וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר קח את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל וטהרת אתם... והבדלת את הלוים מתוך בני ישראל והיו לי הלוים... כי נתנים נתנים המה לי מתוך בני ישראל תחת פטרת כל רחם בכור כל מבני ישראל לקחתי אתם לי. כי לי כל בכור בבני ישראל באדם ובבהמה ביום הכתי כל בכור בארץ מצרים הקדשתי אתם לי. ואקח את הלוים תחת כל בכור בבני ישראל.
Hashem spoke to Moshe and said, “Take the Leviim from among Bnei Yisrael and purify them .. Separate the Leviim from among Bnei Yisrael and the Leviim shall be Mine … since they are given to Me. They are given to Me from among Bnei Yisrael in place of the firstborn of every womb of Bnei Yisrael. I have taken them for Myself. For all the firstborns of Bnei Yisrael, both man and animal, were Mine from the day that I struck all the firstborns of the Land of Egypt, and I sanctified them for Myself. I then took all the Leviim in place of the firstborn of Bnei Yisrael.
Hashem had originally intended that the firstborn of every Jewish family would be Kohanim and Leviim, to serve in the Beis HaMikdash as they did at Har Sinai, where they offered sacrifices on our behalf in preparation for Kabbalas HaTorah. However, by participating in the sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborn were rendered unfit for Hashem’s service. They were then replaced with the Leviim, who took no part in this heinous sin, and were therefore the only ones left worthy of this exalted task.
Actually, the Tribe of Levi had been predestined for this position. Their sacred role was foreseen by Yaakov Avinu, who designated Levi as the tithe of his offspring, in fulfillment of his promise, “Everything that You give me I shall tithe for You.” Before the tithes of terumos and maasros are separated, the entire crop is called “tevel” which is forbidden. By separating and sanctifying the tithes, the remaining produce also receives a certain element of holiness, allowing it be eaten.
The same may be said of the Kohanim and Leviim themselves, who are the tithe of Bnei Yisrael. When these members of our nation were sanctified to Hashem’s service, a certain element of holiness descended upon the entire nation in their merit. Therefore, the process of purification that the Leviim underwent in this week’s parsha uplifted not only the Leviim themselves, but also the entire nation of Israel, to atone for our sin of the Golden Calf. For example, Rashi explains that the Leviim were shaved like metzoraim, since idolatry is comparable to tzaraas. (Based on this explanation, it became customary for a Jewish apostate who returns to the fold to be shaved of all his hair before he is allowed to be counted as part of a minyan.)
In this respect, the Leviim served as a sort of human sacrifice, to atone for the entire nation. Bnei Yisrael leaned their hands on the Leviim (semicha) and Aharon lifted them up and waved them in the air (tenufa), as is done to certain korbanos before they are sacrificed. Just as sacrificial animals must not be used for mundane tasks, such as plowing or threshing, the Kohanim and Leviim were denied any part in the farming of Eretz Yisrael, so that they could dedicate all their time and energy to spiritual pursuits, as the Rambam writes:
ולמה לא זכה לוי בנחלת ארץ ישראל ובביזתה עם אחיו מפני שהובדל לעבוד את ה' לשרתו ולהורות דרכיו הישרים ומשפטיו הצדיקים לרבים שנאמר יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל, לפיכך הובדלו מדרכי העולם לא עורכין מלחמה כשאר ישראל ולא נוחלין ולא זוכין לעצמן בכח גופן, אלא הם חיל השם שנאמר ברך ה' חילו, והוא ברוך הוא זוכה להם שנאמר אני חלקך ונחלתך.
Why did the Tribe of Levi not receive a portion in Eretz Yisrael or a share in the spoils of war along with their brethren? They were chosen to serve Hashem and teach His righteous ways and laws to the masses, as it is written, “They shall teach Your statutes to Yaakov and Your Torah to Yisrael.” For this reason they were distanced from the mundane ways of this world. They do not go out to battle, as do the rest of Bnei Yisrael. They do not claim an inheritance of land, nor merit success by their physical labors. Instead, they are the legion of Hashem, of whom it is written, “May Hashem bless his strength (and accept the work of his hands).” In return, Hashem grants their material needs, as it is written, “I am your portion and your inheritance.”
Through their Torah study and service in the Beis HaMikdash, the Leviim became the focal point through which holiness descended upon our entire nation, to uplift and sanctify us all. Until the sin of the Golden Calf is completely rectified, holiness must be centered around the chosen Tribe of Levi, just as it is centered around the chosen location of the Beis HaMikdash. However, there will ultimately come a time when our sins will be cleansed entirely. Then perfect holiness will spread to encompass our entire nation and the entire world. For this reason, the Sifra teaches that the service of the Beis HaMikdash will ultimately return to the firstborn, since the holiness of Hashem’s service will then spread equally to every Jewish family.
