After all the excitement that opens our parasha, there’s a little ritual of the staffs of the chiefs of staff:
What was the point of this? Rashi says it was to demonstrate Aharon’s status:
The problem is that we already had a demonstration of Aharon’s status:
So Ramban says it was to demonstrate the status of the tribe of לוי:
We don’t see any explicit complaints about Levi, but it does seem logical. What is it about Levi that the people are complaining about?
Where does the status of Levi come from?
The Torah only says that the Levites were selected in place of the first born, but never specifies why (or even ever explicitly says that the first born used to serve in the עבודה). The only mention is midrashic; somebody did the עבודה, and the first born non-specifically sanctified: קדש לי כל בכור.
So the first born presumably were the ones helping Aharon with the עבודה, so when the Golden Calf is made, we presume that they are the ones doing the offering (note the similarity of the terms ויעלו עלת ויזבחו זבחים שלמים and ויעלו עלת ויגשו שלמים).
And it’s Levi who stands up against them:
So it makes sense that לקחתי את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל תחת כל בכור is as a consequence of the mistake of the first born. But in the rebellion of Korach, it is the Levites who were at least part of the rebellion:
So the complaint that Ramban is attributing to the people is reasonable: why doesn’t Levi lose their status? Why not pick a different group (or go back to the בכורות) to serve in the משכן?
Rav Amnon Bazak makes the point that there are two different expressions of the election of שבט לבי, reflecting two different roles. One is the assistant to the Kohen, as we noted above. Then, they are explicitly taking the role of the בכור and are נתונם לאהרן. But there’s another role of Levi, that is not from the בכור, and is under אהרן's leadership but not “ownership”.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky sees a hint to these two roles the description of the role of the Levites after this incident: גם את אחיך מטה לוי שבט אביך הקרב אתך וילוו עליך וישרתוך. He notes that throughout תנ״ך the Levites have two roles in the בית המקדש: singers and gatekeepers. But often there seems to be a third class, literal לוים:
He says לוים here means literally, “those who accompany”, the role of the Levites as assistants to the Kohanim in the עבודה itself:
The שרות of Levi is independent of their role as assistants. Where did that come from?
The answer to that is again only hinted in the text but made explicit in the Midrash. Levi had an elevated status even back in Egypt:
They were the designated religious leaders of בני ישראל, from the time of Joseph:
And even were designated as such by יעקב himself:
So what happens in our parasha?
There are two messages here: one, Levi keeps its status. Two, they are now entirely under the leadership of Aharon. Not fired but changed.
Both roles of Levi are now part of the מתנה to Aharon. And this is symbolized at the end of the parasha with a new halacha: the Levites have to give a tithe of their tithe to the kohanim:
Why? We’ve talked in the past about the fact that Korash was right, כל העדה כלם קדשים. ה׳ doesn’t want to reject their aspirations to become holier, to become something greater. But it can’t be in rebellion against the word of ה׳; it needs to be incorporated. The staff of Aharon sprouted with both שקדים and פרחים, which the Netziv says symbolizes the Kohanim and Leviim:
It’s only when both are seen as coming out of same stem that enthusiasm of בני לוי and the pacifism of אהרון can create the synthesis that allows all כלל ישראל to reach their potential as ממלכת כהנים.