Monday, February 27, 2012

#134 - Tribe of Levi: The 24 Watches (Part 2)

Without further ado, let's begin this post with Psalm 134, bearing the same number as the number of this post, the final one of the 15 psalms called the Song of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), recited by the Levites on special occasions in the Temple, such as at the water drawing festivities during the holiday of Succot. These psalms when recited in the Temple were recited one psalm per step from the Ezrat Nashim (women quarters) to the Ezrat Yisrael (area where only the men entered). It wound up being that the final Psalm 134 of the 15 Song of Ascents was recited on the top step, following which the Cohanim entered to do their priestly services, and the Levites resumed their singing when daylight would break. With this, we can understand the meaning of this psalm which consists of three verses "A Song of Ascents. Behold, all you servants of Hashem, who are standing in the House of Hashem at nights, bless Hashem. Raise up your hands in holiness and bless Hashem. May Hashem bless you from Zion, the One who makes heaven and earth".

A couple of questions can be asked on this last verse. Why is Hashem described particularly here as the "One whom makes heaven and earth" rather than some other type of description; for example, the holy One, the great One, or the One who took us out of Egypt as mentioned many times in our prayers and the Tanach/Bible? Also, what does it mean as "makes" in the present tense as though this is something that Hashem presently does when He already created the world some 5,772 years ago?

As we see in the Midrash, the Mishkan/Tabernacle or Beit HaMikdash/Temple is a microcosm of the world; meaning, the different parts of the House of Hashem corresponds to the various parts of creation. And practically speaking, just as people, especially the Jewish nation, are expected to behave a certain way in serving Hashem in the world at large; in the Temple, the place where the Divine Presence can be felt the most, there are special types of ritual that highlights the concept of serving Hashem, for outside the grounds of the House of Hashem, offering sacrifices for instance is forbidden, even if one has the best intentions in the world to serve Hashem, for this is a type of service of the King of Kings that is exclusive in His palace.

And while it is true that Hashem constantly renews the world since the time of creation as we say in our daily morning prayers "Who renews the work of creation in His goodness every day, always", so when we say in this psalm "the One who makes the heavens and earth"; as it relates to the Temple, performing the service in the House of Hashem is in effect renewing creation, for without the concept of serving Hashem, there would have been no useful purpose of Hashem creating this world. As mentioned in the Talmud (Tractate Ta'anit), if it weren't for the Ma'amadot "Posts" (as explained eloquently by the Jastrow dictionary - "A division (for the singular use of the word) of popular representatives deputed to accompany the daily services in the Temple with prayers, and also a corresponding division in the country towns, answering to the divisions/guards of Cohanim and Levites"), heaven and earth would not be in a state of existance. Of course one may ask that if the Temple with the Divine Service is presently not in operation, then how does the world still exist. For this, we have a verse that tells us how it's still possible for this world to continue to be in existance "...if not for My covenant day and night, I would not have places the statues of heaven and earth" (Jeremiah 33:25), and covenant refers to the Torah which is clearly the life force of this world's existance.

It's interesting to note that the concept of worshiping Hashem in the House of Hashem, in the context of the Beit HaMikdash/Temple, is mentioned especially in the FIFTEENTH and LAST psalm of the Song of Ascents. We find similarly in the Haggadah of Passover that there is a list of 15 things that Hashem provided us, beginning with the Exodus. The final one of this list is the Temple, because this is the final step for the ultimate spiritual state of the Jewish people to be able to serve Hashem in fulfillment of the Taryag Mitzvot/613 Commandments in their entirety. And speaking of serving Hashem, the first three generations of the Jewish people who served Hashem - our Avot/Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, lived in this world at the same time for 15 years. In fact, we see that on the day of Abraham's passing, who passed away five years earlier than he was supposed to thanks to his evil grandson Esau who turned to doing evil so Abraham would not die being aggrevated knowing this, that Esau, in order that his brother Jacob would give him beans that Esau was famished for following a day full of tiring sinful activities, sold his birthright, which was the service of the Kehuna/Priesthood which he initially entitled to as the firstborn, to Jacob. In this way, there was not even a day present since the day that Jacob, future ancestor of the Jewish people, was born, that went by without either the trio forefathers being alive simultaneously representing the concept of service of Hashem in groups of three as we will see shortly with the three posts of the Cohanim in the Temple, or that the rights and responsibilities of the Kehuna were in the right hands, when handed over from the forces of evil to the forces of good which was Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs.