To some extent, such holiness exists throughout the world even now, allowing anyone who so wishes to draw close to Hashem by devoting himself to Torah study, as the Rambam writes:
ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה' והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה ה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעולם הזה דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים, הרי דוד עליו השלום אומר "ה' מנת חלקי וכוסי אתה תומיך גורלי."
Not the Tribe of Levi alone, but each and every person, from wherever he may come, whose spirit inspires him and intellect guides him to stand out before Hashem; to serve Him and know Him, and to walk on the straight path as G‑d has made us to do; and throw off his shoulders the yoke of numerous worldly concerns which mankind seeks out, is thus sanctified to become Holy of Holies. Hashem will be his portion and his inheritance for all eternity, granting him in this world his basic needs, just as He granted the Kohanim and Leviim, as David HaMelech said, “Hashem is my portion and my cup. He supports my fortune.”
Even in our own darkened times, the light of the Beis HaMikdash shines into any place where Hashem is served in holiness and purity by the Tzaddikim of each generation, as the Seforno writes:
והתהלכתי בתוככם. ענין המתהלך הוא ההולך אנה ואנה לא אל מקום אחד בלבד. אמר אם כן אתהלך בתוככם כי לא אל מקום אחד בלבד ירד שפע הכבוד כמו שהיה במשכן ובמקדש... ויראה כבודי בכל מקום שתהיו שם כי אמנם בכל מקום שיהיו שם צדיקי הדור הוא קדוש משכני עליון.
“I shall walk among you.” The wording of this verse implies not that Hashem will walk with us to a certain destination, but that He will walk back and forth among us. His glory and holiness will not descend to one specific location alone, as it descended in the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash … Instead, it will be revealed wherever we go. Every place where the Tzaddikim of the generation are found becomes a holy sanctuary of Hashem.
This is true in our times only to a limited, concealed degree. Not until we are entirely cleansed of our sins, and we merit to perfect the entire world with the Kingdom of Heaven, will the full intensity of Hashem’s holiness shine upon every soul, in all places, and at all times. Regarding this time, the Kotzker Rebbe zt”l interpreted the verse, השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם – “The Heavens are Hashem’s, and the earth He has given to mankind,” to mean that we were given the earth in order to sanctify it and make its holiness parallel that of the Heavens, where Hashem’s glory is apparent for all to see.
Yermiyahu HaNavi said:
שובו בנים שובבים נאם ה' כי אנכי בעלתי בכם ולקחתי אתכם אחד מעיר ושנים ממשפחה והבאתי אתכם ציון. ונתתי לכם רעים כלבי ורעו אתכם דעה והשכיל. והיה כי תרבו ופריתם בארץ בימים ההמה נאם יקוק לא יאמרו עוד ארון ברית יקוק ולא יעלה על לב ולא יזכרו בו ולא יפקדו ולא יעשה עוד.
Return O wayward children, says Hashem, for I will wed you and take you, one from a city and two from a family, and bring you to Tzion. And I shall place over you shepherds who are to My liking, who will guide you with wisdom and prudence. And it will be, when you multiply and be fruitful in those days, says Hashem, they shall no longer say, “[Let us go to the] Aron of Hashem’s Covenant, nor shall it enter their hearts or be remembered or recalled, nor shall its like ever be made again.”
Rashi and the Metzudos explain that there will no longer be any need to ascend to the Beis HaMikdash to witness Hashem’s Shechinah resting upon the Aron Kodesh, since His holiness will rest upon every assembly of Israel, as if we were the Aron Kodesh itself.
May we soon merit to see the day when Hashem’s ultimate plan for us will finally be realized:
ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש
“And you shall be for me an empire of Kohanim and a holy nation.”
 Bamidbar 8:5-18
 Shemos 24:5, Rashi
 Rashi, Bamidbar 3:12; Bamidbar Rabbah 4:8
 Bereishis 28:22; Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eih 14
 Rashi, Bamidbar 8:7
 Rema, Orach Chaim 531:7; Mishnah Berurah s.k. 19
 Bamidbar 8:10,11
 Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah V’Yovel 13:12
 Devarim 33:10
 Devarim 33:11
 Bamidbar 18:20
 Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah V’Yovel 13:13
 Vayikra 26:12
 Tehillim 115:16
 Shemos 19:6