Click on Sons of Yaakov for a general introduction to the lives of these individuals who constituted the original Jewish People.
Levi is the third son of Yaakov and Leah. His mother, who is less-loved than her sister and co-wife, Rachel (The Torah will later forbid the marrying of two sisters at the same time), feels the sting of that fact throughout her life, as is seen in the names that she gives her sons. In the case of Levi, Leah says “Maybe this time (at last) my husband will become more attached to me (yilaveh ishi eilai), for I have borne him three sons; therefore she called his name Levi.” (Bereshit 29:34)
The name Levi is linked to that of his brother Shimon in Sefer Bereshit. The two of them were a combustible mix. We see this in their revenge against Prince Schem ben Chamor and his entire city for the Prince’s rape of Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov and Leah. When the residents of that city had approached Yaakov regarding a possible merger, they had been told that their proposal would only be accepted if the male population would be circumcised, a condition that they accepted. On the third day following the circumcision procedure, when the pain is greatest, and the patient is most helpless, the Chumash tells us that Shimon and Levi killed the entire male population. Sefer Bereshit provides part of the dialogue that followed between their father and them, “And Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, ‘You have caused me great harm… I am but few in number. If they should band together and attack me, I will be annihilated – I and my household.’ And they said, ‘Should he treat our sister as a harlot!?’ ” (Bereshit 24: 30-31)
We find in “Birchot Yaakov” (The “Blessings” of Jacob), “Shimon and Levi are brothers, weaponry is a stolen (from Esav) craft…Cursed be their anger, for it is intense…and I will disperse them in Israel.” (Bereshit 49:5,7) Part of the dispersal of Levi was probably the fact that they didn’t receive a normal inheritance of the Land of Israel, as did the other Tribes. Instead, they lived in the pasture land of the other Tribes. They performed certain duties in the Temple, and their income was provided by the rest of the Jewish community in the firm of “Maaser,” a “Tithe;” that is, one tenth of each family’s income.
It seems that the opposite and positive side of the coin of Levi’s fierce anger was that members of that Tribe were the focus of faith for the Jewish People. While the Jews are in Egypt, we read “And a man from the House of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi.” (Shemot 2:1) This is a reference to the marriage of Amram and Yocheved, the leaders of their generation, and the models for the behavior of the entire People. During the trying times when Jewish baby boys were being seized by Egyptian soldiers and thrown into the Nile, they became the parents of Moshe, the future Messenger of HaShem, in the Salvation of Israel.
Later in the Chumash, we see that the members of the Tribe of Levi are still zealots for the honor of HaShem. After the catastrophic sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, we find “Moshe stood at the gateway of the camp and called out, ‘Whoever is for HaShem, come to me!’ and all the Levites gathered around him.” (Shemot 32:26)
A subset of the Tribe of Levi is chosen by HaShem to be the “Kohanim,” the Priests, who officiate in the Sanctuary. The High Priest is the only person who is permitted to enter the “Holy of Holies,” and then only once a year, on “Yom Kippur.” The remainder of the Tribe of Levi is assigned roles in connection with the Mishkan (the portable Temple that the Jewish People transported from place to place in the Wilderness and also for the first several hundred years of their residence in the Land of Israel). Each group within the Tribe would, for example, be assigned to carry a different part of the paraphernalia of the Mishkan (the curtains, the coverings, the Menorah, the Table, the Holy Ark…)
In Parashat VeZot HaBerachah, in Moshe Rabbeinu’s last words to the Tribe of Levi, we find, “…for they have observed Your Word and preserved Your Covenant. They shall teach Your Ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your Presence; and burnt offerings on Your Altar. Bless, O HaShem, his possessions, and favor the work of his hands…” (Devarim 33:9-11)
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the members of the Tribe would sing the sacred music, and play the instruments needed for that task. The Daily “Yom” Prayer is a small reminder of that function of the Levi’im.
Their mission was to preserve the Tradition of the Jewish People, as we read in the Haftarah of Parashat Emor, “And the Kohanim and the Levites, the descendants of Zadok, who safeguarded the charge of My Sanctuary when the Children of Israel strayed from Me – Let them draw near to serve Me. They shall come to My Sanctuary, and they shall approach My Table to serve Me, and they shall safeguard My charge.” (Yechezkel 44:15-16)