Shoulder the Burden

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Bamidbar-Shavuos
Shoulder the Burden

One of the topics in this week's portion deals with Hashem appointing the tribe of Levi to carry various items of the Mishkan from place to place (Num. 3:6-8). The verses go on to specify what items each Levite family had to carry. First it mentions that the family of Kehas carried the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark; Num. 4:2-5). Then it states that the family of Gershon carried the curtains and the Tachash skins (Num. 4:22-25). Finally, it mentions that the family of Merari carried the pillars, bars, poles, and sockets (Num. 4:29-31).

However, there is a difficulty with these verses. Why would the Torah mention Kehas's job before Gershon's? Gershon was the first born (Gn. 46:11), and as such, Gershon should have been mentioned first.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 6:1) addresses this difficulty by pointing out that Kehas carried the most important vessel, the Aron Hakodesh. Since Kehas carried the most significant item, he is mentioned first, even though he was the second born.

Still, one could ask, "Why was Kehas given the job of carrying the Aron Hakodesh?" Apparently, that job should have been given to Gershon, the first born. Then, the Torah could have also mentioned Gershon first which would have been fitting to his status.

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Num. 4:2) answers this question by pointing out that Moshe Rabbenu descended from the family of Kehas. Since Moshe brought the Torah down to us in the first place, it was only fitting that his family carry the Holy Ark which contained the Torah. Once Kehas carried the Ark, which was the most central vessel, the Torah also mentioned Kehas's job first.

Before we go on to ask the next obvious question, (Why did Kehas deserve to have Moshe Rabbenu descend from them), let us share a coded message that will demonstrate the power of Moshe's family.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 106a, based on Ex. 17:8; Rebbi Yehoshuah) tells us that the sin which fuels and strengthens Amalek (Israel's arch enemy) is when the Jewish people weaken in the study of Torah.

On the other hand, Moshe's family was very strong in Torah study. The Shvilei Pinchas says that this can be seen in the four generations: Levi, Kehas, Amram, and Moshe.


The Rambam (Avodas Kochavim, 1:3) says that although Ya'akov taught Torah to all of his sons, he separated Levi to be the head of the Yeshiva and learn constantly so that Torah would never be forgotten.


Since Hashem chose Kehas to carry the Aron Hakodesh which contained the Torah, we can deduce that they must have been even greater in Torah than the other two families of Gershon and Merari.


Amram was the "Gadol Hador" (greatest leader of the Jewish people in Egypt, prior to Moshe and Aharon's ascent to greatness; Sotah, chap.1, "Hamekaneh", pg. 12a). Typically, the Gadol Hador is also the most superior- Torah authority.


Moshe was the law giver. He taught all the Jewish people about the Torah. Who is there greater than Moshe in Torah? After all, this is hinted to in his last name, "Rabbenu", our master teacher.

Once we have established that Moshe's family was strong in Torah, it would follow that they would have the ability to destroy Amalek. If Amalek gets its strength from our weakening in Torah, then Amalek's downfall is dependent on us strengthening ourselves in Torah. Since Moshe's family had that strength of Torah, it was they who had the capability of obliterating Amalek.

The Chassam Sofer and the Vilna Gaon (Num. 24:20) say that this is hinted to in the following verse about Amalek. Bilaam said, "Reishis Goyim Amalek, Vi-achariso Adei Oveid) (Amalek is the first among nations, but its end will be eternal destruction; Num. 24:20). By dissecting this verse one word at a time, we will discover a hidden message that is buried beneath it.

The word "Reishis" (first) refers to the tribe of Levi. Although Levi was Ya'akov's third born son, he is still called "Reishis" because kohanim come from Levi, and Kohanim always go first (Gittin, chap.5, "Hanizkin", pg. 59b).

The word "Goyim" (nation) refers to the other tribes. This is because we find a verse that calls other tribes "Goyim." For example, Hashem told Ya'akov, "Goy Ukehal Goyim Yihiyeh Mimekah" (A nation and a congregation of nations will descend from you, Gn. 35:11). Rashi says that the "Goy" refers to Binyamin, and the "Goyim" refers to Ephrayim and Menasheh.

When you put it together, "Reishis Goyim" means that there is an advantage to the Reishis tribe (Levi) over the other Goyim (tribes), in that Levi has the power to defeat Amalek. This will be further hinted to in the verse and in the names of the four generations of Levi.

The word "Reishis" also means to take the "Roshei Teyvos" (acronym) of "Reishis" (Levi, and his four generations), because when you do, you will get the word "Amalek; like it says, "Reishis Goyim, Amalek." Let's do this together.

