By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 86 – Thumbs Are Also Important
Ezra instituted a takanah that was to the detriment of the Leviyim. No longer would they be the recipients of maaser rishon. Tosafos explains that according to Rabi Akiva the penalty was that poor people (and/or Kohanim) would have equal claim to maaser rishon as Leviyim. Since Rabi Akiva holds that m’doraysah only Leviyim have exclusive rights to maaser rishon, it sufficed to enact that now poor people would also get it. According to Rabi Elazar ben Azaryah, though, the takanah of Ezra was that only Kohanim would get maaser rishon, since he holds that even m’doraysah Kohanim can be given maaser rishon just like Leviyim.
What was the reason for this penalty that Ezra imposed on the Leviyim? When Ezra gathered Klal Yisrael to return to Eretz Yisrael from Bavel, the pasuk says “and from the sons of Levi I did not find there”. The Leviyim did not go up with him. They were not represented. Therefore, Ezra imposed this penalty on them.
There is a kashya on this. Tosafos points out that the Mishna in Kiddushin says that there were ten yuchsin of Jews that went up with Ezra. One of those categories in the Mishna is Leviyim! So, apparently, they did go up? Tosafos quotes Rashi from Maseches Kiddushin there who explains that the only type of Leviyim who joined the aliyah were those whose thumbs were cut off (they had cut them off when Nevuchadnetzar demanded them to play their music). “Because Ezra did not find there any Leviyim who were fitting for shir,” concludes Tosafos, “he decided to penalize them. And even according to the opinion that the primary aspect of the shir in the Beis Ha’Mikdash is the vocal singing, nevertheless Ezra was exacting about this because it is also a mitzvah to have accompaniment of musical instruments.”
Probably, a big part of why the majority of Jews did not join Ezra in returning to Eretz Yisrael was that they grew too comfortable in galus. Perhaps they were satisfied with the Jewish life they had built for themselves there – both materially and spiritually – and did not feel enough of an urgent need for anything more. However, regarding the Leviyim, the implied sense you get from this Tosafos is that there was another aspect to their indolence: they did not feel that their participation was all that necessary. “Who needs us anyway? He’s got Leviyim who can sing in the Beis Ha’Mikdash, and that’s enough to be yotzei; so why should we trouble ourselves so much by uprooting our families and starting life over anew?”
And it was on this that Ezra was so makpid. This is what aroused his great dismay. To the extent that he felt it necessary to impose a drastic penalty on all the Leviyim in order to emphatically make a point: “Do not think that your contribution is unimportant! It is very important, very significant, and indispensable!” The fact that we can be technically yotzei with the avodah in the Beis Ha’Mikdash without Leviyim playing musical instruments does not mean that this facet of the avodah is not significant. What it means is that there are certain facets of avodah that Hashem left to the realm of quasi-voluntary. Despite its great significance, you can technically make do without it.
The Ramchal, in Messilas Yesharim, explains that the core and aim of avodas Hashem is coming to relate to Hashem with the natural sense of love that a child has for his father. In a nurturing, loving relationship, a mature, intelligent child does not need to be commanded to do things for his father, explains the Ramchal, because he wants so much to do it of his own volition. From those few things that the father has told the child explicitly, the latter figures out what it is that his father likes and dislikes, and he acts accordingly. Even in those details that the father never explicitly addressed. So too, says the Ramchal, should be our goal towards which we are aiming in regards to how we relate to Hashem.
With this in mind, we gain a fresh insight as to the role of the quasi-voluntary components of various mitzvos. Hashem wants to afford us the opportunity, even those of us who do not manage to reach the aforementioned lofty level, to do for Him even when we theoretically could have managed without it. It provides us with the chance to serve Him in a way that demonstrates our love for Him, and that we feel inherently motivated to serve Him.
In the context of our discussion, a major concept that we can derive from here, is that we should not sell ourselves short. Some people feel that their role in this that or the other is not all that important. Perhaps even those who play an obviously central role still feel that certain aspects of the job are not all that important. The application in avodas Hashem is evident, as already elaborated upon above. But that is not all. In every corner of life – whether domestic, professional, social, or otherwise – there are always going to be those facets that display themselves as “big” and “important” and those that seem less so. It is key – and it is empowering – to realize that there really is no such thing as insignificant details. That does not mean that there aren’t relative levels of significance (ikar v’tafel), that we must prioritize, and sometimes choose a over b when we have no other choice. Obviously, that is true. The key point to realize, though, is that when you are involved in one of those more “minor” details, ultimately it is not minor at all. For whatever it is that Hashem has arranged for you to be doing right now, the significance and importance it contains is truly immeasurable.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.