There is a Jewish expression for something that can never change: Torah l’Moshe miSinai. It means that this tradition or rule or custom has been handed down to us literally as “The Torah of Moses from Mount Sinai.” That sounds pretty immutable, unchangeable… forever. But this week’s Torah Portion B’midbar tells of a different Torah, a Torah that changes and evolves even within itself.
In Numbers 3:41 God says:
“take the Levites for Me, Adonai, in place of every first-born among the Israelite people…”
and right before our eyes the Torah changes the rules within the pages of the Torah itself.
The original rule was that the God owned the first born of every family in Israel. This was a fair and just plan to provide for the religious needs of the community, through service to God. It harkens back to the Exodus from Egypt when the first born of all Israel were spared from the final plague, and it applied to everyone equally. But not every first born of Israel wanted to dedicate their life to Temple Service and so a “redemption of the first born” was written into the system which allowed every family to pay a set amount to the priests to fulfill this obligation. This system also worked, and was evenly applied, but it was based on value of paying money not to serve God.
So here in our Torah portion, the tribe of Levi steps forward, the tribe of Moses and Miriam and Aaron, who had always been know for their zeal to serve God. They offer to stand for all Israel, they choose to serve in the Tabernacle, and they relinquish all claims to a portion of the land. God accepts their offer and the Torah changes, it evolves to a new standard of law.
The Torah of Moses from Sinai evolves, that is what makes us a progressive faith, and we continue to progress that faith in every age.