Now, there was one type of service in the Temple that both Cohanim and Levites performed, unlike virtually the other types of services which were only performed by Cohanim or Levites. This is the Mitzva of guarding the Temple. Now, this was not done in order to prevent robbers, thieves, or unwanted people from entering, for in the early times, if a non-Cohen would walk in an area that was forbidden to him as a Cohen zoned area, he would immediately die by the hands of Heaven. Rather, the guarding that was performed was to show to the Temple and ultimately, to Hashem by standing at some area as a guard, the same way that is done in a palace as part of the respect shown for the king. As per the verse in the psalm "who stand in the House of Hashem at nights", this Mitzva of guarding was done specifically at nights, at a time when sacrifices were not offered.

Tractate Middot, the tractate that describes the details and measurements of the Temple, wastes not time immediately beginning off with the mention of Cohanim watching post at three areas, and the Levites at 21 areas. Without getting into detail of the exact places here, let us briefly examine the significance of the number of posts here. Yes, we count a total of 24 posts, but let us note the amount of posts per group. We see that the Cohanim performed watch at a total of one-eighth of the posts, and the Levites performed at watch at a total of seven eighths of the posts. Hence, we see here the concept of the number eight, which is the number that represents miracles that happen beyond nature, for as we see in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers (5:8), a list of 10 miracles that took place in the Temple. Similarly, the Cohen Gadol, the ultimate representative of both the Cohanim and the Jews in the service of the Temple, wore a total of eight garments, and it was only with the Cohen Gadol that the breastplate that he wore was used to ask questions from Hashem, and the answer would light up among the letters that were etched in the stones of the breastplate, a phenomenon that existed nowhere else. It's also interesting to note that the Rambam/Maimonides begins the EIGHTH of the 14 volumes of Mishne Torah, his magnum opus which includes the laws of the Torah, with the laws of the Temple, consisting of EIGHT chapters.

Now, as far as the Ma'amadot were concerned, there were also a total of 24 watches, dividing up the amount of Cohanim and Levites into 24 respective groups, who served in the Temple, as well as 24 selected groups of non-Cohanim/Levites (some of whom officiated with their respective duties in Jerusalem, and others in other parts of Israel), as listed in Divrei Hayomim (Book of Chronicles) the 24th and final Sefer of the Tanach. Now, in the early days in the history of the Cohanim, there were only two existing sons of Aaron - Elazar & Ithamar, and hence only three Cohanim in the beginning (this is where it is learned out that Cohanim watched at three posts of the Temple, guess Aaron and his two sons didn't have too much sleep or time with their families between their day and night jobs in the Mishkan!). Meanwhile, Moses designated a number of watches from the future families of Elazar and Ithamar, which is subject of a difference of opinion in the Talmud (Ta'anit 27a) as to how many watches from each one that he designated. Some say that he designated four watches from each of the two sons of Aaron. Others say that he designated eights watches from each of the two. Whoever is correct, one thing that we do see that the number eight again stands out, also related to the concept of 24 watches, so in effect, the number eight was not related just to the Cohen Gadol especially, but to the Cohanim as well.

Now, we see that aside from the watches - the Cohanim and Levites had their respective duties, and if was a sin for either a Cohen or a Levi to perform a service that is the exclusive Mitzva of the group to whom were commanded to perform. However, it wasn't long after the Torah was given, that none other than a Levite cousin of Moses and Aaron would dare to challenge this. Stay tuned for Part Three of the Tribe of Levi series...

4 Adar, 5772

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