The family of Gershon, the oldest of the sons of Levi, carried a lighter load, consisting of the covers and other soft materials of the Tabernacle (Bamidbar 4:24-29), whereas the family of Merari, the youngest of the sons of Levi, carried a heavier load consisting of the planks, the bars and the pillars of the Tabernacle (4:29-34). This was in keeping with what would one expect in a physical world where the youngest carries the heavier load and the oldest carries the lighter load.
But when it comes to the spiritual world, symbolized by the Aron haKodesh, the altar, the Menorah, the table and the other klei hakodesh, these items we carried by Kehos, even though they were the heaviest items and even though he was not the youngest. This is because a Torah giant is expected to shoulder the heavy burdens of the community: “Ki avodas hakodesh aleihem, bakasef yisahu” – Kehos had responsibility for the most sacred items which they carried on their shoulders” (7:9).
“U’pakadetem aleihem bemishmeres es kol masa’am – and they shall have a mishmar, a shift, for everything they carry” (4:27). Since there were thousands of Levi’im and only a few items to carry, timed shifts had to be arranged for each Levi so that they would not trip over each other in their eagerness to serve. Each Levi waited and looked forward to his shift. The word mishmar comes from the word shamar”: “V’aviv shamar es hadavar” (Bereishis 37:11). Ya’akov waited and looked forward to the time when Joseph’s prophecy, that he would be the ruler, would come true.
“Velo yetamu es machaneihem asher Ani shochen besocham – they shall not defile their camp where I reside among them” (5:3). The camp which G-d shares with us must be kept holy. Accordingly, any person who is impure must be relocated outside the camp. But there were different levels of impurity. The person who became impure by coming into contact with a corpse was only expelled from the Machane Shechina, the innermost circle of the Divine Presence, because his impurity came from the outside, not from within. The person who had a Zav emission was expelled from the second circle, Machane Leviyah, because his impurity did come from within. And the person who suffered from Tzara’as was expelled from all three circles, even from the Machane Yisrael. The first two suffered from individual defects that did not affect society at large. The third who suffered from Tzara’as, a punishment for slander which affects society at large, had to be removed from all three circles.
“V’ish es kedoshav lo yiheyu – the sacred offerings of each person remain his property” (5:10). If a person resents giving a tenth of his hard earned income to the Kohanim and the Levi’im and keeps it for himself, then he will lose nine-tenths of his income and only the one-tenth that he withheld will remain with him. If, on the other hand, he readily donates that one tenth to where it should go, then “lo yiheyeh,” he will prosper and earn much more, in the spirit of “aser bishvil shetisasher” (based on Devarim 14:22). The reward for parting with your wealth is that you will become wealthier.
“Ish ki tisteh ishto – a man whose wife shall go astray” (5:12). The word “tisteh,” which means to stray from the path (Mishlei 4:15 and 7:25), can also be read “tishteh” from the word “shoteh” which means insanity. Chazal tell us that a person sins only when he loses his mind and is no longer able to weigh short term benefits against long term benefits. Often this can be blamed on intoxication. Wine in excess leads to temporary insanity and to sin (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:2-4). Indeed, the word “satan” can also be read “shatan” from the same word “shoteh.” But blaming one’s indiscretions on temporary insanity is no defense. The initial step taken to deviate from the path and drink that bottle of wine was made consciously, in the spirit of “tisteh,” and one remains accountable for that decision.
One who witnessed the plight of the Sotah would abstain from wine (Sotah 2a). Wine in moderation can be a good thing. We are asked to make Kiddush over wine and we are told that wine can make one wise (Yoma 76b). But enjoying anything in moderation requires self-control and sometimes, when that becomes too difficult, the only way out is to deny oneself the pleasure altogether. That is the lesson of the Nazir.
