In this week’s parsha the Torah tells us that Aaron, the High Priest and Moses’ brother, was given a rather interesting task. When the entire tribe of Levi was chosen to be members of G-d’s “Special Forces,” their dedication ceremony required that they be lifted and waved. Aaron had to literally lift 22,000 Levites! (By the way, Aaron was 83 years old at the time!)
Rabenu Bachya, one of the medieval Bible commentators makes the observation that this was either a public demonstration of Aaron’s strength, or alternatively, it must have been a great miracle. While it is clear that the idea of lifting and waiving the Levites was a form of initiation into their unique role as G-d’s chosen servants, why did Aaron have to physically lift and wave them? Why did G-d have to perform this miracle to enable Aaron to do all the lifting? Couldn’t this ceremony have been performed by way of some symbolic gesture?
The simple answer to this question will come as a surprise to many. Judaism does not recognize symbolic actions. All of Judaism’s so-called rituals are not really rituals or symbolic ceremonies. Our Holidays are not commemorations of past historical events. To be sure, one can find much meaning in remembrances and symbolic gestures, but a Mitzvah goes way beyond the parameters of ritual and symbolism.
Every Mitzvah, every Divinely ordained act—which many will identify as a ritual or symbolic act—is, in truth, an act that instructs, edifies and instills holiness within the person who performs the Mitzvah and, by extension, the entire world.
When we eat Matzah on Passover, for example, we are not eating just flour and water, but by way of the physical act of eating we are internalizing spiritual energy that vitalizes and liberates our soul.
Similarly, when we put Tefillin on our heads, it is not just a reminder of the unity of G-d—the theme of the Shema contained within these black leather boxes—we actually generate Divine energy that permeates our consciousness.
When a woman lights Shabbat candles before the onset of the Sabbath, she is not just performing a ritual or engaging in some nostalgic tradition that goes back thousand's of years, she is actually generating spiritual light that will change the atmosphere of the home, introducing Divinity, spiritual light, serenity and peace.
All of the above can help us gain some measure of understanding as to why the Levites were actually lifted by Aaron. Aaron was not just performing a ritual laden with meaning. By his physical action that was ordained by G-d, Aaron was actually uplifting them and their descendents spiritually as well. Had Aaron just performed a symbolic gesture that was not Divinely ordained, it might have inspired some Levites, but it certainly would not have instilled within them G-dly energy they and their descendents needed to realize their potential.
The question that may still arise is: When we perform a physical act in the process of a Mitzvah, the very physical movements parallel the spiritual effects of the Mitzvah. Why were the Levites lifted and waved? And why was it necessary that it be done by Aaron specifically?
In Chassidic literature, based on Kabbalah, the act of lifting of the Levites is understood as a way tempering their natural fiery passion with the kindness of Aaron.
To explain: There are two primary personality types.
The Kohain (Priest) is known as a man of kindness. Aaron, the first priest, was known for his love and obsession with peace. By contrast, the Levites were known for their fiery nature. While passion for good things is not a blemish, one can misplace the passion and use the fire destructively. To cite a simple analogy: One’s enthusiasm for Judaism can become misdirected and used to arrogantly put down someone who is not as passionate.
Aaron, who personified the attribute of kindness, was therefore charged with the responsibility of uplifting the Levites, uplifting their passion so that it only served a lofty end.
In times of exile, fragmentation and division is the rule, whereas unity is the exception. As a result, we often find it hard to combine the two attributes of kindness and fiery passion.
With the coming of Moshiach and the beginning of the Redemption, the fiery passion of the Levite will become the norm for everyone. However, the Messianic Age is also the age of unity and synthesis. We will therefore experience the Levite mindset as it is tempered and uplifted by the loving temperament and spiritual state personified by Aaron.