to continue studying Torah in relative freedom.

The Rambam quotes the verse relating to the Kohanim, and by extension to the entire tribe of Levi: "In the land you shall have no portion. . .I [Hashem] am your share and portion among the Children of Israel." Since they were involved in the study of Torah exclusively, they knew all the laws a judge needs to know. They were therefore the most suited to be judges and teach Hashem's laws to the Jewish people.

The Rambam concludes with a concept that is very appropriate for the Hebrew month of Elul which we have recently entered. He says that this special role of students and teachers of Torah is not limited to the descendants of the tribe of Levi. "Any person whose spirit moves him to distinguish himself and serve Hashem and know Him, thus removing himself from mundane concerns, becomes exceedingly holy and Hashem is his portion. . . ." Any of us, despite our ancestry or upbringing, can commit ourselves to the spiritual pursuits and benefits of the tribe of Levi.

This month of Elul is the last month before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. It is a time to involve ourselves in the performance of as many mitzvot as possible, to weigh down the mitzvah scale when we are judged. In the not too distant past, it was common for lay people to go to a yeshiva for the month of Elul to study Torah in preparation for this important time of judgment. The Rambam tells us that by accepting upon ourselves the yoke of Torah, we can all become as sanctified and elevated as the Levites who served on the Sanhedrin. This would certainly help us in achieving a favorable judgment from Hashem, for if we are committed to Torah, we are in Hashem's exclusive army. If we try to maximize our study of Torah in this month, we can change our lives and our fate for the new year for the better.

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Levi Graiser, a member of the tribe of Levi who hails from Atlanta, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

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