A Strong Sign
I offered my very first devar Torah on this portion as I became a bat mitzvah 25 years ago. My memory of my early thoughts on this portion is admittedly hazy, but I am quite sure I did not pick up on the age requirements given in the portion for serving as a Levite. According to Numbers 8:24–25, a Levite man was required to be between 25 and 50 years old to perform the duties associated with the Tabernacle. Rashi notes that Numbers 4:3 states that the minimum age for service is 30 years, and not 25, as in our portion. He suggests that at 25 a Levite man began to study the laws of sacrifice, and after five years of study, at the age of 30, he was prepared to take on his Levitical duties.
Rashi adds: “From here (we learn) that if a student doesn’t see clear improvement (literally, ‘a strong sign’) in his studies after five years, he won’t see improvement going forward.” This is a clever way to reconcile the two biblical verses. It also allows a glimpse into Rashi’s perspective regarding Jewish professional education. We too view five years as a period of time during which one may acquire sufficient proficiency to begin working as a rabbi or professor. As a graduate of rabbinical school and as a current PhD candidate, I know that five years is merely, as Rashi says, “a strong sign,” the beginning of a journey that ideally lasts a lifetime.