The acronym of "Levi, Kehas, Amram, and Moshe" are the letters: lamed, kuf, aleph, and mem. When unscrambled, they spell "Amalek."

However, the verse concludes, "Viachariso" (its end). On a deeper level, "Viachariso" means take the ending letters of those four names. Because, when you do, the verse says that you will discover that Amalek will be "Adei Oveid' (eternally destroyed). Let's do this together.

If you take the last letters of "Levi, Kehas, Amram, and Moshe," you will get the letters yud, saf, mem, and hey. When unscrambled, those four letters spell "misa" (death). This teaches us that Levi, Kehas, Amram, and Moshe had the ability to bring "misa" to "Amalek." This capability stemmed from their strength in Torah.

After witnessing the strength of Moshe's family, we can now ask why it was specifically Kehas who deserved that Moshe descend from them. After mentioning a few points, this will become clear as well.

First of all, the tribe of Levi was never subject to the back breaking work of Egyptian slavery (Rashi, Ex. 5:4; Shemos Rabba 5:16, Rebbi Yehoshuah ben Levi). Even Pharaoh understood that a special dispensation be given to men of the cloth.

Nevertheless, the Shelah (Ex. 6:14) says that Levi joined himself to the rest of the Jewish people by truly feeling their pain. One source that demonstrates this is the fact that Levi named all of his sons with names that identified them with the suffering of the Jewish people.

For example, Levi's first born son was called "Gershon" from the word "ger" (stranger) which served as a constant reminder that they should not get comfortable in Egypt because they were "geyrim" (strangers) there (Gn. 15:13).

Levi named his second son Kehas because the root of that word is "keyha" (weak; Ecc. 10:10; Jer. 31:28), representing the weakened state of the Jews.

Levi's third son was called "Merari" from the root word "mar" (bitter) indicating the bitterness that the Jewish people suffered (Ex. 1:14).

Although Levi was not subject to the slave labor, they spent their time in the study halls crying out to Hashem in tearful prayers constantly begging Hashem to stop their suffering. It was because Levi had the capacity of feeling another's pain that he deserved to produce the heroes which were instrumental in the redemption, Moshe and Aharon.

Hashem also feels our pain. This is why God appeared to Moshe in a thorny bush and not in, say, an apple tree. It was in order to convey to Moshe that He felt the Jewish people's pain like one would feel if they got stuck in a thorn bush and got pricked (Rashi, Ex. 3:4; Shemos Rabba, 2:5; Psa. 91:15).

This is why Hashem told Moshe from that bush, "I will be that I will be;" indicating that "I will be with them in this tragedy, and I will be with them in future tragedies" (Rashi, Ex. 3:14; Berachos, chap. 1, "Mei-aymasai", pg. 9b).

By sharing this with Moshe, Hashem was teaching him that this is the type of person that He expected him to be. The truth is that Moshe had already cultivated this quality from the tribe that he came from. We can see this from the following verse and Midrash. It says, "Moshe went out to his brothers to observe their burdens" (Ex. 2:11). He was not just a bystander but actually participated in the back breaking labor in order to ease their burdens (Shemos Rabba, 1:27). Hashem wanted Moshe to continue growing in this area compassion and empathy.

Moreover, it is only a person who feels another's pain that will be able to truly cultivate, absorb, and contain the Torah within himself. This is because the Torah is not just a book of information but rather a Toras Chessed (Torah of kindness). One who feels another's pain is a true Ba'al Chessed (master of chessed), and only a true Ba'al Chessed with be able to grasp the Toras Chessed.

We find the true nature of the Torah from Rebbi Samlai who said that the Torah begins and ends with chessed. It begins with God clothing Adam and Eve (even after they rebelled against Hashem; Gn. 3:21), and it ends with God burying Moshe (Dt. 34:6; Sota, chap. 1, "Hamekaneh", pg. 14a). Kindness with those that have passed on is considered a true chessed. This means that the Torah is a book of chessed from the beginning until the end, including everything in between.

This is why the Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael, chap. 20) says that Avraham Avinu's quality was "Torah", even though we all identify Avraham with chessed. He says that this is not a contradiction because Torah and chessed are synonymous. We even sing about this on Friday night when we say "Visoras Chessed Al Lishonah" (And the Torah of kindness is on her tongue; Pro. 31:26).

