The Role of the Levites
1. The tribe of Levi was elevated to perform holy service, in the Tabernacle of the desert and in the Temple. Hence, it is a affirmative command for all Levites to be available and prepared for Temple Service, as stated in the Torah, "The Levites shall be for Me" (Numbers 18:14), indicating that the special relationship with the tribe of Levi is permanent. The prophet Jeremiah relates God's promise that there will always be Kohanim and Levites fit to serve: "As I will never renege on My covenant with day and night, so is my covenant with...the Levites, the Kohanim, My servants" (Jeremiah 33:21).
2. The choice of the tribe of Levi for the highest spiritual service was due to their ability to channel their strong character in the service of God. Levi, the son of Jacob, was chastised for his anger by his father: "Cursed is their zealousness for it is brazen and their wrath for it is hard. I will separate them in Ya'akov and scatter them throughout Israel" (Genesis 49:6-7).
Four generations later, Moses blessed the same tribe of Levi: "Your righteous men...keeper of Your word and covenant; He shall teach Your judgment in Ya'akov and Your Torah in Israel...Blessed of God is his valor and his actions are pleasing..." (Deuteronomy 33:8-11). The Levites were able to apply their physical and spiritual strength to the fulfillment of God's will and gain forever the role of God's trusted servants.
3. The name Levi is derived from the words "he shall accompany". This name was given to the third son of Jacob and Leah to indicate that he was to bring a strengthening of relationship between his parents, for now with three children, Jacob would need to accompany his wife Leah.
It was a natural development, therefore, that the task of the Levite became to accompany the Divine Presence and serve in the Temple. His role as teacher and spiritual example is to lead and, thereby, accompany others back to their spiritual purpose. The Midrash relates that in the future, Levites will lead the people of Israel back to their Father in Heaven.
4. Levi ben Ya'akov, the father of the tribe of Levites, lived 137 years, the longest of all of the sons of Jacob. He had a particularly strong influence on the spiritual development of his progeny, and lived to see his great-grandsons Moshe and Aharon.
The tribe of Levi developed separately from the other tribes of Israel. During the period of the Egyptian bondage, the Levites avoided the slavery suffered by the others, by maintaining their separateness in the land of Goshen immersed in the tents of learning, and maintaining the spiritual tradition of the Fathers.
5. The loyal nature of the Levites was most clearly demonstrated at the episode of the Golden Calf. The general population was influenced by the evil promptings of the mixed multitude. The Levites rallied to the side of Moshe to avenge God's honor. They were rewarded with the spiritual service lost at that time by the firstborn of the other tribes. The Levites were tested and proved themselves able, thereby earning their elevated spiritual status.
The Levites were constantly willing to risk their lives for God's service. They carried the sanctified vessels of the Tabernacle, which if mishandled, resulted in death.
6. The independent nature of the Levite was balanced by his role of Temple functionary. The Levites carried the Tabernacle and its vessels on its wanderings in the desert. Levites served as the honor guard, gatekeepers and musicians of the Temple. They also assisted the Kohanim in preparing toe offerings and in other aspects of the Temple's functioning.
7. The economics of the tribe of Levi were unique among the tribes of Israel. In contrast to the other tribes, Levites had no inherited portion in the Land of Israel. Forty-two cities scattered throughout the portions of the other tribes were set aside as cities of Levites. In these cities, the Levites served as spiritual teachers to the people of Israel. These cities also served as shelters for those guilty of accidentally causing a person's death. Whereas the other tribes worked the land, the Levite was dependent on the tithes and food gifts of others. Levites were made to be economically dependent on others for their income. In exchange for his life's service, the Levite received God's ordained sustenance through the required tithing of the nation. There was a mitzva upon the people of Israel not to abandon the Levi.
8. Levites were exempt from general military service. They were not counted in the census of the army in time of Moses or the Judge Deborah. Though relieved of the specific mitzva of waging war, they are required to take part in the mitzva of saving lives in times of direct threat.
The service of the Levite is the service of the spirit. Thus the tribe originally chastised for its warlike behavior became the tribe which exemplified peace, blessing and fraternal harmony. Yet the Levites throughout history were able to rise to the occasion to fight for values when necessary, as in the case of Channuka where they led the Jewish struggle against Greek influence.
An interesting contrast to the general army exemption of the tribe of Levi was the office of the "Kohen Anointed fir War". This Kohen, whose position was an honored one in the hierarchy of Kohanim, was appointed to inspire and spiritually prepare the army of Israel before battle.
9. God's special relationship with the tribe of Levi is promised to last forever. No other family is allowed to perform the Temple Service. Levites have been among the spiritual leaders of the nation from earliest times and continue to fulfill leadership roles until today. The true fulfillment of the soul of a son of the tribe of Levi is to once again serve God in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.