Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Naso - 5776
A NOTE ON JEWISH HISTORY
A study of the names of each of three families in the tribe of Levi—Kehat, Gershon, and Merari—reveals a corresponding gradation of status.
The Hebrew root of the name Kehat appears but once in the Torah as the word “yikehat”, meaning “in-gathering”, in the verse “He will gather the nations unto him” (Bereishit 49:10). The name Gershon implies the opposite concept. A “ger” is a stranger, or a foreigner. The name Merari stems from the root word “mar”. Like maror, it means bitterness. Each of these three names alludes to a common theme of Jewish survival.
Kehat represents the period of history when Jews lived as a self-ruling nation in their homeland. This time of in-gathering was but a brief respite, a short interlude in the Jewish people’s ongoing struggle for survival. Corresponding to this period, Kehat was assigned the least strenuous role in the transport of the Mishkan.
Gershon represents the time when the Jewish people lived as strangers in the Land of Israel, dominated by a foreign power. This period lasted much longer than the time during which the Jews lived autonomously in their homeland, but the years of the Jews living as strangers in their own land were far less than the long centuries Jews have suffered in exile. This halfway state parallels the service of Gershon; it was less taxing than that assigned to Merari, but more strenuous than the service God assigned to Kehat.
Merari represents the Jewish people’s life in the bitterness of exile, oppressed by the nations and subservient to their rule. This long and arduous night of exile characterizes most of Jewish history. Merari was assigned the most strenuous task of all the Levites in the transport of the Mishkan through the desert.