Rebbi Akivah said that loving another as oneself (Lv. 19:18) is the greatest rule of the Torah (Yerushalmi Nedarim, chap. 9, "Rebbi Eliezer", halachah 4, pg. 30b). If the whole Torah is about love, then the whole Torah is about chessed, because chessed is an external physical sign which demonstrates that there is internal love.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the greatest manifestation of chessed is to be "Nosei B'ol Im Chaveiro" (To carry another person's burden; Avos, chap. 6, "Kinyan Torah", Bereisa 6, the 40th way (out of 48 ways) of acquiring the Torah). This is because one who carries another's burden loves others so much that he puts himself into that person's shoes and literally carries the pain. Only somebody like this who reaches the epitome of chessed will be able to understand Toras Chessed.

This is what made Moshe so special in general, and in Torah specifically. The Midrash we mentioned above (Shemos Rabba 1:27) says that when Moshe went out to help ease his brother's burdens, he actually put his shoulder under the weight that they were carrying. The shoulder is the organ which typifies one who carries another's pain. This is why we call it, "Shouldering the burden." Moshe was Nosei B'ol Im Chaveiro, making him a Ba'al Chessed Amiti, and thus enabled him to truly absorb the Toras Chessed.

This is something that the whole tribe of Levi was known for. Levi was chosen to sing the praises of God in the Temple. This is derived from a verse, "Bakasef Yisa-u" (They carried (the Holy Ark) on the shoulder; Nu. 7:9). The Talmud (Eirachin, chap. 2, "Ein Ne'erachin", pg. 11a) asks that from the word "Bakasef" (shoulder) alone we know that they carried. What then does the extra word "yisa-u" (carried) come to teach us? The Gemara says that it teaches us that the tribe of Levi was chosen to sing the praises to Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash because the word "yisa-u" is often connected to singing (See Psa. 81:3; Isa. 24:14).

The Shvilei Pinchas comments on this by saying that it was because of "Bakasef" (shouldering other's burdens) that they merited to "Yisa-u" (sing) the praises of Hashem, because only those that mourn over people's tragedies, will deserve to rejoice when the deliverance comes, as it says, "Exult with her (Jerusalem) all you who mourned for her" (Isa. 66:10).

This is why Hashem appointed the family of Kehas to carry the Aron Hakodesh. It is because they carried other people's burdens even more than Gershon and Merari. Therefore, let the "shoulders" of chessed carry the Aron Hakodesh that contained the Toras Chessed (Shvilei Pinchas).

This is why specifically Kehas deserved that Moshe descended from them. Moshe, who shouldered the burdens of others, would descend from those who shouldered the burdens of others (Shvilei Pinchas).

Based on all of this, the Shvilei Pinchas suggests that it wasn't just the power of Torah that Moshe's family possessed which could defeat Amalek, but it was specifically the Toras Chessed that they had which had the ability of destroying Amalek. This was demonstrated when the Jewish soldiers went out to battle with Amalek who had attacked us. Although Moshe remained behind for various reasons (See Psikta D'Rav Kahanah,Parshas Shekalim, 7), he would not allow himself to rest. Rather, he sat on a very uncomfortable rock in order to connect himself with the pain that the Jewish soldiers were going through (Ta'anis, chap. 1, "Mei-aymasai", pg. 11a). It was the pain of the rock that he sat on and the pain of his heavy arms that he held high which brought about their victory. Amalek couldn't care less about others, whereas Moshe was filled with concern about others. Therein lays the secret of defeating Amalek.

I was thinking that we could all put this lesson into practice. Let us try to improve with respect to carrying another person's burdens. When we hear about something tragic that happened, we could participate in the pain by following three steps:

1) As soon as we hear about the incident, stop whatever we are doing immediately. Don't move. Don't walk. Don't talk. Stop eating. Stop shopping. Stop cooking. Let's just close our eyes and try to imagine the pain that that person is going through. Think about how that family has been crushed. Let's try to generate sincere feelings for those that are suffering. If possible, we should try to bring ourselves to tears.

2) See if there is any way that we can help whether it is financially, psychologically, or physically. If there is something we can do, do it!

3) If we have done all that we can do, or if there is nothing to do, just keep on davening and crying for that person or family.

These three steps will help us get even more into shape for Shavuos when we want to receive the Toras Chessed again.

So, may we all be blessed to open our hearts even wider with love to consider another's pain as our own, and thus merit to receive the Toras Chessed this Shavuos, which will lead to the redemption from being weakened strangers in this bitter exile, by witnessing Amalek's obliteration, and subsequently merit to carry the Aron Hakodesh on our shoulders back to the Holy of Holies together with Moshe Rabbenu, and once again sing the praises of God in our Beis Hamikdash.