Becoming an ascetic is frowned upon by Chazal (Tosafos, Nazir 2b) because one is not meant to deny oneself the pleasures of the world that G-d permits. Looking aesthetic, for example by grooming one’s hair, if done to showcase the works of art that G-d has created, is commendable, which is why a talmid chacham should always appear well put together. But growing one’s hair to showcase oneself is a different matter. So the Nazir who has overindulged and become infatuated with himself is required to abstain from wine and grow his hair wild for thirty days, at the end of which time one hopes he can be trusted to rejoin the world of moderation.
“Koh sevarachu es Bnei Yisrael, amor lahem – this is how you must bless the Israelites, say to them” (6:23). The word “amor” is usually spelled without a “vav,” but here it is spelled with a vav because as Rashi tells us, the Kohanim must impart their blessing with a full heart. That is why the blessing the Kohanim recite ends in the word “be’ahava.” The blessing must be made wholeheartedly, not just as lip service. That too is why the word “amor” is written with a “vav.” Written this way, the numerical value of “amor” is 247. The priestly blessing should not just be said with ones lips, but with the participation of the other 247 limbs of one’s body.
The word “Yevarechecha” (the first word of the Priestly Blessing, 6:24) comes from the word “ribui,” which means abundance. The usual blessing that a beracha bestows is the blessing of wealth (Rashi to Bereishis 12:2). But wealth can also lead one astray, “Osher shamur leba’lav lera’aso – wealth hoarded by its owner is to his detriment” (Koheles 5:12). Avshalom was blessed with beautiful hair )Sotah 11a) and Shimshon was blessed with strength, but these attributes led them astray. So we need an additional blessing, Veyishmerecha, that G-d should watch over us that these blessings do not end up hurting us.
“Vechuneka – He should endow you with grace” (6:25). A blessing that attracts the jealousy of others is no blessing. But if G-d gives you chen, so that when people look at you they are warmed by your affable demeanor rather than upset by your success, the blessing will endure.
“Yisa Hashem panav eilecha – G-d should judge you favorably” (6:26). The ministering angels argued before G-d as follows. In Your Torah it is written: “The great, mighty and awesome G-d favors no one and takes no bribe” (Devarim 10:17). Yet, You show favor to Israel, as it is written: Yisa Hashem panav eilecha: the L-rd shall show favor to you. G-d replied to them: “And how can I not show favor to Israel? I commanded them that “When you eat and you are satisfied, you should bless the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim 8:10), meaning that there is no obligation to bless the L-rd until one is satiated. Yet the Jews recite Grace after Meals even if they have only eaten as little as the size of an olive. Since they go beyond the requirements of the law and appreciate Me even when they have so little, I too must reciprocate that appreciation and judge them favorably (Berachos 20b).
“Ve’yasem lecha shalom – and grant you peace” (6:26). The blessing of peace is connected to the previous concept of being happy with little. Striving for more never leads to peace, because there is always someone who has even more than you. Being happy with less, as if one has it all, is what leads to peace. Eisav said, “I have a lot” (Bereishis 33:9), which meant he wanted more. But Yaakov said, “I have everything” (Bereishis 33:11). For him “everything” meant just enough to exist. All he needed was bread to eat and clothes to wear, and with that he felt he could return home peacefully (Bereishis 28:20). It was his ability to be satisfied with the bare minimum that guaranteed him a life of peace.
Another way of explaining the Birchas Kohanim is as follows. The word “Yevarechecha” means to graft, as it is written “Venivrechu becha kol mispachos ha’adamah (Bereishis 12:3). Throughout history, Judaism has been strengthened by the grafting of converts (Ruth, Rachav, Timna, Na’ama, Onkelos) onto the Jewish nation. This has strengthened our commitment to Judaism by refreshing our enthusiasm for the Torah. King David could not have written the Tehillim had he thought too much of himself. But, always bearing in mind his humble roots coming from Ruth, he was able to check his ego at the palace gates and attribute his success to G-d. As beneficial as converts are to Judaism, we should also be protected from insincere conversions which could have a dilutive effect on our own commitment. That is what the second blessing of “Veyeishmercha” is also about.