This past Shabbat, I observed a number of kids playing a playground basketball game called Knockout. The object of the game is to make a shot before the player ahead of you in line makes his or her shot. As each new game began, the shouts of “first” (indicating a desire to be at the head of the line to shoot first) were deafening.
The desire to be first, and the idea that first is always best, is nothing new. Of course, the most famous Biblical character who desired to be the first is Jacob, who ran to be first to receive his father’s blessing. The Midrash praised Nahshon ben Aminadav for being the first to jump into the Sea of Reeds.
In our time, whether it’s at the grocery store, in sports, or at the bank, being first or at the head of the line has become most desirable. How often do our children say that they should get to use something because they had it first (or is that just my children who do that?). In fact, in this week’s parashah, God’s preference too is clear: All firstborn are God’s (Numbers 3:13).
The major theme of Parashat Bamidbar is the taking of a census of the members of the Israelite community. The Levites are counted separately from the other tribes. In fact the Torah recounts their census twice.
While the Torah recounts the first Levite census in birth order, the second Levite census begins with the descendents of Kohath, Levi’s middle-child. The Kohathites are instructed to take care of the most holy things in the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle. They worked most closely with the sons of Aaron in ensuring that the Mishkan’s holiest objects were transported properly and safely.
At the end of our parashah, God instructs Moses and Aaron, “Al yikhritu et shevet mishpahat ha’Kehati,” do not let the descendents of Kohath be cut off from the Levite family. The S’forno, an Italian Torah commentator in the 15th and 16th centuries, in trying to explain God’s command, writes that the Kohathites were given specific assignments of which sacred objects they were supposed to carry. God was concerned that in the Kohathites’ eagerness to be the first to carry the holiest objects, they would have profaned the Holy of Holies and thus would have been cut off from their family.
The S’forno cites as his proof-text for his interpretation Masekhet Yoma (22a and 23a), where we learn that the Kohanim would originally race up the ramp to the top of the altar for the privilege of removing the ashes. Once in his zeal to be first, one Kohen pushed his fellow Kohen off the ramp. The fallen thus broke his leg. In another incident, two Kohanim reached the top together and one stabbed the other.
The S’forno teaches us that we don’t always have to be the first. We don’t always have to feel hurried to rush into something, including the service of God. One of the challenges we face as a fast-paced society is that we don’t always take a moment to think about all of the effects our sudden actions can have on ourselves and other people. We could so easily avoid hurt feelings, precarious situations, and even the loss of more time if we hit the pause button on the “DVR” of life. As we resume our reading of the journeys of B’nei Yisrael in Sefer Bamidbar, let us take a moment, breathe, and enjoy the world and our communities we are so privileged to be part of.